Cultural Playing Field


AHRC Connected Communities Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
November 18, 2016, 1:38 pm
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On Monday I was in London to take part in a meeting of the AHRC Connected Communities Advisory Group. The Arts & Humanities Research Council has now confirmed that the Connected Communities programme, which funds innovative collaborative research undertaken by partnerships involving academic institutions and community organisations, will continue until 2020. In Monday’s meeting we discussed the ‘Utopias’ programme of activities supported by Connected Communities to link to ‘Utopia 500’ – which commemorates five hundred years since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia (see: http://www.utopia500.net/). The Utopia Fair at Somerset House in June showcased the creative outcomes from 25 AHRC-funded projects. These projects brought together local community groups, researchers, activists and artists across the UK to explore how utopian ideals can be used to benefit the environmental and social future of our communities. Representatives from contemporary Utopian movements from all over the UK took up stands in Somerset House’ courtyard, celebrating the pockets of utopia that are flourishing around the country from Newcastle to Merthyr Tydfil, Sheffield to Scotland, Brighton to Doncaster plus a range of London sites. There is a video summary of the Utopia Fair at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2k8U_fYJGw. I was interested to learn about links developed by the Utopias programme to ‘Like Culture’ – a cultural network of European cities and regions: http://www.likeculture.eu/. In Monday’s meeting we also heard about ‘Common Cause’ – the new Connected Communities BAME project which aims to strengthen and extend the existing network of university and BAME community collaborators working in the arts and humanities. Common Cause is an 18 month project, supported by Arts Council England and the Runnymead Trust, and I was delighted to learn that Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel Chair, David Bryan, is now part of the team delivering the project for Connected Communities.

Robin Simpson.



People Place Power – the Creative People and Places conference, Doncaster by Robin Simpson
September 29, 2016, 3:00 pm
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On Tuesday and Wednesday I was at Cast in Doncaster for ‘People Place Power’ – the third Creative People and Places conference. Creative People and Places is the Arts Council England programme to increase engagement in the arts and culture in some of the areas of England that currently fall within the 10% least engaged (as measured by the Active People Survey). ACE has funded 21 consortia including local arts organisations, voluntary and public sector agencies and other partners to develop innovative approaches to increasing engagement. Voluntary Arts is a member of the Peterborough CPP consortium (‘Peterborough Presents’) and is working in partnership with several other CPPs. We have also been contracted by the national network of CPPs to provide and advice and support to help all CPPs work with local voluntary and amateur arts groups.

Opening the conference, CPP National Steering Group Chair, Holly Donagh, reflected on changes in the engagement debate over recent years. She said “we’ve got initiatives like 64 Million Artists and Everyday Creativity, the BBC’s Get Creative campaign, Fun Palaces, the work of Voluntary Arts, Paul Hamlyn’s Artworks programme, just to name a few national initiatives. And in some ways those questions of reach, audience engagement and democracy have become the most interesting questions about the arts and really central to the debate now, where perhaps once they were more marginal.” Holly also suggested that “business as usual is not sufficient for the challenges of the future and ignoring fault lines and inequalities that existed for generations will serve all communities poorly in the long run”.

Giving the opening keynote presentation, ACE Chief Executive Darren Henley talked about the need for a creativity revolution: “a change in how we think about and use our natural everyday creativity and how we need to recognise the importance of making and participating art and culture in all aspects of our lives”. He said: “This means listening to people and working with them to help develop their ideas about what a local culture might mean. While the concept of strong national culture should offer confidence, opportunity and inclusivity to all, a local culture provides the primary sense of belonging and participation the sharing and self belief that all successful communities need and which is crucial in all our lives young and old. And it’s what makes us special as a community and that’s very precious.” Darren Henley spoke about the importance of the democratisation of culture and building sustainable local infrastructure.

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The second keynote speaker, on Wednesday morning, was the Guardian journalist Lynsey Hanley who gave a brilliantly entertaining and provocative presentation, drawing on her new book about class and culture, ‘Respectable’. She talked about doing culture the ‘right way’ vs doing it the way you want to, saying “feeling extremely uncomfortable to the point of thinking ‘I just can’t do this’ is not unusual for a socially mobile person”. She asked whether the Internet really widens access to knowledge when acronyms rule and discussed the ‘canalisation of television’, asking “why is there a BBC4?” And she completely won her audience over when, in response to a question from the floor, she suggested we should “find out what people are doing already and invest in that”.

Also on Wednesday morning I chaired a conference breakout session titled ‘What is quality and how do we measure it?’ Kathryn Goodfellow and Juliet Hardy from bait (the South East Northumberland CPP) spoke about the development of the bait quality evaluation framework. Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester discussed the Culture Counts quality measurement tools and learning from the AHRC Understanding Everyday Participation research project. And Mark Robinson from Thinking Practice reported on the CPP national evaluation. After these presentations we had a very interesting and engaged conversation about measuring quality and excellence which grappled with how to capture the ‘magic’ element of cultural activities.

