Cultural Playing Field


What Next? – Local Government and Culture Working Together by Robin Simpson
December 5, 2014, 3:53 pm
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Later on Wednesday afternoon I was back at Somerset House in London for a meeting organised by What Next? about local government and culture working together. The discussion was very effectively chaired by John Newbiggin from Creative England. Jane Wilson (Chair of Arts Development UK), Sue Isherwood and I spoke at length about Our Cultural Commons. The meeting included representatives of the Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association (CLOA), the Core Cities Group, the New Local Government Network, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), the Cultural Commissioning Project, the National Campaign for the Arts, the Creative Industries Federation and Arts Council England. We had a really good discussion, agreed absolutely not to formalise this into a new group or network but to keep in touch, cross-promote our work in relation to local authorities and work jointly towards some kind of event at the main Local Government Association (LGA) conference next June.

Robin Simpson.



Luminate Festival Trustees meeting by Robin Simpson
November 21, 2014, 4:07 pm
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On Thursday afternoon I was at Age Scotland in Edinburgh for a meeting of the Trustees of the Luminate Festival – Scotland’s creative ageing festival. We reflected on the 2014 festival which took place during October. Festival Director Anne Gallacher felt that we had seen an increase in the quality and ambition of events this year, as well as a better geographical spread across Scotland. Our Arts in Care Seminar, held at Perth Concert Hall on 14 October in partnership with Scottish Care, was particularly successful, attracting almost equal numbers from the arts and the care sector. You can watch the three keynote speakers from this event at: www.luminatescotland.org/events/arts-care-seminar We congratulated Anne on securing core funding for Luminate from Creative Scotland for the next three years, and started to discuss plans for the 2015 festival.

Robin Simpson.



Arts Council England State of the Arts debate by Robin Simpson
November 21, 2014, 4:05 pm
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On Tuesday evening I was at the Southbank Centre in London for the Arts Council England ‘State of the Arts’ debate. This event was used to launch ACE’s new publication: ‘Create: A journal of perspectives on the value of art and culture’ – see: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/value-arts-and-culture/state-arts/create/.

The State of the Arts debate consisted of two panel discussions, very effectively chaired by Victoria Derbyshire from BBC Radio Five Live. The first discussion looked at ‘Culture and the city: what is the role of arts and culture in the growth of our major metropolitan centres?’ The panel consisted of Doreen Stephenson (the Leader of East Lindsey District Council), Lord Adonis, the journalist Simon Jenkins (who is Chair of the National Trust) and Lord Heseltine. Michael Heseltine suggested that the process of human ingenuity and creativity is unstoppable and called it “a spontaneous eruption of natural human instinct”. The discussion soon became focussed on the ‘rebalancing’ issue (raised through the reports of GPS Culture) with Simon Jenkins saying that, when it comes to how we subsidise the arts “London just eats it”. He went on to suggest that “the real trouble is at local government level where it really has been quite savage. And if you want to know my view about London funding there ought to be a massive cross-subsidy from London to the provinces. London can look after itself, more or less.”

The second panel discussion was on ‘Education: how can every child benefit from arts and culture?’. The panel comprised the Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan, Dave Moutrey (Director and Chief Executive of Home, the new arts centre in Manchester), Professor John Coyne (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby) and the scientist and novelist, Professor Sunetra Gupta. On the education system, Sunetra Gupta said “the main return we want from our investment is creativity” and Dave Moutrey spoke about the importance of “learning the joy of reading, not just learning reading”. Kevin Brennan felt that “education should be about producing a well rounded individual” and John Coyne worried that he was from the generation that was “educated” whereas his daughters were “assessed”. I liked Suneptra Gupta’s plea for a “system in which you can study things you’re not good at” and Dave Moutrey agreed that “education shouldn’t just be about passing exams.” This discussion became dominated by the recent warning from the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, that studying arts subjects could hold young people back in the job market. John Coyne very politely suggested that the Minister “was well-meaning misunderstood and badly briefed”. Kevin Brennan simply pointed out that, in educational terms, “politicians are a mixed ability group”.

Robin Simpson.



