Cultural Playing Field

Epic Awards 2011 Winners’ Reception by Robin Simpson
February 3, 2012, 11:14 am
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On Monday evening I was at the Royal Overseas League in London for the Epic Awards Winners’ Reception. Representatives of the four winners of the Epic Awards 2011 – Phizzfest from Dublin, Buddy Beat from Paisley, Third Floor Gallery from Cardiff and Peterborough Male Voice Choir plus the Ireland runners-up, Ballymena Arts Partnership – were presented with their awards by Voluntary Arts President, Lord Luce. We were joined by an audience including representatives of Arts Council England, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Audiences UK, the Theatrical Management Association, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and People’s Voice Media as well as Voluntary Arts staff and Board members. It was a lovely evening: all the winning groups had compelling stories to tell and gave passionate and inspirational speeches. The aim of the Epic Awards is to showcase excellence and innovation in the amateur arts and the 2011 winners are a credit to our sector and proved to be wonderful advocates for Voluntary Arts.


Accepting the England award, Peterborough Male Voice Choir Musical Director Will Prideaux said:

“Voluntary arts organisations transform lives and build stronger communities. I love the stories of friendships created and enthusiasm rediscovered or of depression beaten, horizons broadened or prejudices cast aside; of hope, of trust, of a sense of belonging or simply giving people something to look forward to – the list is endless and endlessly amazing.”


Tina Robinson accepted the Ireland award on behalf of Phizzfest, the Phibsborough Community Arts Festival, and said:

“Our experience to date has shown us the importance of the arts as a community development tool forging links and creating channels of communication within the many diverse groups in our area. Phizzfest is run entirely by volunteers and this award is a huge validation of our efforts and has given us great encouragement to continue with this project.”


Tom Chalmers from Scottish drumming group The Buddy Beat said:

“With the film we want to inspire people to get out there and get involved and if anybody’s got a mental health condition they should never let that hold them back because there’s so much out there that they can participate in – it helps you improve your mental health and your self-worth.”


Wales winners Third Floor Gallery gave a very entertaining speech about their humble beginnings and thanked all the photographers who entrusted their images to the gallery and endorsed their unique way of presenting exhibitions.


Watch Epic Winners 2011: The Movie at


The Government Culture Ministers in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all sent messages of congratulation to the Epic Award winners:


Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Republic of Ireland Government said:

“Phizzfest is a wonderful example of local volunteers and business interests working in tandem for the benefit of the wider community.  The festival was a resounding success with something for people of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy.  Through art and arts related events new experiences were shared by all the participants.”


Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland Executive:

“In many cases arts begins at grass-roots level and wouldn’t be successful without the support of the many voluntary and amateur arts organisations across the island.   Many congratulations to Phizzfest from Dublin, this year’s winners of the Ireland Award, and also to Ballymena Arts Partnership who were runners up and the People’s Champion for Ireland for receiving over 3,500 votes online.  These are great examples of arts in the community and are truly deserving of this recognition.”


Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Scottish Government:

“Congratulations to Buddy Beat on winning the first Epic Award for groups in Scotland. This is a truly amazing group which demonstrates the power of the arts to change people’s lives for the better. Scotland is a creative nation with a thriving cultural community and our voluntary groups play an important part in that. This project is a worthy winner of an Epic Award in the Year of Creative Scotland 2012.”


Huw Lewis, Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, Welsh Government:

“The work of Voluntary Arts and here in Wales, Voluntary Arts Wales, in supporting and encouraging the voluntary arts sector is fully acknowledged. They are to be commended in bringing forward the Epic Awards to recognise the work and commitment of this sector. Third Floor Gallery is an excellent example of the ingenuity and creativity of the amateur arts in Wales, harnessing the enthusiasm and energy of local volunteers to create excellent opportunities and facilities for the local community. Their innovative way of working in attracting exhibitions of contemporary photography by world renowned photographers, is to be applauded. Here in Wales we have a long tradition of amateur arts and are very proud of their accomplishments.  I am therefore delighted to congratulate Third Floor Gallery as the winners of the first Wales Epic Award.”


Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, UK Government:

“It was an honour to attend the first ever Epic Awards last year, and I’m delighted to see the ceremony return, and announce a new raft of winners in 2012. The story of Peterborough Male Voice Choir shows just what a group of committed and dedicated local volunteers can achieve, not only in terms of raising tremendous amounts of money for good causes but also – from what I’ve heard – putting on excellent concerts in the process. I’d like to wish them hearty congratulations on receiving their award. They are another excellent example of the wonderful amateur arts activity that goes on in communities across England all year round, and forms the bedrock of the arts in this country.”

Robin Simpson.

