Cultural Playing Field


National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement ‘Engage’ Conference 2017 by Robin Simpson
December 7, 2017, 5:15 pm
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On Thursday I was in Bristol for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s ‘Engage’ Conference. The theme of the conference was ‘Exploring Collaboration’ and delegates included representatives of community organisations, universities, charities, policy makers and funders from all around the world. Professor Eleonora Belfiore from Loughborough University and I led a workshop on ‘Collaboration and policy-sensitive research’, drawing on our experience of the AHRC Understanding Everyday Participation research project. We discussed the challenges of trying to effect policy change through collaborative research. I highlighted three risks: that the community partners just want the research to justify what they already think they know; that the academic research partners end up merely presenting back to the community partners the information they provided; and that, even if the research goes well, the final glossy report and its recommendations lie forgotten in a drawer a few months later without having achieved any policy change. We had a lively and thoughtful debate with our workshop participants which surfaced many examples of both good and bad practice in relation to policy-sensitive research.

Robin Simpson.

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Greater London Volunteering Charity Leadership Conference 2017 by Robin Simpson
November 10, 2017, 4:11 pm
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On Friday I was at City Hall in London for Greater London Volunteering’s annual Charity Leadership Conference. The conference was presented in partnership with Team London and supported by Reach. The main plenary session, in the GLA Council Chamber, included presentations by Ruth Lesirge, Chair of the Association of Chairs who spoke about Board functions and the duties of Trustees, and Rosie Chapman, Chair of the Charity Governance Code Steering Group, who outlined the new version of the Charity Governance Code that was published in July 2017. I then gave a presentation about Voluntary Arts’ experience of diversifying governance, including the Voluntary Arts BAME Advisory Panel and the Open Conversations report (https://www.voluntaryarts.org/news/open-conversations) which led to us winning the Board Diversity and Inclusivity Award in the 2017 Charity Governance Awards.

Robin Simpson.



Luminate Reception 2017 by Robin Simpson
October 27, 2017, 1:28 pm
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On Wednesday evening I was at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh for the Luminate Reception. A range of artists and organisers involved in Luminate Festival events had been invited to celebrate Luminate’s 5th birthday and to launch a new publication about creative ageing in Scotland. ‘Late Opening: Arts and Older People in Scotland’ was commissioned jointly by The Baring Foundation and Luminate, and written by Andrew Eaton-Lewis. Through 16 case studies the report explores what ‘creative ageing’ means in Scotland and makes recommendations for long term strategic thinking and investment, stronger partnerships between the arts and healthcare sectors and more support for older emerging professional artists. Speaking at the Luminate Reception, Jeane Freeman MSP, Minister for Social Security in the Scottish Government said “there isn’t an age limit on creativity” and praised Luminate for its work in encouraging older people to be creative. Graham Reid from Creative Scotland emphasised the importance of Luminate’s focus on “arts for, by, with and about older people”. Keith Robson from Age Scotland welcomed the ‘Late Opening’ report’s focus on “frequently challenged stereotypes about what kind of art older people should be into”. David Cutler, Director of the Baring Foundation, said that since Baring started to focus on arts and older people in 2010, Luminate was “one of the best ideas we had”. David hoped the ‘Late Opening’ report would be an inspiration to arts organisations across Scotland. The Luminate Reception finished with performances by The Flames – a theatre group for participants aged fifty and over established by Tricky Hat Productions, whose debut performance I saw in the 2016 Luminate Festival – and the Vintage Chorus choir which is based at the Festival Theatre.



‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ launch at King’s College, London by Robin Simpson
October 13, 2017, 2:16 pm
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On Thursday I was at King’s College, London, for the launch of ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ – the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry Report. The report was published in July but a formal launch event wasn’t possible then, so soon after the snap General Election. So on Thursday, King’s College London who worked with the APPG on its two-year Inquiry hosted this event in which Deborah Bull compèred a panel discussion on the report and its recommendations.

Lord Howarth, Co-Chair of the APPG, spoke about the potential of the arts in health and social care. He explained that the inquiry had organised 16 roundtables involving more than 300 people, importantly including service users, and had produced 10 specific recommendations.

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, from King’s College, said it was clear that engagement with the arts, particularly through participation, helps people get well and stay well. She said the inquiry had extended its definition of arts to include everyday activity – the stuff that happens behind closed doors in people’s homes and in communities.

The report says:

“Millions of people in the UK engage with the arts as part of their everyday lives. As we demonstrate in this report, arts engagement has a beneficial effect upon health and wellbeing and therefore has a vital part to play in the public health arena.” …

“When we talk about the arts, we include the visual and performing arts, crafts, dance, film, literature, music and singing. To this list, we add gardening … and the equally absorbing culinary arts.” …

“In this report, then, ‘the arts’ is used as shorthand for everyday human creativity, rather than referring to a lofty activity which requires some sort of superior cultural intelligence to access.”

Lord Howarth pointed out that the report’s 10 recommendations are not all directed at government. What is actually needed is a culture change in the health establishment. Recommendation 1 calls for a new national strategic centre to be established “to support the advance of good practice, promote collaboration, coordinate and disseminate research and inform policy and delivery” – but this should not be created by government.