Over the past couple of months, the Voluntary Arts Up for Arts team (Helen Randle, Helen Jones and Jennie Dennett) have been interviewing voluntary and amateur arts groups across the country about their experiences of working with CPPs, in order to produce a series of five-minute audio case studies. On Wednesday afternoon Helen Randle and I presented a conference breakout session in which we played some of the recorded interviews to provoke a discussion about the challenges of working with voluntary arts groups. It was great to have some CPP representatives in the room who personally knew some of the interviewees and the recordings proved to be a very effective way to generate a rich conversation – as well as ensuring that some genuine participant voices were heard at the conference. Many thanks to Helen, Helen and Jennie for their work on the case studies.

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The final conference session on Wednesday afternoon was a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian Theatre Critic, Lyn Gardner, looking at the relationship between excellence of art and excellence of engagement. The speakers included Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists. My final memory of a really interesting and provocative conference was Lyn Gardner’s comment: “What is Great Art anyway? Maybe it’s just an Arts Council construct.”



Exploring Everyday Creativity in Hull by Robin Simpson
January 29, 2016, 1:32 pm
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On Monday afternoon I was in Hull for the first in a series of meetings organised by 64 Million Artists to discuss the role professional arts organisations and artists should play in supporting everyday creativity. I joined representatives of arts organisations, the local authority and other agencies – including some of the team running Hull City of Culture 2017 – for a fascinating afternoon of discussions and breakout groups. David Micklem and Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists explained that Arts Council England was beginning to think about ‘everyday creativity’ and had approached 64 Million Artists to run this series of exploratory seminars. The report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, published in February 2015, had suggested that only 8% of the population regularly take advantage of publicly funded art and culture. David said Arts Council England had become more interested in the work being done by 64 Million Artists, Voluntary Arts, Fun Palaces and others. Previously, ACE had not been thinking about baking, gardening etc as culture. Jo started the seminar by asking us all to talk about the cultural activities we do outside work. This discussion of hobbies and other leisure-time activities was very effective in framing our thinking on ‘everyday creativity’. Interestingly the BBC Get Creative campaign and Our Cultural Commons arose naturally from the group discussions about everyday creativity. We talked a lot about the pros and cons of sharing, the importance of play, the need for more spaces for creativity, networks (online and offline), and the role of catalysts and champions (Creative Citizens). There was very clear agreement about the need to broaden our scope beyond ‘the arts’ to include cookery, gardening etc. It was a really interesting discussion and I’m looking forward to seeing the outcomes of this series of seminars.

Robin Simpson.



Gulbenkian Inquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations by Robin Simpson
January 22, 2016, 10:42 am
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On Wednesday I was at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London for a meeting about the proposed Gulbenkian Inquiry Into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations. The Gulbenkian Foundation’s UK Chief Executive, Andrew Barnett, spoke about the influence of the British Council trip to Brazil in 2010 that he and I took part in. He said our experiences in Brazil had inspired him to develop the participatory arts work the Gulbenkian Foundation is now doing – of which this inquiry is an extension. The proposed inquiry (which has still to be formally approved by the Gulbenkian Trustees) will look at “the way in which arts organisations animate, enhance and enable processes by which people exercise their rights and responsibilities as members of the community”. It will be a two year programme with the intention of developing a strong and growing movement of arts organisations that embrace their civic role. Wednesday’s meeting – organised in partnership with What Next? – brought together around 40 people to discuss the premise for the inquiry. We had a fascinating afternoon of discussions about civic society, civil society, roles and responsibilities, inequality, community and cultural participation. The Gulbenkian Inquiry faces some difficult challenges to pull all this together but could be incredibly valuable.

Robin Simpson.



‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ steering group meeting by Robin Simpson
December 4, 2015, 3:05 pm
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On Monday I was at Kings Place in London for a meeting of the steering group for the ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ project. We are now in month five of this twelve month project, funded by the Baring Foundation and being led by Live Music Now and Sound Sense. Since our last steering group meeting Care England has joined the extensive list of project partners.

At Monday’s meeting we heard from Stephen Clift of the Sydney de Haan Research Centre about recent research which has been looking at the emotional, psychological and physical benefits of singing. Studies have shown that singing can be of benefit to people with lung problems and there is some interesting evidence about the impact of singing on people with Parkinsons. Oxford University research, led by Robin Dunbar, has been looking at the evolutionary purpose of singing and a study with the Workers Educational Association in Oxford has compared singing with other forms of creative activity, showing that social bonding happened much more quickly in groups doing singing than other forms of creative activity. The Sidney de Haan Research Centre has been creating a comprehensive listing for the ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ project of all the research that has been done on singing and wellbeing.