Arts Development UK annual conference, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff by Robin Simpson
October 17, 2014, 10:50 am
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Peter Stark giving the keynote speech at the Arts Development UK Conference in Cardiff

Peter Stark giving the keynote speech at the Arts Development UK Conference in Cardiff


On Thursday I was at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff to attend the Arts Development UK annual conference where Voluntary Arts Chair, Peter Stark, gave the opening keynote speech. Peter spoke about his formative cultural experiences with the People’s Theatre youth theatre in Newcastle, saying that the work of Arts Development UK and Voluntary Arts is in his ‘structural DNA’. The fact that other people did not have the advantages he had has been his driving force. He described his career in the UK and his work in South Africa. On returning to England in 2012, he felt the country and the arts sector had changed in some fundamental way. Referring to the recent reports he has published with Christopher Gordon and David Powell (GPS Culture), Peter said:

“I realised that we had become, in a way that was far more true than I had ever experienced before, not one nation but two, geographically and by wealth and by class and by investment. So I had a set of numbers on the one hand, and a growing sense of disjunction with the structure that was dealing with culture and the arts on the other. That’s why we started doing our work. We started doing it out of a feeling that things were wrong.”

Peter emphasised the importance of valuing the creation of artistic value as much as we value the creation of instrumental effects. And he said that the key to wellbeing in the arts is participation.

Looking at the current challenges facing local cultural infrastructure, Peter said “I don’t see any way other than to start again from the bottom”. He quoted Jack Dixon saying “Noah was an amateur. The Titanic was built by professionals.”

He said the heart of how local government works is changing and “if ever there was a challenge to national bodies in our country, it is to ensure culture becomes a competence of combined authorities.”

Peter quoted Sue Isherwood’s first piece of research for the Our Cultural Commons initiative in which she says: “I have read the words and listened to the voices of committed, passionate and thoughtful people, none of whom are nationally known names; all of whom deserve to be heard in the courts of the cultural elite.”

Peter finished by launching Our Cultural Commons – a joint initiative of Voluntary Arts and Arts Development UK which will:
– collect evidence of existing innovative local collaborative practice to sustain and develop local cultural infrastructure and then promote best practice
– provide a space for discussion of potential solutions to the problems facing local cultural infrastructure and organisation and the debate on the nature of the cultural commons that we aspire to in the future
– empower and support the voice of those ‘local’ ambitions in debates on future national cultural policies, structures and funding.

You can read the full description of Our Cultural Commons and join the debate at: http://ourculturalcommons.org/



Developing community choirs in care homes by Robin Simpson
October 9, 2014, 3:05 pm
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At the end of last year, Voluntary Arts undertook an initial research project, supported by The Baring Foundation, on arts participation for older people in residential and day-care settings. We looked at the potential for voluntary arts groups to support arts activities in care homes, identified a number of ways in which this is already happening and suggested a range of ideas for developing further activity. In my subsequent discussions with David Cutler, Director of The Baring Foundation, we agreed to focus initially on choirs and singing, in order to try to achieve a step change in the level of arts activity in care homes across the UK. David and I planned a roundtable discussion about the potential for developing community choirs in care homes, which took place at The Baring Foundation in London on Wednesday. This meeting brought together representatives of choirs and choral conductors with experts from the care sector, including the Chief Executive of Care England and the Executive Director of the National Care Forum. We were joined by Janet Morrison, the Chair of Trustees of The Baring Foundation, who is also the Chief Executive of Independent Age – a charity for older people. David Cutler chaired a fascinating discussion which looked at the evidence for the benefits of choirs and singing in care homes, the scale and pattern of current activity, different models of provision and the barriers to increasing this activity. We talked about the need for some mapping of current levels of activity, developing case studies to illustrate the ways in which choirs are effectively engaging with care homes and the importance of suggesting a range of possible models of engagement. We reached a surprising degree of consensus about a possible national approach to increasing the number of choirs working with, or based in, care homes. The Baring Foundation will now consider how to take this forward.

Robin Simpson.



