Cultural Playing Field

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:

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:

Amateur dramatics: crafting communities in time and space by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:40 pm
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I was in London on Thursday for a meeting about AHRC research project ‘Amateur dramatics: crafting communities in time and space’ – the first academic study of amateur theatre in the UK. This project is being led by Professor Helen Nicholson (Royal Holloway, University of London) with Professor Nadine Holdsworth (University of Warwick) and Dr Jane Milling, (University of Exeter). I took part in the first advisory group meeting for this project in October 2013, so it was great this week, 18 months into the project, to hear details of the researchers’ interim findings. Helen said people from the amateur theatre scene have been overwhelmingly generous. The research team have been writing case studies about members of the Little Theatre Guild and the National Operatic and Dramatic Association. Nadine has been looking at how amateur theatre is archived and the ways in which the theatres themselves are archives. She spoke about the ‘hard economics’ of amateur theatre and the labour necessary to attract audiences, maintain turnover, keep buildings open, hire space and costumes and sell adverts in the programme. You can read the project’s interim report at:

Robin Simpson.

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.

Launch of the report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value by Robin Simpson
February 20, 2015, 2:08 pm
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On Tuesday evening Peter and I were at The Shard in London for the launch of ‘Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth – The 2015 Report by the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value’. The Warwick Commission report covers a wide range of issues. Its five chapters focus on the cultural ‘ecosystem’, diversity & participation, education & skills development, digital culture, and ‘making the local matter’. Active participation in creative cultural activity features prominently. In her Foreword, the Chairman of the Commission, Vikki Heywood, says “The key message from this report is that the government and the Cultural and Creative Industries need to take a united and coherent approach that guarantees equal access for everyone to a rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life.”

The report goes on to say:

Traditionally, concerns over broadening participation have concentrated on tackling the social stratification of cultural and creative consumption with varying degrees of success. However, the Commission is keen to emphasise that equal attention needs to be placed on the making of culture and creative expression, whether in the context of the Cultural and Creative Industries or as amateur activity.” [3.1, p.32]

The value of everyday cultural activities needs to be more fully acknowledged and supported. The amateur and voluntary sector may be of pivotal importance in spearheading a creative participation revolution.” [3.2.4, p.37]

Voluntary Arts, 64 Million Artists and Fun Palaces published a joint response to the Warwick Commission report on Tuesday which says we “believe that the time has come to urgently reframe the discussion about the arts, artists and the role of culture in society. We have come together from our core commitment to participation and radical excellence in arts and culture – and a passion for everyone to have ‘the opportunity to live a creative life’.” You can read our joint response in full at:

To accompany this joint response we ran a social media campaign using the hashtag #EveryoneCreative, as part of which Tony produced this excellent video:

The Warwick Commission report also included a formal endorsement of the Our Cultural Commons initiative:

In this context of flourishing voluntary arts, the Commission welcomes the launch of ‘Our Cultural Commons’ – an important joint initiative by Voluntary Arts and Arts Development, which will explore new ways to sustain and develop the diverse creative lives of our communities. By gathering evidence of existing local collaborative practice and offering a space for discussion of potential solutions to the problems facing local cultural infrastructure, the two organisations hope to support and develop the ‘cultural commons’ in local communities.” [3.2.3, p.36]

The Warwick Commission Chairman, Vikki Heywood, also gave me her personal endorsement of Our Cultural Commons:

I wholeheartedly welcome this important initiative that seeks to strengthen and support amateur participation in the arts at local level. Arts and cultural experiences play a vital role in shaping our communities and it is essential at a time of cuts in local government funding that the cultural sector comes together to find creative ways of sustaining and developing local cultural infrastructures. Our Cultural Commons offers a real opportunity to build upon the wealth of cultural activity across the country and develop a national policy approach to local arts participation.”

