Cultural Playing Field


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.



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.



Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group meeting by Robin Simpson
December 11, 2015, 11:03 am
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On Wednesday I was at NCVO in London for a meeting of the Cultural Commissioning Programme Advisory Group. We had a fascinating presentation from Alan Higgins, Director of Public Health at Oldham Council about the opportunities for health commissioning arising the Government’s programme of devolution to Greater Manchester. A Public Health memorandum of understanding has now been agreed. One of the five major transformational programmes of work, specified in the MoU is “nurturing a social movement for change – enabling people to make their own informed lifestyle choices”. Alan considered how a social movement for health could be encouraged, drawing on previous examples of social movements including the campaign to make Amsterdam the bicycle capital of the world, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the creation of the FC United of Manchester football club. We discussed the role arts and culture organisations might be able to play in this development but also the role that arts and culture might play in the everyday lives of people in Greater Manchester as part of healthier lifestyles. It was a really interesting discussion which highlighted the extent to which the Cultural Commissioning Programme has moved from being simply about helping arts organisations to access funding from public sector commissioning and is increasingly looking at the role of arts and culture in the outcomes of commissioning.

Robin Simpson.



‘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.



Culture Guides Conference, Budapest by Robin Simpson
October 9, 2015, 1:48 pm
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On Monday and Tuesday I was in Budapest, Hungary, with Laraine and Daniel for the final conference of our EU Culture Guides project. Culture Guides was a two-year project that started in October 2013 under the Grundtvig strand of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme. Six partners from five countries aimed to investigate the possibility of a European framework to recruit, train and manage volunteers to act as mentors or guides to introduce and help marginalised social groups to participate in local art and culture activities, either as audience members or as active participants. Voluntary Arts ran pilot Culture Guides schemes in four locations – St Helens and Swale & Medway in England, and Torfaen and Wrexham in Wales.

Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture

Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture

The conference was opened by Dora Duro, Chair of the Hungarian Parliament Committee on Culture. I chaired the first panel session in which the six partner organisations summarised how the project had worked in each of the participating countries. The conference included a range of group sessions in which we looked at the learning from the Culture Guide pilots and shared our experiences of working with different socially marginalised end-users. There were also practical participatory sessions in which we learned some circus skills and Hungarian folk songs. The Keynote speech was given by Professor Sandor Striker from ELTE, the University of National Excellence in Hungary, who spoke about ‘Art and culture policies for the socially marginalised’. We also had a presentation from Dr Cees van den Bos, from the Netherlands, comparing volunteering in different countries. The conference brought together partner organisations, volunteers, other cultural organisations, civil society and volunteering organisations from across Europe. It was a really enjoyable couple of days and a nice way to bring this excellent project to an end.

For more details please see Daniel’s excellent Culture Guides Handbook at: http://www.cultureguides.eu/outcome-and-results/guidelines-for-the-european-handbook/

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.