Cultural Playing Field


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: http://creativecitizens.co.uk/

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: http://dementiaandimagination.org.uk/

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.



Community Ownership Support Service by Robin Simpson
November 21, 2014, 4:06 pm
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On Thursday I was in Edinburgh to meet Linda Gillespie at the Development Trusts Association Scotland. Linda told me about the Community Ownership Support Service, which is funded by the Scottish Government to support both communities and public bodies in the sustainable transfer of assets into community ownership. It is an adviser-led service providing support and advice through the various stages of asset transfer. Over the past three years the service has supported communities interesting in taking ownership of assets ranging from former town halls, schools, piers, harbours and marinas to theatres. Where communities are interested in taking on large civic space, arts often forms a key element of their business plan. Linda is therefore looking at developing a guide on organising performances – from the asset owner’s perspective. We talked about how Voluntary Arts might be able to help her create this guide – and how it could signpost people to the Voluntary Arts information services. We also talked about Our Cultural Commons and the effect of community asset transfer on local cultural infrastructure.

Robin Simpson.



Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
July 4, 2014, 2:41 pm
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Later on Tuesday I was at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in London for a meeting of the Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group. The Cultural Commissioning Programme is a three year programme funded by Arts Council England and being delivered by NCVO, New Philanthropy Capital and the New Economics Foundation. On Tuesday we had a presentation from Hazel Summers, Head of Commissioning at Manchester City Council, about how Manchester has adopted a broader system approach to place-based commissioning. It was particularly interesting to hear from Hazel and Advisory Group member Jo Johnstone, who is the Cultural Partnership Team Leader at Manchester City Council, about how their two teams are working more closely together. We also reflected on the two recent Arts Development UK national seminars on cultural commissioning. We were updated on other components of the Cultural Commissioning Programme including the two commissioning partner pilots, in Gloucestershire and Kent, and the learning programme which starts with a first set of events in Newcastle which will help cultural organisations put themselves in the shoes of commissioners. We also heard about the Cultural Commissioning Programme online peer learning community and the development of web based resources.

Robin Simpson.



Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
July 4, 2014, 2:40 pm
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On Monday I was in Cardiff for a meeting of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities Advisory Group. The Connected Communities programme is pioneering co-production of academic research with communities. Our meeting took place just before the start of the Connected Communities Festival in Cardiff which attracted more than 600 delegates. Gary Grubb from AHRC updated us on recent developments within the programme, including the Research Development Workshop which took place in March, the development of five First World War engagement centres, and the creation of an early career researchers strand in the Connected Communities Festival. We also discussed the programme’s international strategy and how to develop the theme of cities and communities.

Robin Simpson.



Do Something Brilliant by Robin Simpson
June 20, 2014, 9:59 am
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On Thursday I was in London to take part in the first meeting of the advisory group for the Media Trust’s ‘Do Something Brilliant’ campaign. ‘Do Something Brilliant’ is a flagship campaign, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, which offers charities and community groups opportunities to tell their stories in different ways. See the ‘Do Something Brilliant’ TV advert at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-oTVZnvFdI. The campaign showcases stories to inspire people as well as providing training, resources, workshops, and a community newswire. ‘Do Something Brilliant’ was launched in February this year and has already broadcast a range of material online and through the Community Channel (Freeview channel 63). The campaign is working across the UK, with Outreach Managers and Advisory Boards in each nation. There are four themes to ‘Do Something Brilliant’ – active, together, green and creative. Voluntary Arts has been asked to advise on the ‘creative’ theme and to ensure that voluntary arts groups take advantage of the opportunities to raise their profile and the workshops (on digital storytelling, video skills etc) being provided by the Media Trust. See: http://www.dosomethingbrilliant.co.uk/

Robin Simpson.



NCVO Evolve 2014 by Robin Simpson
June 19, 2014, 5:44 pm
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NCVO Evolve 2014 conference at The Brewery, London

NCVO Evolve 2014 conference at The Brewery, London

On Monday I was at The Brewery in London to attend Evolve 2014 – the annual conference of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). The NCVO conference is always a great event, attracting more than 400 delegates and providing a chance to hear some high-profile speakers, explore some key issues and take part in valuable networking.

Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The first keynote speaker this year was Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He spoke about “a crisis of confidence in our politics” and said people felt a sense of powerlessness, with decisions being taken too far away from them. He criticised Russell Brand for suggesting that voting is a waste of time and said we should be encouraging the next generation to get involved. Hilary Benn confirmed that a Labour Government would repeal the Lobbying Act, saying “in a democracy you should be free to speak out”. He also stressed that we should be devolving power down in England, as has already happened in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Shadow Secretary of State said “You [the voluntary sector] are the embodiment of a contributory society”. He described plans for a task force to look at the devolution of power and funding and spoke about creating new city regions and county regions, from the bottom up – “we need to build up places as well as London”. Hilary Benn said that passing power down is essential in order to be able to address the greatest challenge of our age – dealing with an ageing population.