Peterborough Connection Culture meeting by Robin Simpson
July 18, 2014, 3:23 pm
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On Monday I chaired a meeting of Connection Culture, the Peterborough Creative People and Places consortium, at the Key Theatre in Peterborough. Connection Culture is a three-year programme, funded by Arts Council England, to achieve a step-change in arts engagement in Peterborough. We plan to do this through three main strands of activity – focussing on young people, diverse communities and voluntary arts groups – linked by a ‘Chamber of Culture’ which will provide training, mentoring and networking to each of the three strands. On Monday we were joined by Jan Kofi-Tsekpo from Arts Council England. We updated Jan on our progress and discussed issues relating to the programme budget and risk assessment. We also talked about learning points from the recent national peer learning meeting of Creative People and Places consortia in Doncaster.

Robin Simpson.



Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
July 4, 2014, 2:41 pm
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Later on Tuesday I was at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in London for a meeting of the Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group. The Cultural Commissioning Programme is a three year programme funded by Arts Council England and being delivered by NCVO, New Philanthropy Capital and the New Economics Foundation. On Tuesday we had a presentation from Hazel Summers, Head of Commissioning at Manchester City Council, about how Manchester has adopted a broader system approach to place-based commissioning. It was particularly interesting to hear from Hazel and Advisory Group member Jo Johnstone, who is the Cultural Partnership Team Leader at Manchester City Council, about how their two teams are working more closely together. We also reflected on the two recent Arts Development UK national seminars on cultural commissioning. We were updated on other components of the Cultural Commissioning Programme including the two commissioning partner pilots, in Gloucestershire and Kent, and the learning programme which starts with a first set of events in Newcastle which will help cultural organisations put themselves in the shoes of commissioners. We also heard about the Cultural Commissioning Programme online peer learning community and the development of web based resources.

Robin Simpson.



Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
July 4, 2014, 2:40 pm
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On Monday I was in Cardiff for a meeting of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities Advisory Group. The Connected Communities programme is pioneering co-production of academic research with communities. Our meeting took place just before the start of the Connected Communities Festival in Cardiff which attracted more than 600 delegates. Gary Grubb from AHRC updated us on recent developments within the programme, including the Research Development Workshop which took place in March, the development of five First World War engagement centres, and the creation of an early career researchers strand in the Connected Communities Festival. We also discussed the programme’s international strategy and how to develop the theme of cities and communities.

Robin Simpson.



NCVO Evolve 2014 by Robin Simpson
June 19, 2014, 5:44 pm
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NCVO Evolve 2014 conference at The Brewery, London

NCVO Evolve 2014 conference at The Brewery, London

On Monday I was at The Brewery in London to attend Evolve 2014 – the annual conference of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). The NCVO conference is always a great event, attracting more than 400 delegates and providing a chance to hear some high-profile speakers, explore some key issues and take part in valuable networking.

Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The first keynote speaker this year was Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He spoke about “a crisis of confidence in our politics” and said people felt a sense of powerlessness, with decisions being taken too far away from them. He criticised Russell Brand for suggesting that voting is a waste of time and said we should be encouraging the next generation to get involved. Hilary Benn confirmed that a Labour Government would repeal the Lobbying Act, saying “in a democracy you should be free to speak out”. He also stressed that we should be devolving power down in England, as has already happened in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Shadow Secretary of State said “You [the voluntary sector] are the embodiment of a contributory society”. He described plans for a task force to look at the devolution of power and funding and spoke about creating new city regions and county regions, from the bottom up – “we need to build up places as well as London”. Hilary Benn said that passing power down is essential in order to be able to address the greatest challenge of our age – dealing with an ageing population.

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund

The second keynote speech was by Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund (BLF). She explained that BLF was consulting on the new strategy it plans to launch next year and asked “what is the point of charity in the 21st century?”. She talked about her work with Mission Models Money, which had shown that arts organisations had become so preoccupied with money that their models had changed to align with the conditions of Arts Council funding, drifting away from their original mission. Dawn asked whether the BLF was here to set the agenda or to support the status quo. “Do we alleviate disadvantage or address the causes of disadvantage?” She said funding is an ecology and “we want to celebrate and nurture biodiversity”. It is important to look at what each funder adds to the equation. The BLF mission is to support communities and those most in need. Its scale, scope and reach – covering the whole of the UK, with a wide range of grants from tiny to huge amounts – enables it to reach the places other funders can’t reach. Dawn Austwick outlined four key areas for BLF: its management of knowledge, data and information; its access to decision makers, policymakers, as a conduit for other people’s expertise; its partnerships, using its funding to unlock other people’s funding; and how its responsive, demand-led, grant-making, gives BLF legitimacy and pays back into communities the money those communities have spent on Lottery tickets. She finished by saying “we need to be learning, enquiring and curious – marrying what we uniquely do with what you uniquely do”.