The Warwick Commission report also endorsed our Culture Guides programme, saying:

The most effective way to encourage participation among people who do not currently take part in any cultural activity is through their peers: seeing people who live next to them, or work with them doing something creative is a powerful stimulation to trying something new. Opportunities to make amateur participation more visible should be encouraged by cultural organisations, working in partnership with local government and civic organisations, and the Commission welcomes the EU-funded ‘Culture Guide’ scheme currently being piloted in four regions across the UK.” [3.3.4, p.39]

You can read the full Warwick Commission report at:

Robin Simpson.

Meeting the Crafts Council by Robin Simpson
February 6, 2015, 3:42 pm
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The Crafts Council, Islington, London

The Crafts Council, Islington, London

On Thursday I was at the Crafts Council in London to meet Rosy Greenlees and Annie Warburton. We had an extensive conversation about the current work of the Crafts Council and Voluntary Arts and identified several areas for potential collaboration. We talked in detail about Our Cultural Commons. We also discussed ‘Our Future is in the Making: An Education Manifesto for Craft and Making’, which was launched at the House of Commons in in November 2014, see: I was particularly interested to hear about the work the Crafts Council has been doing with the Polish community in Liverpool as part of a research programme looking at diverse practices of making across England. We also spoke about the Craft Clubs, established by the Crafts Council in 2009 in partnership with United Kingdom Hand Knitting Association and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, see: There are around 800 Crafts Clubs still going and we discussed how to ensure they are are all aware of the Voluntary Arts online information services.

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

Talking about Our Cultural Commons at What Next? by Robin Simpson
January 16, 2015, 11:10 am
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On Wednesday I was in London for the What Next? meeting at the Young Vic where I gave a presentation about Our Cultural Commons. I explained the thinking behind the Our Cultural Commons initiative and described our plans to:

  • collect evidence of existing innovative local collaborative practice to sustain and develop local cultural infrastructure and then promote best practice

  • provide a space for discussion of potential solutions to the problems facing local cultural infrastructure and organisation and the debate on the nature of the cultural commons that we aspire to in the future

  • empower and support the voice of those ‘local’ ambitions in debates on future national cultural policies, structures and funding.

I talked about the initial scoping research carried out for Our Cultural Commons by Sue Isherwood and outlined a couple of the examples of existing local collaborative practice that Sue had discovered. I spoke about our appointment of Lee Corner as the Convener for a series of Our Cultural Commons national policy roundtables and our experience of the first of these roundtables which took place in Edinburgh in December. I discussed the potential links between Our Cultural Commons and the forthcoming report of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, the DCMS Select Committee report on the work of Arts Council England, the AHRC Cultural Value Project, the AHRC Connected Communities Understanding Everyday Participation research project and the BBC Get Creative campaign. I suggested that the next few months will provide a unique opportunity to make an argument about the real foundations of our cultural life, to move away from impossible arguments about maintaining public funding for the arts at a time when local authorities are struggling to maintain statutory services, and to push the importance of the whole cultural ecosystem.

I finished my presentation by quoting the think-piece Jane Wilson, Chair of Arts Development UK, wrote for the Our Cultural Commons website (at Jane said:

The relationship between (what we separate out as) ‘art’ and the process of collective cultural existence appears to have been with us for as long as we have been human, but this doesn’t mean that we can simply take it for granted. Effective societies allow the room for a diversity of cultural expression, and it hardly needs saying what the alternative can look like. Except, that here, we have tended to assume that allowing room for that diversity was simply about maintaining an effective distance between professional artists and the state, so that we avoid the cultural dictatorships that so marked the twentieth century. In that laudable goal we have underplayed the importance, (as the environment in which we operate becomes both more managed and more complex) of the state in making sure that the space for cultural expression is held open, not just for those activities which have an established and recognized identity as art-forms, nor for the most commercially effective, the former the remit of Arts Council England, the latter supported by market forces, but the space needed in every community for the ground in between, where the local is created and re-created year on year. Local authorities have historically managed this territory, on a discretionary basis, nurturing and supporting ‘grass roots’ cultural activity, but their role in this area is under serious threat. Often, local authorities are not the organisations directly delivering activity, and in the short term their departure from the field might not seem to matter too much, but over time it will mean that the space for local cultural expression becomes more fragile, unless we take seriously the responsibility for developing our cultural commons.”