Growing the Grassroots by Robin Simpson
October 21, 2011, 8:01 am
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On Tuesday I was at Cecil Sharp House in London for our ‘Growing the Grassroots’ event. This was a seminar to launch the initial findings of our Connected Communities research project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, which has been looking at ‘The Role of Grassroots Arts Activities in Communities’. This project is a collaboration between Voluntary Arts, the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham, the University of Exeter and the University of Glamorgan. On Tuesday our initial findings were announced by Ed Vaizey MP, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. The Minister started by saying:

“In 2008 my Department, along with the Arts Council, decided to commission research to gain a clearer understand of just what the scale of national voluntary and amateur arts activity truly was. The publication of that research – Our Creative Talent – gave an excellent insight into what was happening and where. In fact, it provided some pretty impressive stats in terms of just how many individuals were getting involved in voluntary arts. It revealed that there were more than 49,000 amateur arts groups in England with an estimated 5.9 million members.  Then, add to that the further 3.5 million people volunteering as extras or helpers. Which isn’t bad going for a sector that had sometimes struggled to be noticed in terms of its influence. So we know this is not about a few people dabbling here and there, but about a serious commitment by a considerable number of individuals. People who are involved in the voluntary arts come to it with a great deal of passion, with no financial reward … The result of all the enthusiasm and commitment people put into these groups is often really terrific work. So given that their efforts and achievements are not surrounded by the award brouhaha often associated with the professional arts, I was delighted to attend the first Voluntary Arts Epic Awards earlier in the year. Those Awards I felt, really provided an opportunity for hard working and dedicated people in the voluntary arts world to receive some well-deserved plaudits, and also to raise the profile of what they are doing.”

Ed Vaizey then read a summary of the initial findings of our research:

“1.    The voluntary arts impact on the individual, through such benefits as improved health and well-being, increased self-esteem and friendships.

2.    They impact on the wider community – helping to provide a collective identity, improving areas in which people live and aiding social cohesion.

3.    They impact on educational attainment, with some participants experiencing an increase in literacy, verbal, technical and communication skills.  Participation can also broaden people’s cultural horizons and encourage experimentation and innovation.

4.    They impact on the local and wider economy, for example through people coming to local areas to attend voluntary arts events and the purchase from local businesses of materials and equipment.

5.    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the amateur arts are about having fun. The study so far shows that many participants viewed their arts activity as much more than a hobby. Engagement gave them – or gives them – personal fulfilment. Amateur arts enables people to discover new sides to their personality, to be creative, take risks and try new mediums.”

The Minister’s speech was followed by a presentation about the resarch by Jenny Phillimore from the Third Sector Research Centre and Jane Milling from the University of Exeter. This set the scene for a series of detailed discussions as we used the day to explore the validity of our initial conclusions and to develop our thinking about how to collect evidence of the impact of grassroots arts activity. The event was attended by representatives of voluntary arts groups and umbrella bodies as well as the Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Carnegie UK Trust, Department for Communities and Local Government, Royal Shakespeare Company and a range of other policymakers, academics and funders.

We also enjoyed wonderful performances by the Cecil Sharp House Community Choir and Dance Around the World and heard about the amazing Quilts 4 London project. It was a great day and the research team went away with masses of notes to assimilate before we write our final report. Congratulations and many thanks to Lindsey and Daniel for a very well organised event. You can see photos from Growing the Grassroots at:

Robin Simpson.





Arts Development UK Conference by Robin Simpson
October 14, 2011, 3:38 pm
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I’ve been in Blackpool on Thursday and Friday attending the Arts Development UK Conference. This is the first conference since the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers rebranded itself as Arts Development UK and it was good to see the slightly broader range of people now involved in the organisation but disappointing that numbers attending the conference seemed significantly lower than in previous years. This was a practical demonstration of the extent of cuts to local government arts services over the past 12 months. We were encouraged by the staunch support for the arts and culture expressed by Simon Blackburn, the Leader of Blackpool Council. The conference saw the election of Jane Wilson as the new Chair of Arts Development UK, succeeding Lorna Brown who has seen NALGAO/AD:uk through its major transition and rebranding.

The conference keynote speaker was Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of Derry/Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013. Shona arrived in Blackpool on Wednesday, then on Wednesday night a pipe bomb detonated outside the City of Culture offices in Derry. No-one was hurt and there was very little physical damage. In an emotional and inspiring speech Shona said the City of Culture offices had been targeted “because we are a positive force for change and forward thinking. City of Culture is the highest profile initiative in the island of Ireland at the moment. This action was taken by an ever decreasing minority with no mandate and no support.” Shona reported that all her staff had been back at their desks on Thursday morning. They had received support and a renewed commitment from people across Derry and across the UK. She said that a local joiner had written to her on Thursday offering to fix the damage for free and she suggested that the Big Society is alive and well in Derry. Derry is the first UK City of Culture and Shona told us to “be in absolutely no doubt that we will set a wonderful precedent and a high benchmark for those cities that follow”. Derry City of Culture is an incredible alliance between all the strategic agencies across Derry and Northern Ireland: it represents a single major strategy for the development of the city. Shona said there has already been a huge demand to be involved with more than a thousand proposals received so far, even before any formal call for ideas has been issued. It was wonderful to hear Shona’s determination and passion and she got a rousing reception from the conference.