Former Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, Co-Chair of the APPG, said he had wanted to use the Government’s 2016 Culture White Paper to show the wide range of impacts the arts have but had faced a stunning lack of interest from Ministers in other Government departments. It was hard to get Ministers to engage beyond their silos.

Arts Council England Chief Executive, Darren Henley, said he was interested in seeing arts and health as more central to ACE’s new 10-year strategy but, for ACE, it has to be all about the arts: the Arts Council is about promoting excellence.

Interestingly, the APPG report says:

“On the one hand, it would be a disservice to participants to offer substandard arts activities under the banner of health and wellbeing, and the examples given in this report show high-quality work being undertaken in an avowedly inclusive way. On the other hand, in participatory arts activities with people who have not previously been encouraged to express their creativity, it is the quality of the activity, rather than the quality of output, that matters.”

Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said arts and health shouldn’t be a nice-to-have add-on: it should be mainstream.

You can download the APPG report from: http://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/



‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ by Robin Simpson
June 22, 2017, 7:47 am
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At the end of 2014, at the weekly meetings I took part in to develop the Get Creative campaign with the BBC, Deborah Bull from King College, London, was adamant that we must build in a robust evaluation of the campaign from the start. Jointly funded by the BBC and the Cultural Institute at King’s College London, the Get Creative Research Project ran alongside the Get Creative campaign from its launch in February 2015. The research was led by Dr Nick Wilson from King’s College and had two overarching aims. Firstly, to provide a rigorous evaluation of the Get Creative campaign; and secondly, to investigate key questions raised by the campaign regarding the ‘landscape’ of arts practice and participation.

In May 2016 the Get Creative Research Project’s interim report, ‘Get Creative: Opening Our Eyes to Everyday Creativity’ celebrated the successes of the first year of the Get Creative campaign but also surfaced a number of underlying problems and issues and made a series of recommendations. This led directly to a clarification of the aims and objectives of Get Creative and the establishment of a Get Creative Steering Group with formal Terms of Reference.

This week the Get Creative Research Project published its final report, ‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’, written by Nick Wilson, Jonathan Gross and Anna Bull. ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ uses the learning from the Get Creative campaign to call for a radical but pragmatic new approach to understanding and enabling cultural opportunity. It argues that cultural opportunities are comprised of a far broader range of freedoms than access to already existing publicly funded arts – the primary focus of current cultural policy. Everyone has cultural capability – by ensuring there are more cultural opportunities for people to realise their own creative potential it would be possible to move towards cultural democracy: “an achievable future in which the substantive freedom to co-create versions of culture is enjoyed by all”.

Towards Cultural Democracy’ makes 14 recommendations, starting with the suggestion that “Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone (cultural democracy) needs to be made an interlinked policy objective, across a range of national government departments and agencies” and including a recommendation to “Develop mutually beneficial relationships with local radio as a key channel for the promotion of everyday creativity” which specifically references Voluntary Arts’ Up for Arts projects.

On Wednesday afternoon I was at Somerset House in London for a workshop to explore the recommendations from ‘Towards cultural democracy: Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’. Discussing the background to the research, Jonathan Gross talked about the conclusions of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, which recommended celebrating everyday arts, and the critiques of the traditional ‘Deficit Model’ which had emerged from the Get Creative Research Project. He spoke about the rising interest in everyday creativity in recent years, indicated by the rise of Fun Palaces, 64 Million Artists, and Get Creative itself. Jonathan also referred to the increase in academic research in this area, citing studies including the Understanding Everyday Participation Research Project being led by the University of Manchester and Helen Nicholson’s research into amateur theatre.

Nick Wilson stressed that everyday creativity is not new but suggested that the ‘Towards Cultural Democracy’ shows how we are now understanding the interconnections with the subsidised arts much better. He described the idea of thinking about cultural opportunities and cultural capabilities, rather than just mapping existing cultural assets and restricting debates to access to publicly funded arts. Nick called for reframing of decision-making across cultural policy to recognise the role played by creative citizens and pillar organisations.

Our workshop also included seven short presentations about how we enable cultural opportunities, featuring speakers including Jo Hunter from 64 Million Artists, Kunle Olulode from Voice for Change and me.

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On Wednesday evening Damien and I attended the formal launch of ‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ at King’s College, London. Inspirational speeches from Deborah Bull, Nick Wilson, Stella Duffy and Lizzie Crump emphasised the importance of the report and the momentum that appears to be gathering towards a significant shift in policy to recognise the importance of everyday creativity. The evening concluded with a cultural opportunity to allow us all to demonstrate our cultural capabilities as Alex and Flo – featured in the report as one of the portraits of people co-creating their own distinctive versions of culture – taught us all some the basics of ‘breaking’ (better known to the uninitiated as break-dancing). The sight of many of the most influential cultural leaders, activists and policy-makers spinning around on the floor of King’s College will live long in my memory!

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You can download the report ‘‘Towards Cultural Democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’ from: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/Cultural/-/Projects/Towards-cultural-democracy.aspx

Robin Simpson.



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.

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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.

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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: https://www.voluntaryarts.org/news/epic-awards-2017-winners-announced and you can get a flavour of the ceremony by watching this video filmed by the England Epic Award winners South Devon Players: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXNd8l49WTE

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.

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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.”