Cultural Playing Field

2017 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
March 24, 2017, 1:05 pm
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On Sunday I was at Sage Gateshead for the 2017 Epic Awards Ceremony, hosted by BBC Radio 3 as part of the Free Thinking Festival. The Voluntary Arts England team were supporting the Free Thinking Festival throughout the weekend, with local voluntary arts groups running a range of participatory activities in the foyer of the Sage, including calligraphy and lace-making. Centre of attention was our giant Paint by Numbers – a picture by the artist Geoff Tristram reflecting the Speed of Life (the theme of this year’s Free Thinking Festival) which drew a constant stream of participants painting the numbered sections to produce a stunning final image. Many thanks to Geoff, Laraine, Jennie and everyone who helped with our contribution to the Free Thinking Festival.


On Sunday evening we held the Epic Awards Ceremony in the Northern Rock Foundation Hall. Representatives of the Epic Award winners and runners-up had travelled from across the UK and Ireland to receive their awards. The ceremony was compèred by the poet and BBC Radio 3 presenter, Ian McMillan. He was a brilliant host – funny, passionate and genuinely awestruck by the stories of the winning groups. The ceremony also featured performances by 2016 England Epic Award runners-up Harps North West and local Northumbrian pipers Robson Choice.


All of this year’s Epic Award winners and runners-up were inspiring examples of the extraordinary achievements of local volunteer-led arts organisations. It was great to have the Patron of Voluntary Arts, our former Chair Peter Stark, present the new Epic Award for Celebrating Diversity to Rotherham Ethnic Minority Alliance for the Love is Louder project which worked with people from across Rotherham and engaged with over 75 different organisations to challenge intolerance and division through creativity. It was also wonderful to see the Peer Award for Excellence, which is voted for by all the groups shortlisted for Epic Awards, go to the RE-Tune Project from Glasgow – the brainchild of David McHarg, a social worker for almost 20 years who became disillusioned with the impact his profession was having and set up the project to help those suffering from mental health difficulties, experiencing isolation and loneliness – and in particular, ex-service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Run by volunteers, The RE-Tune Project offers people with mental health difficulties the chance to make, and then play, their own stringed instrument. For a third year running the winners of the Epic People’s Choice Award, which is voted for by the public via the Epic Awards website, appeared on the Breakfast programme on BBC1 the morning after our ceremony. This year’s winner, Roscommon Solstice Choir, is a 120-strong community choir which has raised hundreds of thousands of Euros for charities.

You can see full details of all the 2017 Epic Award winners at: and you can get a flavour of the ceremony by watching this video filmed by the England Epic Award winners South Devon Players:

The 2017 Epic Awards Ceremony was a very special occasion and I think everyone present had an incredibly enjoyable and inspirational evening. Many thanks to all the Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members who helped with this year’s Epic Awards – but particular thanks to Laraine, Damien and Kelly for making the ceremony such a successful event.

Robin Simpson.


2016 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
April 8, 2016, 9:55 am
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Cardiff Castle

On Saturday I was at Cardiff Castle for the 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony. It was a wonderful event – fantastic venue, great weather and amazing winners and runners-up from across the UK and Ireland. In the afternoon I hosted a seminar at St David’s Hall called ‘Creating Epic Places’ which looked at the effects creative cultural activities have on local communities. This provided an opportunity for the representatives of the groups arriving in Cardiff for the evening ceremony to meet each other and find out more about the various Epic projects. Voluntary Arts Board member, Hamish Fyfe – Professor of Arts and Society at the University of South Wales – led a fascinating discussion about the links between creativity and place.