Robin Simpson.

Meeting Louise de Winter at the National Campaign for the Arts by Robin Simpson
March 11, 2011, 4:55 pm
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On Thursday morning I had my final catch-up meeting with Louise de Winter at the National Campaign for the Arts. Louise leaves NCA at the end of next week and will be a big loss to the arts sector. Our final discussions included the Giving green paper, the philanthropy review by Tom Hughes Hallet ( and the Northern Ireland Comprehensive Spending Review announcement. In announcing improvements in the budget for culture, the Northern Ireland Finance Minister referred to the force of the arguments mustered by the sector and the strength of the case presented – apparently more than 5,000 letters supporting the arts were received in comparison with 78 in support of health!

Robin Simpson.


Living Together Giving Together by Robin Simpson
February 25, 2011, 5:45 pm
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On Friday I was at Stormont in Belfast to take part in ‘Living Together Giving Together’ – a Celebration of Volunteering in Sports, Arts and Faith-based Organisations, organised by Voluntary Arts Ireland. This event was the culmination of ‘Another Way In’, Voluntary Arts Ireland’s two-year cross-border project in partnership with the Gaelic Athletic Association, Church of Ireland and City Church Belfast, which was funded jointly by the Northern Ireland Assembly Department for Social Development and the Republic of Ireland Government Department for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. Opening the event, the Northern Ireland Minister for Social Development, Alex Attwood, said he was sorry that the Republic of Ireland Minister, Pat Carey, was unable to be present because of the general election. Alex Attwood stressed that the project had been jointly funded by the Belfast and Dublin administrations and was working across the border, “bringing organisations from different backgrounds together to demonstrate the wider potential of volunteering”. The Minister commended the work that Voluntary Arts Ireland and the other partner organisations are doing. The keynote speaker, cultural broker Peter Jenkinson, spoke about the need to be “bigger than self” and urged organisations to “make friends with strange people”. He said it is increasingly important to make connections, break down barriers and put people together. Don Sexton, from the Department for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs in Dublin, said there was now “a recognition that the Third Sector is part of the solution” and that “the infrastructure has to be protected”. At the end of the event Maeve Walls, from the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development, announced that “in recognition of the work done, the Minister is encouraging the partner organisations to make an application for funding for another year of this project”. This was excellent news at the end of a great event and what has been a fantastic project. Congratulations to Kevin and Tony for organising the celebration and to Isobel for all her work on ‘Another Way In’. And many thanks to the members of Larne Youth Arts Co-operative who spent the day recording vox pops interviews with many of the delegates (including the Minister) – I look forward to seeing these on the website and Facebook shortly.

Robin Simpson.


State of the Arts 2011 by Robin Simpson
February 11, 2011, 10:10 am
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On Thursday I was at the Park Plaza Riverside Hotel on the Albert Embankment in London for the Arts Council England/RSA conference ‘State of the Arts 2011’. ‘State of the Arts’ is a big conference, attracting around 400 delegates, and it was a great networking opportunity. It was lovely to see people I hadn’t seen for years and to make plenty of new acquaintances. It’s a fairly expensive, corporate event and though it was good to see the alternative parallel ‘flash conference’ going on elsewhere in the hotel and online, the main conference sessions were disappointingly lacking in creativity in terms of their format. That said, there was an impressive array of speakers which included Deborah Bull, Sandy Nairne, Ekow Eshun, Phil Redmond, Ruth McKenzie, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Jonathan Mills, John Knell and Mark Wallinger.

The Culture Minister Ed Vaizey MP started his speech by talking about “the importance of the creative ecology – an alliance between the subsidised and commercial arts; the professional and the voluntary arts; and the arts and the creative industries”. He said “great strength of the arts is its ecology – subsidised arts feeding the commercial arts, the voluntary arts and the amateur arts ensuring the creative spirit is present in every corner of the nation”. The Minister said he wants Arts Council England “to be an organisation that is a source of advice and expertise for everyone who works or participates in the arts – not just for the organisations it funds, but right the way across the creative ecology”. He explained “Our strategy for the arts is very simple.  We want to help all the arts – those that receive subsidy, those that are purely commercial, those that are voluntary and amateur”.