I asked What Next? members to:

  1. sign up for the newsletter at

  2. circulate the Our Cultural Commons proposition:

  3. add their organisations to the list of Our Cutural Commons supporters

  4. ensure the issues raised by Our Cultural Commons are addressed in any debates they are organising, particularly as part of the BBC Get Creative campaign.

Robin Simpson.

Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
January 9, 2015, 1:59 pm
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On Thursday I was in London to take part in a meeting of the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Programme Advisory Group. We heard from Bryony Enright and Keri Facer who have been developing, over the past twelve months, a narrative and evidence base about the Connected Communities programme’s impact. Connected Communities has, to date, funded 300 projects, involving 900 partnerships and encouraging substantial number of academics and universities to undertake collaborative research with communities. Bryony said that the community organisations involved in the Connected Communities research projects had reported a range of benefits, including new relationships, increased credibility, greater recognition for existing work, ownership and control of research projects, access to networks, opportunities for personal development, opportunities for reflection and creating new communities.

We then had presentations from two Connected Communities projects. Professor Ian Hargreaves (Professor of Digital Economy at the University of Cardiff – and a former editor of The Independent and the New Statesman) described the Creative Citizens project which addressed the question: “How does creative citizenship generate value for communities within a changing media landscape and how can pursuit of value be intensified, propagated and sustained?”. The project looked at three particular areas of practice: community journalism (‘hyperlocal’ news media); community-led design; and creative networks. Ian said “the activities of creative citizens have considerable and growing value – statisticians and politicians please note” and he stressed the importance of developing “a civic life that is more magical and wonderful to be a part of”. See:

We also heard from Dr Gill Windle of Bangor University about the Dementia and Imagination project. This project explored how the vision for dementia supportive communities might benefit from creative activities (particularly socially engaged visual arts practice). The project created a handbook (“interaction: engagement”) on the use of visual art with people with dementia and a legacy of professional development and increasing expertise in dementia for a range of artists and community arts organisations. See:

Robin Simpson.

Understanding Everyday Participation research project partners’ meeting by Robin Simpson
December 5, 2014, 2:25 pm
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I was in London on Monday for a meeting of the partners in the Understanding Everyday Participation research project. This 5-year project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme and by Creative Scotland. Understanding Everyday Participation is being run by a consortium of 7 academics at 4 universities with 2 professional researchers and a wide range of partner organisations, including Voluntary Arts. The project is looking at the relationship between participation and cultural value. Orthodox models of culture and the creative economy are based on a narrow definition of participation: one that captures engagement with traditional institutions such as museums and galleries but overlooks more informal activities such as community festivals and hobbies. This project is painting a broader picture of how people make their lives through culture and in particular how communities are formed and connected through participation. The project is undertaking detailed studies of 6 contrasting cultural ecosystems (in Manchester/Salford, Gateshead, Dartmoor, Peterborough, Eilean Siar/Stornoway and Aberdeen). Since we last met, the first round of resident interviews in Salford has been completed and the Aberdeen interviews have been started. We looked at some of the evidence gathered in Aberdeen and discussed the patterns demonstrated by mapping the membership of local clubs. The ethnographic study in Gateshead has also been completed and we had a fascinating presentation about the ‘facilitated participation’ of young people in care in Gateshead. We also looked at the mapping of cultural assets in Gateshead, including places of worship, playgrounds and pubs. This generated an interesting discussion around the question ‘does a place have a cultural signature?’. The Understanding Everyday Participation research project seems to grow more fascinating each time we meet. It still has quite a long way to go but I suspect the outcomes of this project are going to have a very significant impact for the work of Voluntary Arts.

Robin Simpson.