Cultural Playing Field

Future Britain: Arts leading the way by Robin Simpson
June 18, 2009, 9:08 am
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On Monday I was at Tate Britain in London for the National Campaign for the Arts conference: ‘Future Britain: Arts leading the way’. The focus of the day was to launch the NCA Arts Manifesto for the next general election. Looking back at the previous NCA Arts Manifesto, where the voluntary arts featured as a separate section towards the end of the document, shows how far we have come in persuading the rest of the arts sector that we are all part of a single eco-system. The new NCA Arts Manifesto integrates the voluntary arts throughout – realising the greater strength we have together rather than apart. Another indication of this change in attitude was the fact that the final panel session at Monday’s conference featured the Culture Minister Barbara Follett, the Conservative Shadow Minister Ed Vaizey, the Chief Executive of Arts Council England Alan Davey, NCA Director Louise de Winter and me. I am very grateful to the NCA for recognising the significance and importance of the voluntary arts so publicly. And it was very exciting to be introduced by Joan Bakewell and followed by Melvyn Bragg, who formally launched the arts manifesto with an inspiring call to arms. Barbara Follett spoke about the Treasury as the ‘elephant in the room’ and stressed the need for quantification, citing ‘Our Creative Talent’ – the 2008 DCMS/ACE research into the voluntary and amateur arts in England. She said “the arts have an enormous contribution to make to wellbeing and happiness.” Ed Vaizey saw huge opportunities in the voluntary sector. He said there are lots of arts charities but was worried that they are not working together. NCA President Lord Bragg closed the conference by saying “the creative industries is an idea whose time has come … the spearhead of our economy is now the creative industries: the arts are the leading brand in this country”.

Robin Simpson.

Reviewing the draft NCA Arts Manifesto by Robin Simpson
May 22, 2009, 9:49 am
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On Tuesday I was in London for my regular meeting with Louise de Winter at the National Campaign for the Arts. We discussed in detail the draft NCA Arts Manifesto for the next General Election and I suggested a number of small amendments and additions. It was interesting to compare the new NCA Manifesto with its predecessor from 2004/05: I like the new approach which is more focussed on what the arts can do and why they are important and makes a small number of general demands of government rather than a lengthy and very specific shopping list. I was pleased to see the voluntary arts no longer dealt with in a separate section but fully integrated throughout the manifesto (starting with a mention in the second sentence of the introduction!).

Robin Simpson.

NALGAO Trustees meeting by Robin Simpson
April 23, 2009, 5:07 pm
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I was back in London on Tuesday to attend the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers Board meeting. Among many topics we discussed the new Arts Council England Arts Checklist for local authorities, voluntary arts groups being invoiced for the costs of policing free community events, the Participation Manifesto and the effect of the ending of the Awards for All grants scheme.

Robin Simpson.

A new manifesto for the arts by Robin Simpson
January 16, 2009, 8:59 am
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On Tuesday I was a guest of Lord Salisbury at his ancestral home, Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. As the National Campaign for the Arts launches a series of consultative events around the country to draw up an arts manifesto ahead of the next general election, Lord Salisbury hosted an initial meeting of national arts sector infrastructure organisations. I joined representatives of the Independent Theatre Council, Theatrical Management Association, Equity, Association of British Orchestras, Museums Association, National Association of Local Government Arts Officers, Creative Partnerships, Visual Arts and Galleries Association, Arts & Business and the NCA to look back at the NCA’s 2004/05 Manifesto and start to think about the shape and content of its successor. While I was delighted to see a section on the voluntary arts in the 2004/05 Manifesto, I was keen to suggest that the new Manifesto should take a more holistic view of the arts – looking at broad topics such as participation, excellence, audiences etc rather than dividing the territory into subsectors. I also urged the NCA to ensure the Manifesto covers the arts as a whole – not just those arts organisations funded by Arts Council England.

Robin Simpson.

Liaising with the National Campaign for the Arts by Robin Simpson
September 11, 2008, 3:11 pm
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I was back in London on Wednesday for my regular meeting with Louise de Winter at the National Campaign for the Arts. Louise updated me on NCA’s local government project: their six-month Cultural Leadership Programme placement has now started and will undertake research to clarify changes to local government funding and cultural provision. The aim is to identify how NCA can best campaign to improve support for the arts through local authorities. We also discussed a range of other topics including the Participation Manifesto and the demise of the Regional Cultural Consortia.

Robin Simpson

Our Creative Talent by Robin Simpson
July 4, 2008, 9:44 am
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On Wednesday I was back at the Barbican for ‘Our Creative Talent: building local voluntary and amateur arts participation’ – a joint conference organised by Voluntary Arts England, Arts Council England and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The event was fully booked weeks ago and attracted delegates from voluntary arts umbrella bodies, several government departments, local authorities from across England,  voluntary sector agencies and lots of officers from Arts Council England as well as representatives from Scottish Arts Council and the Arts Council of Wales.

