Cultural Playing Field

Cultures of Health and Wellbeing conference, Newcastle-upon-Tyne by Robin Simpson
March 22, 2019, 2:36 pm
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On Thursday and Friday I have been at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to take part in ‘Cultures of Health and Wellbeing’ – the first national conference organised by the new Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. The Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance is the national organisation representing everyone who believes that cultural engagement and participation can transform our health and wellbeing. It has more than 3,700 individual members and Voluntary Arts is one of 70 organisations who have become Strategic Alliance Members.


The opening keynote presentation at the conference was by Errol Francis, Chief Executive of Culture&, who discussed definitions of ‘culture’ and the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’. I then attended a breakout session on Democratising Our Practice, in the nearby Northern Stage Theatre, which featured a presentation on shifting power, drawing on the experience of Bait – the South East Northumberland Creative People and Places consortium.


The second keynote presentation was by Neil Churchill, Director of Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England. He talked about the NHS Long Term Plan and its targets to double the number of volunteers in the NHS in three years. He also spoke about the commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to social prescribing. There will be over 1,000 trained social prescribing link workers in place by 2020/21 and 900,000 people will be referred to social prescribing by 2023/24. Neil Churchill explained the intention to make small grants available locally to volunteer led groups to become involved in social prescribing. A panel session on social prescribing emphasised the importance of signing-up to the Social Prescribing Network. The Social Prescribing Network consists of health professionals, researchers, academics, social prescribing practitioners, representatives from the community and voluntary sector, commissioners and funders, patients and citizens. Members of the Network are working together to share knowledge and best practice, to support social prescribing at a local and national levels and to inform good quality research and evaluation. Over the past year regional networks have been established around England, Ireland and Scotland. See:


The keynote presentation on the second day of the conference was by Lord Howarth, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts & Health and President of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. Lord Howarth summarised progress on the recommendations in the APPG’s ‘Creative Health’ report, that was published in June 2017: Lord Howarth said he was optimistic that Arts Council England will identify health and wellbeing as a key element of its new 10-year strategy. He spoke about Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s speech to the King’s Fund in November 2018 as a landmark moment. The Secretary of State had said he wants the NHS to move from patient-centred care to person-centred care. He had emphasised the importance of personal creativity and said he saw social prescribing as central to prevention, and prevention as central to the NHS. Lord Howarth said we need to do all we can to ensure this is not a flash in the pan and that social prescribing is firmly established and embedded in the overall culture across government and across health providers. He said it will not be edicts from on high but a change of culture that will make the difference and it will be the health and social care professionals who will ultimately determine whether this opportunity is taken. Alan Howarth also spoke about the need for a Creative Health Centre, led by the sector, to take on responsibility for driving progress. He said “we are at a tipping point for arts, culture and health” and noted a “growing realisation that to pathologise unhappiness doesn’t work”.

Robin Simpson.


‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ launch at King’s College, London by Robin Simpson
October 13, 2017, 2:16 pm
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On Thursday I was at King’s College, London, for the launch of ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ – the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry Report. The report was published in July but a formal launch event wasn’t possible then, so soon after the snap General Election. So on Thursday, King’s College London who worked with the APPG on its two-year Inquiry hosted this event in which Deborah Bull compèred a panel discussion on the report and its recommendations.

Lord Howarth, Co-Chair of the APPG, spoke about the potential of the arts in health and social care. He explained that the inquiry had organised 16 roundtables involving more than 300 people, importantly including service users, and had produced 10 specific recommendations.

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, from King’s College, said it was clear that engagement with the arts, particularly through participation, helps people get well and stay well. She said the inquiry had extended its definition of arts to include everyday activity – the stuff that happens behind closed doors in people’s homes and in communities.

The report says:

“Millions of people in the UK engage with the arts as part of their everyday lives. As we demonstrate in this report, arts engagement has a beneficial effect upon health and wellbeing and therefore has a vital part to play in the public health arena.” …

“When we talk about the arts, we include the visual and performing arts, crafts, dance, film, literature, music and singing. To this list, we add gardening … and the equally absorbing culinary arts.” …

“In this report, then, ‘the arts’ is used as shorthand for everyday human creativity, rather than referring to a lofty activity which requires some sort of superior cultural intelligence to access.”

Lord Howarth pointed out that the report’s 10 recommendations are not all directed at government. What is actually needed is a culture change in the health establishment. Recommendation 1 calls for a new national strategic centre to be established “to support the advance of good practice, promote collaboration, coordinate and disseminate research and inform policy and delivery” – but this should not be created by government.