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund

The second keynote speech was by Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund (BLF). She explained that BLF was consulting on the new strategy it plans to launch next year and asked “what is the point of charity in the 21st century?”. She talked about her work with Mission Models Money, which had shown that arts organisations had become so preoccupied with money that their models had changed to align with the conditions of Arts Council funding, drifting away from their original mission. Dawn asked whether the BLF was here to set the agenda or to support the status quo. “Do we alleviate disadvantage or address the causes of disadvantage?” She said funding is an ecology and “we want to celebrate and nurture biodiversity”. It is important to look at what each funder adds to the equation. The BLF mission is to support communities and those most in need. Its scale, scope and reach – covering the whole of the UK, with a wide range of grants from tiny to huge amounts – enables it to reach the places other funders can’t reach. Dawn Austwick outlined four key areas for BLF: its management of knowledge, data and information; its access to decision makers, policymakers, as a conduit for other people’s expertise; its partnerships, using its funding to unlock other people’s funding; and how its responsive, demand-led, grant-making, gives BLF legitimacy and pays back into communities the money those communities have spent on Lottery tickets. She finished by saying “we need to be learning, enquiring and curious – marrying what we uniquely do with what you uniquely do”.

Dawn Austwick, Hilary Benn and Martyn Lewis

Dawn Austwick, Hilary Benn and Martyn Lewis

The first workshop session at the NCVO conference was interrupted by a fire alarm with the whole conference centre being evacuated while three fire engines dealt with a fire in the kitchens. Fortunately no-one was hurt and we were able to resume the conference after a long wait on the pavement outside The Brewery.

In the afternoon I attended a workshop on ‘campaigning, media and social action’ which included presentations from Emily Roberts, Project Manager for The Big Lunch, Diane Reid, Head of BBC Outreach and Corporate Responsibility and David Cohen, Campaigns Editor at the London Evening Standard. It was a very interesting exploration of the role the media can play in charity campaigning. At the end of the session I managed to speak to Diane Reid about our Up for Arts partnerships with BBC local radio stations and the potential for developing the model further.

Alex Whinnom, Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Alex Whinnom, Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

In the final plenary session of the conference Alex Whinnom, the Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) gave a very impressive presentation which focussed on the imbalance between London and the regions and called for devolution within England and the ability to take decisions locally. He said “devolution isn’t a zero sum game, it’s a win-win”.

There was then a very interesting debate about how charities can manage their reputation in an era of scrutiny. Bobby Duffy, the Managing Director of Ipsos MORI reported that, contrary to perceptions within the voluntary sector, the public’s trust of charities is increasing. Only three professions have declined in terms of public trust in recent years – the clergy, newsreaders and pollsters. Donald Steel, a Reputation and Crisis Consultant said that charities can prevent reputational crises in the way they run themselves and that reputation lies with leaders. Dr Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent agreed there was no real evidence of a crisis of reputation in the voluntary sector. She said most charities have powerful underlying themes that make them resilient. Founding stories give charities a strong original reputation that can see off subsequent attacks. Finally the Chief Executive of NCVO, Sir Stuart Etherington, said that it was important for charities not to react to reputational attackes in a way that amplifies the issues.

Robin Simpson.



Public Services: the value of cultural commissioning by Robin Simpson
June 6, 2014, 3:20 pm
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I was back in London on Friday to chair the Arts Development UK national seminar on ‘Public Services: the value of cultural commissioning’. This was the first of two seminars which are a joint initiative between the Cultural Commissioning Programme, Arts Development UK and the National Culture & Leisure Forum, supported by The National Archives. The Cultural Commissioning Programme is a three year programme funded by Arts Council England and being delivered by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, New Philanthropy Capital and the New Economics Foundation. There was an amazing level of interest in the seminar with a sell-out audience of more than 150 delegates at the Camden Centre. We started with keynote speeches from Vikki Heywood, Chair of the RSA who gave an overview from the cultural sector, and Carole Wood, Director of Public Health at Gateshead Council who gave an overview from the public service commissioning sector. I was pleased to hear Vikki say “everyone should be a creative, literate and numerate citizen”. Carole spoke about the Five Ways to Wellbeing and quoted the song “hearts starve as well as bodies – give us bread and give us roses”. The seminar included eight breakout group sessions looking at topics including ‘delivering commissioner outcomes’, ‘high artistic and cultural quality’, ‘mental health and well-being’ and ‘place-based outcomes’. One highlight for me was the inspiring presentation about older people by Sharon Scaniglia of Nottingham City Council, who spoke about a care home project in Nottingham supported by the Arts Council England/Baring Foundation scheme. The final keynote presentation was from Sally Bagwell of New Philanthropy Capital who launched the Cultural Commissioning Programme research report, which is now available at: www.ncvo.org.uk/practical-support/public-services/cultural-commissioning-programme. The second Cultural Commissioning seminar takes place in Doncaster next week.

Robin Simpson.



ACEVO Arts, Culture and Heritage Special Interest Group meeting by Robin Simpson
May 16, 2014, 10:42 am
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On Thursday afternoon I took part in a meeting of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations Arts, Culture & Heritage Special Interest Group. Our guest speaker was the Shadow Culture Minister, Helen Goodman MP and we had a very interesting discussion about the role of arts and heritage organisation within the voluntary sector, the part culture can play in the wellbeing agenda, the effect of cuts in local authority funding and the importance of active participation in cultural activities.

Robin Simpson.



Meeting the Shadow Culture Minister by Robin Simpson
May 16, 2014, 10:40 am
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On Monday I was at Portcullis House in Westminster to meet the Labur MP, Helen Goodman – the Shadow Culture Minister. We discussed the Labour Party’s recently-launched consultation on the future of the voluntary sector and the role that cultural organisations play in the wider voluntary sector. We also talked about the Voluntary Arts campaign for renewed national cultural policies to sustain and develop local cultural infrastructure and the role that Voluntary Arts might be able to play in addressing the impact of cuts in local authority arts funding. It was a very interesting and wide-ranging conversation.

Robin Simpson.