The Banqueting Hall, Cardiff Castle

On Saturday evening we assembled in the splendid banqueting hall at Cardiff Castle. John Furnham from Cardiff Castle gave us a brief history of the building and reminded us that the banqueting hall had been used for the 2014 NATO Summit, pointing out which of us was sitting in the seats that had been occupied by President Obama, Chancellor Merkel et al. The Epic Awards Ceremony was slickly compered by Nicola Heywood Thomas from BBC Radio Wales. We began with a performance by the newly appointed Young People’s Laureate Wales, poet Sophie McKeand. Afterwards Sophie wrote a great piece on her blog about the experience of being involved with the Epic Awards Ceremony, calling it “a brilliant light in this liquid blackness” and noting that “some of the UK’s most dedicated, humble and generous people converged in Cardiff Castle’s banquet hall to receive awards and, importantly, recognition for their work” – see:


Young People’s Laureate Wales, Sophie McKeand

The Epic Awards certificates and specially commissioned Welsh lovespoons were presented to the winning groups by the Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales, Nick Capaldi, and the Chair of Voluntary Arts Wales, Hamish Fyfe. As always, the winners and runners-up were each amazing stories and their representatives were funny, passionate and incredibly inspiring. You can see full details of all the winners and runners-up at:

People’s Choice Award Winners, Strike a Chord – a South Wales choir for stroke survivors – provided the emotional climax of the evening with one elderly member of the choir in floods of tears as I announced their award at the end of the ceremony. Immediately afterwards we drove two of the choir’s representatives through the night to Salford to appear on the BBC Breakfast sofa, live on BBC1, on Sunday morning. The choir’s conductor, Ali Shone, told the nation “Voluntary Arts, who set up the Awards, they’re fantastic: what they do is brilliant”.


Cardiff Castle

Epic Awards 2016 has been a huge success and we are indebted to all the applicants and to Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members across the UK and Ireland. I would particularly like to thank Gareth Coles and Damien McGlynn who were both involved in running Epic Awards for the first time and helped to make this one of the best years yet. The 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony at Cardiff Castle is one of the stand-out moments of my ten years at Voluntary Arts.

Robin Simpson.

2014 Epic Awards Winners’ Reception at Platform Arts in Glasgow by Robin Simpson
February 28, 2014, 11:33 am
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On Wednesday evening I hosted the 2014 Epic Awards Winners’ Reception at Platform Arts in Glasgow. Delegates from the Voluntary Arts Scotland conference were joined by Epic Award winners and runners-up from across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The evening started with a performance of a song from the Commonwealth Games Songbook from local voluntary arts choir, East End Voices. The awards and certificates were then presented by the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop MSP, and the Chair of Voluntary Arts, Peter Stark. The four Epic Award winners each received special Epic Award 2014 trophies made for us by Maklab and GalGael. GalGael is a community-engaged organisation in Glasgow that offers vulnerable people the opportunity to learn practical skills in wood working and GalGael also made the baton for the Commonwealth Games Queen’s Baton Relay. I read out personal messages of congratulation to the Epic Award winners from the UK, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland Culture Ministers. Details of all the winners and runners-up can be found at The evening finished with the presentation of the Peers’ Award for Excellence 2014, voted for by the shortlisted groups, which went to Foyle Haven Arts Collective in Derry for a creative writing project that gave the homeless and those struggling with addiction a voice in print and on stage as part of Derry/Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013. We were then piped out of Platform Arts by Scotland Epic Award runners-up, Lewis Pipe Band. Thanks to all Voluntary Arts staff, Board members, Advisory Group members and Voluntary Arts Ambassadors across the UK and Ireland for their help with the administration, shortlisting and judging of Epic Awards 2014. A particular thank you to Jemma Neville, Director of Voluntary Arts Scotland, who managed the Epic Awards scheme this year. Thanks also to everyone who sponsored Epic Awards and donated prizes – we really value your support. And thanks to Fiona Campbell for her calligraphy on the beautiful Epic Award certificates. The Epic Awards Winners’ Reception was part-funded by the Big Lottery Fund and Spirit of 2012 Trust ‘Keeping the Spirit of 2012 Alive’ programme. It was a moving and inspirational evening celebrating the extraordinary achievements of local volunteer-led arts groups. 

Robin Simpson.