Since our last meeting ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ has conducted four surveys, instigated a systematic review of the evidence base and undertaken lots of field visits. Kathryn Deane from Sound Sense presented the results of the surveys which have looked at the purposes of singing in care homes, what care homes need singing to achieve and what types of singing already exist in care homes. She outlined the benefits of singing in care homes – to the residents and to the care home staff. She also discussed the barriers to introducing or increasing singing in care homes.

Evan Dawson from Live Music Now explained that the project had been keen to look at whether it could emulate in the 20,000 care homes what the Sing Up project had achieved in 20,000 primary schools. Michelle James from Sing Up described the experience of developing singing in primary schools. She emphasised the need to view the project as a campaign – and the value that had been gained by bringing in professional campaigning expertise. She also outlined some of the solutions that Sing Up had developed to overcome key barriers to singing in primary schools.

Des Kelly from the National Care Forum gave us a fascinating presentation about the context in which care homes are operating. In 1989 most care homes were in the public sector. Now, in England, around 70% of all care homes are private for-profit organisations, approximately 20% are voluntary not-for-profit organisations and only a very small proportion remain in the public sector. There are 18,000 care homes in England, three quarters of which are residential care homes: the rest are nursing homes. The Care Quality Commission has rated a third of all care homes, of which 60% were ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. The average age of admission into care has gone up by ten years in the last ten years: the average age of admission is now 85. 80% of care home residents have dementia. The duration of stay in care is decreasing: the average stay in a nursing home is now one year. Staff turnover on average in the care sector is running at 20% and only 12% of workforce is under the age of 25. The top 6 corporate care providers account for 60% of the market.

This is clearly a challenging environment in which to try to achieve ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ but the project is progressing carefully and sensibly and there is a growing alliance of organisations working together on the project.

Robin Simpson.



Evocative Objects by Robin Simpson
June 18, 2015, 1:37 pm
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On Tuesday afternoon I was at The Questors Theatre in Ealing to speak at the Evocative Objects workshop – part of the AHRC research project ‘Amateur dramatics: crafting communities in time and space’. Amateur theatre practitioners from across England had gathered to explore the effect amateur dramatics has on lives and communities. I spoke about the work of Voluntary Arts and our involvement in RSC Open Stages. It was particularly interesting to hear from Ramon Tenoso, Artistic Director of The Philippine Theatre UK, who spoke about the work of this unique community theatre group. See: http://amateurdramaresearch.com/

Ramon Tenoso, Artistic Director of The Philippine Theatre UK

Ramon Tenoso, Artistic Director of The Philippine Theatre UK



Histories of Participation, Value and Governance Symposium by Robin Simpson
April 24, 2015, 2:06 pm
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On Thursday I was at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester to take part in the ‘Histories of Participation, Value and Governance Symposium’. This event was part of the Understanding Everyday Participation research project, being led by Dr Andrew Miles from the University of Manchester. The symposium reported on the project’s progress in relation to ‘Work Package 1: Histories of Participation, policy and practice’ and will lead to a book about Histories of Participation. A series of engrossing presentations explored a wide range of aspects of everyday participation.

We heard from Dr Mark O’Neill, Director of Policy & Research at Glasgow Life about the traditions of cultural participation in Glasgow. Mark noted that “we are now reinventing the link between culture and health, which the Victorians thought was obvious.”

Dr Eleonora Belfiore from the University of Warwick spoke about ‘Policy Discourse, Cultural Value and the Buzzwords of Participation’, asking how and why a certain understanding of cultural participation has become so dominant and central to policy making in England. Eleonora looked back at the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain after the Second World War and how support for the amateur arts was progressively squeezed out of its work.

Andrew Miles spoke about ‘Locating the Contemporary History of Everyday Participation’ and the assumption that those who didn’t participate in standard forms of culture were somehow in deficit.

Dr Jane Milling from the University of Exeter delivered a paper titled ‘The Usefulness of the Stage: Eighteenth-century cultural participation and civic engagement’ which suggested that, in the 1760s, every theatre goer was an omnivore: audiences could not distinguish between high and low art.

Andrew Miles presented a paper by Catherine Bunting – ‘Calling participation to account: a recent history of cultural indicators’ – which looked the effect the PSA3 target about increasing participation had had on policy during the New Labour governments. Dr Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester then spoke about regional and local cultural strategies in the early 2000s, including the creation of Regional Development Agencies and Regional Cultural Consortia in England. Abigail looked at the development of the Taking Part and Active People surveys.

Dr Lisanne Gibson from the University of Leicester gave a presentation on ‘Governing Place Through Culture’ which focussed on the research she has been doing in Gateshead as part of the Understanding Everyday Participation project.

Other presentations looked at the relationship between wellbeing and culture, the role public parks have played in everyday participation, the British tradition of clubs and societies (dating back to the 16th century), and the politics of community in community theatre practice. It was great to hear so many perspectives on everyday cultural participation and we had some great discussions of the issues throughout the day – both within the conference sessions and during the breaks. You can read more about the Understanding Everyday Participation research project at: www.everydayparticipation.org.