Cultural Playing Field


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.”



Luminate Festival Parliamentary Reception by Robin Simpson
September 7, 2016, 1:11 pm
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On Tuesday evening I was at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh for a formal reception to celebrate the launch of the 2016 Luminate Festival programme. In October Luminate – Scotland’s creative ageing festival, of which I am a founding Trustee – will present its fifth annual national festival with events taking place from Shetland to Gretna Green. On Tuesday the Luminate Board and staff were joined by Festival participants, partners, supporters and MSPs. Festival Director Anne Gallacher introduced speeches by Sandra White MSP, Leonie Bell from Creative Scotland and Brian Sloan from Age Scotland which all emphasised the positive role arts and culture can  play in addressing the challenges of loneliness and isolation in an ageing population.

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Beautiful People from Dundee Rep performing at the Luminate Parliamentary Reception

We were then treated to two excellent performances. Emma Versteeg and Maryam Sherhan from Live Music Now Scotland performed an extract from The Luminate Suite – a commission from the composer Bill Sweeney which was inspired by songs, poems and stories shared with him by older people in the Hebrides. Four performers from Dundee Rep’s Beautiful People – a new company launched during the 2015 Luminate Festival, featuring performers over the age of 55 – gave us an example of their compelling dramatic storytelling. It was a lovely event and I am really looking forward to this year’s Luminate Festival which starts on 1 October, see: http://www.luminatescotland.org/



A Choir in Every Care Home working group meeting by Robin Simpson
May 13, 2016, 2:00 pm
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On Monday afternoon I was at Kings Place in London for a meeting of the working group for the ‘A Choir in Every Care Home’ project. This was the final working group meeting, as the initial scoping phase of the project comes to an end. The Baring Foundation, which funded the project, had asked the project partners (led by Live Music Now!, SoundSense and the Sidney de Haan Research Centre) to address two key questions in relation to developing a choir in every care home: what could we do without any more money?; and what could we do if we had limitless money? The project has surveyed 150 care homes and 100 musicians who work in care homes – and Making Music has surveyed amateur music groups about working in care homes. Working papers have been used to document the basic activities within the project and to explore key issues, eg quality. A substantial review of existing research has been completed and 29 case studies have been generated. The resulting project documentation now amounts to 350 pages in total. Stephen Clift reported back to the working group about the research review. He said there had been a remarkable expansion over the last 15 years of projects around singing and health. There is something about singing that is hugely powerful for many people in contributing to their wellbeing. The working group looked at how we might develop a national campaign to encourage singing in care homes, modelled on the Sing Up campaign which reintroduced singing to 80% of primary schools. It was good to talk to David Cutler from the Baring Foundation at Monday’s meeting and I hope this is the just the starting point for a much larger project to turn care homes across the UK into ‘singing homes’.

Robin Simpson.



2016 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
April 8, 2016, 9:55 am
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Cardiff Castle

On Saturday I was at Cardiff Castle for the 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony. It was a wonderful event – fantastic venue, great weather and amazing winners and runners-up from across the UK and Ireland. In the afternoon I hosted a seminar at St David’s Hall called ‘Creating Epic Places’ which looked at the effects creative cultural activities have on local communities. This provided an opportunity for the representatives of the groups arriving in Cardiff for the evening ceremony to meet each other and find out more about the various Epic projects. Voluntary Arts Board member, Hamish Fyfe – Professor of Arts and Society at the University of South Wales – led a fascinating discussion about the links between creativity and place.

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The Banqueting Hall, Cardiff Castle

On Saturday evening we assembled in the splendid banqueting hall at Cardiff Castle. John Furnham from Cardiff Castle gave us a brief history of the building and reminded us that the banqueting hall had been used for the 2014 NATO Summit, pointing out which of us was sitting in the seats that had been occupied by President Obama, Chancellor Merkel et al. The Epic Awards Ceremony was slickly compered by Nicola Heywood Thomas from BBC Radio Wales. We began with a performance by the newly appointed Young People’s Laureate Wales, poet Sophie McKeand. Afterwards Sophie wrote a great piece on her blog about the experience of being involved with the Epic Awards Ceremony, calling it “a brilliant light in this liquid blackness” and noting that “some of the UK’s most dedicated, humble and generous people converged in Cardiff Castle’s banquet hall to receive awards and, importantly, recognition for their work” – see: http://youngpeopleslaureate.org/on-beginnings/

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Young People’s Laureate Wales, Sophie McKeand

The Epic Awards certificates and specially commissioned Welsh lovespoons were presented to the winning groups by the Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales, Nick Capaldi, and the Chair of Voluntary Arts Wales, Hamish Fyfe. As always, the winners and runners-up were each amazing stories and their representatives were funny, passionate and incredibly inspiring. You can see full details of all the winners and runners-up at: http://www.voluntaryarts.org/2016/04/02/epic-awards-2016-winners-announced/

People’s Choice Award Winners, Strike a Chord – a South Wales choir for stroke survivors – provided the emotional climax of the evening with one elderly member of the choir in floods of tears as I announced their award at the end of the ceremony. Immediately afterwards we drove two of the choir’s representatives through the night to Salford to appear on the BBC Breakfast sofa, live on BBC1, on Sunday morning. The choir’s conductor, Ali Shone, told the nation “Voluntary Arts, who set up the Awards, they’re fantastic: what they do is brilliant”.

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Cardiff Castle

Epic Awards 2016 has been a huge success and we are indebted to all the applicants and to Voluntary Arts staff, Trustees and Advisory Group members across the UK and Ireland. I would particularly like to thank Gareth Coles and Damien McGlynn who were both involved in running Epic Awards for the first time and helped to make this one of the best years yet. The 2016 Epic Awards Ceremony at Cardiff Castle is one of the stand-out moments of my ten years at Voluntary Arts.

Robin Simpson.



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.



Welsh Language Commissioner/WCVA Parliamentary Reception by Robin Simpson
January 22, 2016, 10:46 am
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WCVA reception

The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws

On Thursday afternoon Gareth and I were at the House of Lords for a reception organised by the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) and hosted by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. This was an event for UK-wide third sector organisations operating in Wales to discuss the need to work through the medium of Welsh. Each organisation had been asked to bring two representatives – their UK Chief Executive and their Wales Director or equivalent. The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, spoke about the implications for third sector organisations of the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, emphasising the principle that people in Wales can live their lives through the medium of Welsh if that is what they wish to do. She said the third sector needs to think in different ways to move forward with dignity for people in an increasingly bilingual nation. WCVA Chief Executive, Ruth Marks, said that Welsh language, culture and identity is fundamental across all our work. She spoke about the current legislative and policy environment (including the effects of the new Social Services and Wellbeing Act and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act). Ruth also discussed the Welsh Language and volunteering as well as good governance and quality systems (including Investing in Volunteers and PQASSO). She explained that there is now a Memorandum of Understanding between WCVA and the Welsh Language Commissioner and a WCVA Trustee has been appointed as the organisation’s Welsh Language Champion.

Robin Simpson.