Dawn Austwick, Hilary Benn and Martyn Lewis

Dawn Austwick, Hilary Benn and Martyn Lewis

The first workshop session at the NCVO conference was interrupted by a fire alarm with the whole conference centre being evacuated while three fire engines dealt with a fire in the kitchens. Fortunately no-one was hurt and we were able to resume the conference after a long wait on the pavement outside The Brewery.

In the afternoon I attended a workshop on ‘campaigning, media and social action’ which included presentations from Emily Roberts, Project Manager for The Big Lunch, Diane Reid, Head of BBC Outreach and Corporate Responsibility and David Cohen, Campaigns Editor at the London Evening Standard. It was a very interesting exploration of the role the media can play in charity campaigning. At the end of the session I managed to speak to Diane Reid about our Up for Arts partnerships with BBC local radio stations and the potential for developing the model further.

Alex Whinnom, Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Alex Whinnom, Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

In the final plenary session of the conference Alex Whinnom, the Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) gave a very impressive presentation which focussed on the imbalance between London and the regions and called for devolution within England and the ability to take decisions locally. He said “devolution isn’t a zero sum game, it’s a win-win”.

There was then a very interesting debate about how charities can manage their reputation in an era of scrutiny. Bobby Duffy, the Managing Director of Ipsos MORI reported that, contrary to perceptions within the voluntary sector, the public’s trust of charities is increasing. Only three professions have declined in terms of public trust in recent years – the clergy, newsreaders and pollsters. Donald Steel, a Reputation and Crisis Consultant said that charities can prevent reputational crises in the way they run themselves and that reputation lies with leaders. Dr Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent agreed there was no real evidence of a crisis of reputation in the voluntary sector. She said most charities have powerful underlying themes that make them resilient. Founding stories give charities a strong original reputation that can see off subsequent attacks. Finally the Chief Executive of NCVO, Sir Stuart Etherington, said that it was important for charities not to react to reputational attackes in a way that amplifies the issues.

Robin Simpson.



Public Services: the value of cultural commissioning by Robin Simpson
June 6, 2014, 3:20 pm
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I was back in London on Friday to chair the Arts Development UK national seminar on ‘Public Services: the value of cultural commissioning’. This was the first of two seminars which are a joint initiative between the Cultural Commissioning Programme, Arts Development UK and the National Culture & Leisure Forum, supported by The National Archives. The Cultural Commissioning Programme is a three year programme funded by Arts Council England and being delivered by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, New Philanthropy Capital and the New Economics Foundation. There was an amazing level of interest in the seminar with a sell-out audience of more than 150 delegates at the Camden Centre. We started with keynote speeches from Vikki Heywood, Chair of the RSA who gave an overview from the cultural sector, and Carole Wood, Director of Public Health at Gateshead Council who gave an overview from the public service commissioning sector. I was pleased to hear Vikki say “everyone should be a creative, literate and numerate citizen”. Carole spoke about the Five Ways to Wellbeing and quoted the song “hearts starve as well as bodies – give us bread and give us roses”. The seminar included eight breakout group sessions looking at topics including ‘delivering commissioner outcomes’, ‘high artistic and cultural quality’, ‘mental health and well-being’ and ‘place-based outcomes’. One highlight for me was the inspiring presentation about older people by Sharon Scaniglia of Nottingham City Council, who spoke about a care home project in Nottingham supported by the Arts Council England/Baring Foundation scheme. The final keynote presentation was from Sally Bagwell of New Philanthropy Capital who launched the Cultural Commissioning Programme research report, which is now available at: www.ncvo.org.uk/practical-support/public-services/cultural-commissioning-programme. The second Cultural Commissioning seminar takes place in Doncaster next week.

Robin Simpson.