Cultural Playing Field


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.

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‘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.



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: http://issuu.com/amateurdramaresearch/docs/amateur_theatre_report_1ef015e9eca65c/1

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: http://www.voluntaryarts.org/2015/02/17/response-to-the-warwick-commission-report/

To accompany this joint response we ran a social media campaign using the hashtag #EveryoneCreative, as part of which Tony produced this excellent video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JK1EvJr-fDM

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: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/finalreport/

Robin Simpson.