The main focus for the conference was to launch the report ‘Our Creative Talent: the voluntary and amateur arts in England’ – the results of research commissioned by DCMS and ACE and undertaken by the consultants TBR. Culture Minister Margaret Hodge opened the conference by revealing the headline statistics from the report:

  • there are 49,140 voluntary arts groups in England
  • between them they have a total membership of 5.9 million and an additional 3.5 million people volunteer as extras or helpers – that’s a total of 9.4 million people taking part
  • the voluntary arts sector has an income of £543 million a year
  • voluntary arts groups attract an annual audience of 159 million attendances
  • 564,000 people have management roles in voluntary arts groups

It was very exciting for me to be sharing a platform with Margaret Hodge, Arts Council England Chief Executive Alan Davey and Feargal Sharkey. The Minister started by saying “I hope and believe that this conference marks a significant change in the way we think about the arts and what we call ‘the arts sector'”. She called the research “a significant new landmark in our  understanding of how and why people participate in the arts” and said “we have been paying too little attention to such an important part of the arts ecology”. Margaret Hodge said “I firmly believe that the health of our arts depends on both the professional and the voluntary sector – the two are closely and directly dependent on one another”.

In my speech I stressed the importance of moving beyond marvelling at the statistics and starting to work out how to unlock the enormous potential of the voluntary arts. I explained that what voluntary arts groups want and need is recognition, involvement, capacity-building and challenge. I finished by suggesting that this conference was possibly the most important moment for the voluntary arts in the 60 years since the establishment of the Arts Council – but added that it would mean nothing unless it was the start of an ongoing dialogue to realise the potential of the voluntary arts.

Alan Davey said “from an Arts Council perspective the voluntary arts isn’t a  footnote or appendix to the arts in England today: it is part of the core script”. He announced that in the coming months Arts Council England “will be working with Voluntary Arts Network to agree a plan of how we play a role in building on the strengths and successes of the sector by working with local government and other key partners”.

Feargal Sharkey speaking at the \'Our Creative Talent\' conference

Feargal Sharkey speaking at the Our Creative Talent conference

The conference also included detailed sessions on the ‘Our Creative Talent’ research, Arts Council England’s segmentation model of arts engagement, the development of a Participation Manifesto, the VAE/Media Trust ‘Up for Arts’ campaign, local authorities and the NI11 arts engagement indicator and the 2012  Cultural Olympiad. There was a real buzz throughout the day and the feedback has been incredibly positive. It really felt like a significant turning point and it will be vital that we quickly build on the enthusiasm generated.

Copies of presentations, video, audio and much more will soon be available at and you can see photos from the conference at The research report is available at
Congratulations and many many thanks to everyone involved in a wonderful day for the voluntary arts.

Participating in the participation debate by Robin Simpson
June 10, 2008, 1:12 pm
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On Monday I was at Cecil Sharp House – the magnificent home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society – for the inaugural consultation event to develop a Participation Manifesto. Around 50 people from a wide range of arts organisations (including voluntary arts umbrella bodies, local authorities and institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and English National Opera) spent an intense day discussing a vision for arts participation over the next 10 years.

Participation Manifesto group work

It was fascinating how, over 5 hours on Monday, this large group more or less recreated all the ups and downs of the discussions the small manifesto development group has had over the past 12 months. Starting with the easy-to-agree premise that, if all those organisations involved in getting people to participate in the arts and crafts were able to work together and unite in a single clear message, we would be able to substantially increase and widen participation, the consensus quickly began to fall apart as we argued about definitions of ‘participation’ and whether what we were discussing was truly a ‘manifesto’. By lunchtime it felt like we had definitively established that the dream of agreeing a Participation Manifesto was completely impossible. (And anyone who left the event at this point must have gone away feeling incredibly frustrated.) But in the afternoon, through a combination of working in small groups and then sharing and combining ideas on a wall of post-it notes, a consensus gradually began to emerge. By the end of the afternoon we had agreed the key goals for the manifesto and a series of ways in which these might be met. We had also discussed the process for continuing the development of the manifesto and establishing a steering group.

Participation Manifesto clustering ideas

There is clearly a long way to go – but this event was always intended to be just the start of a thorough participative process. It’s going to be hard work but it feels like we have made a very good start – which is great credit to all those who contributed to Monday’s event. It was an exhausting but absorbing day. And it felt wonderfully counter intuitive, at the home of English folk music, for the day to include a wonderful lunchtime performance of Indian classical music by ‘Ragarasa’.

Participation Manifesto event at Cecil Sharp House

Developing the Participation Manifesto by Robin Simpson
May 13, 2008, 3:52 pm
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On Monday I was in London for a meeting of the Participation Manifesto initial development group. This was our first chance to meet Hardin Tibbs, the consultant who is going to facilitate the first major Participation Manifesto consultation event in London on 9 June. We discussed the format of the day in detail and looked at how to focus on how the 170 organisations that have already expressed an interest in the development of a manifesto might be able to support each other to increase and widen participation – rather than risk the message of the manifesto becoming simply about the need for more funding. Hardin grasped the issues quickly and had some inventive ideas about making the most effective use of the consultation event. I’m really looking forward to 9 June …