The conference also provided my first opportunity to hear from the new Labour Party culture team with the Shadow Secretary of State, Ivan Lewis MP, speaking in the final plenary session and the Shadow Culture Minister, Gloria de Piero MP, taking part in an earlier ‘Cultural Question Time’ session alongside Don Foster MP, co-chair of the Liberal Democrat back bench committee for Culture, Media and Sport. In the afternoon I attended a breakout session on ‘The Big Society’ which included Caoimhin Corrigan from ILEX talking about the ‘edge to centre’ approach being used by Derry City of Culture 2013 and Andrew Dixon, Chief Executive of Creative Scotland, praising the Feisan movement for bringing together so many people in communities and creating a sense of place. I particularly liked what Gavin Stride from Farnham Maltings said: “professional and amateur are not opposites – they are both constituents of great art”. Gavin spoke about the value of “the things people are prepared to do for free that they wouldn’t do if you paid them”. He said “participation and excellence belong hand in hand”.

It was an interesting day and it was very encouraging to see a number of references to the amateur arts – from the Minister’s speech onwards.

Robin Simpson.

Back to School of Everything by Robin Simpson
July 8, 2010, 4:42 pm
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On Wednesday Kevin, Mary and I were in London to meet Paul Miller at School of Everything. We discussed the idea of using School of Everything to host the data about voluntary arts groups in Northern Ireland that we have been gathering through the Art: Take Part project and enabling this information to be easily searched and maintained. We also talked about how to encourage voluntary arts groups across the UK and Ireland to use School of Everything to attract new members and how we might work with some of the national voluntary arts umbrella bodies to achieve this.

Robin Simpson

Meeting Audiences UK by Robin Simpson
May 21, 2010, 8:39 am
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On Tuesday afternoon I met David Brownlee, the new Chief Executive of Audiences UK – the network of regional and national audience development agencies. David, who worked closely with us when he was at Arts Council England, was keen to stress that the work of the audience development agencies includes promoting active participation in the arts. We discussed the contact that Voluntary Arts has had with some of the audience development agencies, particularly the joint training initiatives created by Voluntary Arts Ireland with Audiences Northern Ireland and Voluntary Arts Wales with Audiences Wales. We agreed that there was much that Voluntary Arts and Audiences UK might achieve by working together. In the short term we plan to collaborate on collating and publishing statistics about current levels of arts participation.

Robin Simpson.

Legacy Trust UK by Robin Simpson
March 11, 2010, 12:00 pm
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On Tuesday afternoon I met Phil Chamberlain, Director of Strategy & External Relations at the Legacy Trust UK. We talked about the eclectic range of regional and national projects that have been funded by the Legacy Trust and the challenge they face in trying to get people to understand that all these projects are a direct result of London hosting the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Legacy Trust is keen to break down the perceptions that London 2012 is only about London and only about sport. We discussed the possible links between the Legacy Trust’s ‘Somewhere To’ youth campaign (which aims to open up spaces for a range of activities for 16 – 25 year olds) and both the Voluntary Arts Ireland Young Arts Creative Co-operatives project and The Learning Revolution ‘open spaces’ scheme. We also talked about the Voluntary Arts Scotland Make a Splash! Project, which is funded by the Legacy Trust as part of its Scottish project. And we discussed the Trust’s Community Celebrations grant fund, the deadline for applications to which has just passed. It was a very encouraging meeting and we identified a number of ways in which we might be able to work together in the future, including the possibility that the Legacy Trust might be able to provide us with evidence of the impact of arts participation from the evaluation of some of its funded projects.

Robin Simpson.

‘Volunteering and London 2012’ symposium by Robin Simpson
October 2, 2009, 8:15 am
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I was in London on Wednesday to take part in the ‘Volunteering and London 2012’ symposium, organised by Volunteering England. This event brought together volunteering agencies and voluntary sector infrastructure organisations from across the UK. We heard from David Huse, Head of Volunteering at LOCOG, about the latest plans for recruiting, training and managing the 70,000 games-time volunteers needed to help run the Olympic and Paralympic Games: the application process for these volunteers (including volunteer performers for the ceremonies) will be launched in summer 2010. We then had a presentation from the Government Olympic Executive about plans for a social legacy marketing plan: the ‘big idea’ is to use London 2012 to inspire participation in volunteering, culture, sport, education and more, across the UK. There will be a campaign to inspire the whole of the country to give time to their local communities. A creative agency has just been appointed and the campaign will be launched in early 2010. We also heard from the Volunteer Development Agency in Northern Ireland, Volunteer Development Scotland and Greater London Volunteering about the progress of their 2012 volunteering initiatives – including the ‘People Making Waves’ programme in Scotland which includes Voluntary Arts Scotland’s ‘Make a Splash’ project. The symposium was followed by a second meeting of the London 2012 Volunteering Legacy Stakeholder Advisory Group where we specifically focussed on the Volunteering England/YouthNet project which is expanding the national volunteering database ( to include a wide range of opportunities catalysed by London 2012.

Robin Simpson.