Running Your Group Weekly, 18 February 2013 by Robin Simpson
February 21, 2013, 3:18 pm
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On Monday I hosted Running Your Group Weekly which featured two Epic Award winners – Liz Stone from the Welsh Basket Makers South Wales Group who joined Daniel in our Cardiff office and Sarah MacLean from Barra Bunting who spoke to us live from Barra. It was great to hear more about the stories of these amazing projects and to learn how Liz and Sarah first got involved in their craft activities. Both were also able to show us some examples of the willow weaving and bunting created by their award-winning projects. You can watch our discussions at and please join us there next Monday at 5 pm for another Running Your Group Weekly video webcast.

Robin Simpson.

Running Your Group Weekly, 4 February 2013 by Robin Simpson
February 7, 2013, 1:42 pm
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On Monday I hosted Running Your Group Weekly. Daniel, Kevin and I were joined by Niall Bogue from Project St Patrick in Fermanagh – the winners of the 2013 Ireland Epic Award and the Peer Award for Excellence. Niall told us about the casual conversation over a few drinks which led to the development of a new kind of St Patrick’s Day Parade involving 500 participants and an audience of 14,000 people. He explained how this massive undertaking is still managed by a committee of nine volunteers and described their eclectic approach to making the St Patrick’s Day celebrations a truly cross-community event. You can watch our conversation with Niall at and please join us there next Monday at 5 pm for another Running Your Group Weekly video webcast.

Robin Simpson.

Epic Awards 2013 by Robin Simpson
February 1, 2013, 3:43 pm
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I was in Derry on Thursday for the Epic Awards 2013 Winners’ Reception: it was a wonderful occasion.

Before the Epic Awards activities got started, Kevin, Stephen, Marilyn and I had lunch with politicians from the Northern Ireland Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, which had been holding its meeting in Derry. The Chair and one other member of the Committee then came to the evening Epic Awards reception.

Flower arranging at Verbal Arts Centre
Flower arranging at Verbal Arts Centre

Throughout the afternoon the Verbal Arts Centre was full of local voluntary arts groups demonstrating their activities and allowing members of the public to try their hand at a variety of arts and crafts. The atmosphere was lovely and the building was packed – with a TV crew squeezing past participants to get the best shots. During the afternoon we learned that the Epic Awards Winners’ Reception had just been mentioned on BBC Radio 2.

The evening reception started with performances from the City of Derry Guitar Festival and the Taiko Drumming Circle. We then commenced the presentations, with the winning groups receiving their prizes from the Mayor of Derry, a Government Minister (Jonathan Bell from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister) and Voluntary Arts Chair, Peter Stark. As in previous years, the acceptance speeches by the representatives of the four Epic Award winning groups were passionate and inspiring. A packed audience was charmed and astounded by the stories of what had been achieved by voluntary arts groups across the UK and Ireland.

Taiko Drumming Circle

Taiko Drumming Circle

At the end of the evening we announced that our new Peer Award for Excellence (for which all the shortlisted groups were asked to nominate each other) had been won by the Ireland Epic Award winners, the Fermanagh St Patrick’s Day Parade. This news brought the house down – with the Fermanagh group genuinely thrilled. Theirs is an amazing story – of reinventing the idea of a St Patrick’s Day parade as a cross-community, non-sectarian carnival which last year attracted 14,000 people.

Details of all the Epic Award winners (and photos of the award presentations) are at – many congratulations to them all. And many thanks to everyone across Voluntary Arts who helped to make the 2013 Epic Awards so successful.

Robin Simpson.

Running Your Group Weekly, 21 January 2013 by Robin Simpson
January 25, 2013, 1:48 pm
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On Monday I hosted ‘Running Your Group Weekly’. Daniel and I were joined by the volunteering consultant Rob Jackson who spoke about the lessons learned from the London 2012 Games Maker volunteer programme. You can watch the recording of Monday’s webcast at:

Robin Simpson.