Former Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, Co-Chair of the APPG, said he had wanted to use the Government’s 2016 Culture White Paper to show the wide range of impacts the arts have but had faced a stunning lack of interest from Ministers in other Government departments. It was hard to get Ministers to engage beyond their silos.

Arts Council England Chief Executive, Darren Henley, said he was interested in seeing arts and health as more central to ACE’s new 10-year strategy but, for ACE, it has to be all about the arts: the Arts Council is about promoting excellence.

Interestingly, the APPG report says:

“On the one hand, it would be a disservice to participants to offer substandard arts activities under the banner of health and wellbeing, and the examples given in this report show high-quality work being undertaken in an avowedly inclusive way. On the other hand, in participatory arts activities with people who have not previously been encouraged to express their creativity, it is the quality of the activity, rather than the quality of output, that matters.”

Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said arts and health shouldn’t be a nice-to-have add-on: it should be mainstream.

You can download the APPG report from:

A Choir in Every Care Home working group meeting by Robin Simpson
May 13, 2016, 2:00 pm
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On Monday afternoon I was at Kings Place in London for a meeting of the working group for the ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ project. This was the final working group meeting, as the initial scoping phase of the project comes to an end. The Baring Foundation, which funded the project, had asked the project partners (led by Live Music Now!, SoundSense and the Sidney de Haan Research Centre) to address two key questions in relation to developing a choir in every care home: what could we do without any more money?; and what could we do if we had limitless money? The project has surveyed 150 care homes and 100 musicians who work in care homes – and Making Music has surveyed amateur music groups about working in care homes. Working papers have been used to document the basic activities within the project and to explore key issues, eg quality. A substantial review of existing research has been completed and 29 case studies have been generated. The resulting project documentation now amounts to 350 pages in total. Stephen Clift reported back to the working group about the research review. He said there had been a remarkable expansion over the last 15 years of projects around singing and health. There is something about singing that is hugely powerful for many people in contributing to their wellbeing. The working group looked at how we might develop a national campaign to encourage singing in care homes, modelled on the Sing Up campaign which reintroduced singing to 80% of primary schools. It was good to talk to David Cutler from the Baring Foundation at Monday’s meeting and I hope this is the just the starting point for a much larger project to turn care homes across the UK into ‘singing homes’.

Robin Simpson.

Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
December 11, 2015, 11:03 am
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On Wednesday I was at NCVO in London for a meeting of the Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group. We had a fascinating presentation from Alan Higgins, Director of Public Health at Oldham Council about the opportunities for health commissioning arising the Government’s programme of devolution to Greater Manchester. A Public Health memorandum of understanding has now been agreed. One of the five major transformational programmes of work, specified in the MoU is “nurturing a social movement for change – enabling people to make their own informed lifestyle choices”. Alan considered how a social movement for health could be encouraged, drawing on previous examples of social movements including the campaign to make Amsterdam the bicycle capital of the world, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the creation of the FC United of Manchester football club. We discussed the role arts and culture organisations might be able to play in this development but also the role that arts and culture might play in the everyday lives of people in Greater Manchester as part of healthier lifestyles. It was a really interesting discussion which highlighted the extent to which the Cultural Commissioning Programme has moved from being simply about helping arts organisations to access funding from public sector commissioning and is increasingly looking at the role of arts and culture in the outcomes of commissioning.

Robin Simpson.

A Choir in Every Care Home steering group meeting by Robin Simpson
June 2, 2015, 4:01 pm
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On Tuesday I was in London for the first meeting of the steering group for the new project ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’. A Choir in Every Care Home is an ambitious new initiative to explore how singing can feature regularly in care homes across the country. Funded and initiated by the Baring Foundation, it is a unique collaboration between 28 leading national organisations from the worlds of adult social care, music and healthcare research. It is being led by three major organisations in the field: Live Music Now, which provides national leadership for musicians working in the care sector; Sound Sense, the UK professional association for community music; and the Sidney De Haan Research Centre, providing cutting edge research on the medical and social impacts of singing. Most of the 28 partners were represented at Tuesday’s meeting and it was fascinating to hear the range of experience and expertise in relation to singing in care homes that the project has gathered together. David Cutler from the Baring Foundation spoke about his hopes for the project and Professor Stephen Clift from the Sidney de Haan Research Centre outlined the results of his recent Randomised Control Trial which showed that regular group singing (weekly over three months) had measurable positive health and wellbeing outcomes compared to the control group. Evan Dawson from Live Music Now and Kathryn Deane from Sound Sense facilitated a series of creative discussions which began to scope and plan the project. See:

What Works Centre for Wellbeing panel meeting by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:38 pm
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On Wednesday I was in London to take part in the What Works Centre for Wellbeing panel meeting. We assessed applications made by research teams from across the country to run the four evidence programmes that will form the bulk of the work of the new What Works Centre. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing will be one of a number of What Works Centres which have been established to synthesise evidence to improve public and policy decisions. The Wellbeing Centre will build on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) national measurement programme. The Centre has initial funding of £4.3 million over three years. The Centre will comprise a central hub and four evidence synthesis programmes. The primary customers for the outputs of the Centre will be service commissioners, decision makers, practitioners and policymakers working both locally and nationally using evidence to ensure the best results for their localities. The four evidence programmes will look at wellbeing in relation to: work & learning; culture & sport; community; and cross-cutting themes. I was asked to assess applications for both the culture & sport and the community programmes. On Wednesday we agreed which applicants will now be called to interview. It was a really interesting day and it was great to have the chance to make the point that the Centre should be looking at wellbeing in relation to grassroots participation in creative, cultural activities.

Robin Simpson.

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event at Toynbee Hall by Robin Simpson
January 29, 2015, 12:26 pm
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#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

On Tuesday evening Daniel, Cassandra and I were at Toynbee Hall in London for the #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event. This project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme, set out to show how craft activities can help improve wellbeing by involving participants in the fun, connected, sensory and mindful process of making things. People across the UK were invited to join in and hand-embroider, knit or crochet a flower for the #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden, while reflecting on the importance of wellbeing and what we need in order to flourish as individuals and as a society. The #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden UK project is a partnership between the Craftivist Collective, Falmouth University, Voluntary Arts and Arts for Health Cornwall & Isles of Scilly. See:

Fiona Hackney from Falmouth University said that 750 flowers had been made as part of the project and the activity seemed to have proved very meaningful for people from all parts of the UK. 40 volunteer facilitators had run #wellMAKING groups to “craft, connect, reflect, challenge and grow”, realising the value of making together. The project had encouraged “quiet activism”. Daniel described how our Hand on Crafts project had demonstrated profound wellbeing benefits for those taking part and encouraged everyone to get involved in Craftbomb and Woollen Woods as part of Voluntary Arts Week 2015 (see:

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

Jayne Howard, Director of Arts for Health Cornwall & Isles of Scilly said something different happens when people engage in crafts. This is an under-researched area. She spoke about a programme of work with GP surgeries which had showed that crafts practice seemed to help participants bond more quickly. It generated talk, the pace was quite gentle, there were periods of silence but they never felt uncomfortable. The activity provided an opportunity to demonstrate achievement and produced something tangible to take home or give as a gift. Sarah Desmarais, AHRC Research Fellow at Falmouth University, had acted as a participant observer in two groups. She reported that the activities had allowed participants to safely access social companionship. She spoke abut the power of playfulness to give a creative state of mind. Playfulness can be relearned and craft can be very useful in this. Participants become progressively more confident.

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective, spoke about “activism through needlework”, challenging and trying to change social structures that are preventing people achieving their potential. The World Health Organisation defines wellbeing as:
* Realising our potential
* Coping with daily stress
* Contributing productively to society

Sarah said crafting helps with all three aspects of wellbeing. She said “craft slows me down and makes me think”.

The #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden was a fascinating event. It was wonderful to hear about the experiences of participants, brilliant to see the flowers displayed and lovely to be at an event at which many of the audience were actually stitching and knitting throughout the speeches.

Robin Simpson.

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

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.

National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing national organisations meeting by Robin Simpson
February 14, 2014, 4:39 pm
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I was back in London on Tuesday to take part in the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing national organisations meeting. Damian Hebron from the London Arts & Health Forum reported on the first meeting of the new All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Health. He said it was a really positive, well attended meeting which agreed that the main topics for its next three meetings will be dementia, parity of esteem and the role of the arts in engaging ex service personnel. We also talked about how we could all use the Alliance’s Arts, Health and Wellbeing website ( as a repository of evidence and how we could work together to promote Creativity and Wellbeing Week in June, see:

Robin Simpson.

Meeting Joe Irvin from NAVCA by Robin Simpson
January 17, 2014, 11:56 am
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On Tuesday I was in London to meet Joe Irvin, the Chief Executive of NAVCA. The National Association for Voluntary and Community Action is the national umbrella body representing councils for voluntary service and similar local voluntary sector infrastructure organisations in England. We discussed the new Voluntary Arts Strategic Plan and looked in detail at the potential to involve NAVCA and its members in each of our three high level strategies. We also talked about the work NAVCA is doing in relation to health and wellbeing and the potential benefits of getting arts groups in developing a relationship with their local council for voluntary service. We agreed that I would write an article for the NAVCA magazine on why councils for voluntary service should work with arts organisations.

Robin Simpson.