Cultural Playing Field


Cultures of Health and Wellbeing conference, Newcastle-upon-Tyne by Robin Simpson
March 22, 2019, 2:36 pm
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On Thursday and Friday I have been at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to take part in ‘Cultures of Health and Wellbeing’ – the first national conference organised by the new Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. The Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance is the national organisation representing everyone who believes that cultural engagement and participation can transform our health and wellbeing. It has more than 3,700 individual members and Voluntary Arts is one of 70 organisations who have become Strategic Alliance Members.

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The opening keynote presentation at the conference was by Errol Francis, Chief Executive of Culture&, who discussed definitions of ‘culture’ and the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’. I then attended a breakout session on Democratising Our Practice, in the nearby Northern Stage Theatre, which featured a presentation on shifting power, drawing on the experience of Bait – the South East Northumberland Creative People and Places consortium.

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The second keynote presentation was by Neil Churchill, Director of Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England. He talked about the NHS Long Term Plan and its targets to double the number of volunteers in the NHS in three years. He also spoke about the commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to social prescribing. There will be over 1,000 trained social prescribing link workers in place by 2020/21 and 900,000 people will be referred to social prescribing by 2023/24. Neil Churchill explained the intention to make small grants available locally to volunteer led groups to become involved in social prescribing. A panel session on social prescribing emphasised the importance of signing-up to the Social Prescribing Network. The Social Prescribing Network consists of health professionals, researchers, academics, social prescribing practitioners, representatives from the community and voluntary sector, commissioners and funders, patients and citizens. Members of the Network are working together to share knowledge and best practice, to support social prescribing at a local and national levels and to inform good quality research and evaluation. Over the past year regional networks have been established around England, Ireland and Scotland. See: https://www.socialprescribingnetwork.com/

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The keynote presentation on the second day of the conference was by Lord Howarth, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts & Health and President of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. Lord Howarth summarised progress on the recommendations in the APPG’s ‘Creative Health’ report, that was published in June 2017: https://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/ Lord Howarth said he was optimistic that Arts Council England will identify health and wellbeing as a key element of its new 10-year strategy. He spoke about Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s speech to the King’s Fund in November 2018 as a landmark moment. The Secretary of State had said he wants the NHS to move from patient-centred care to person-centred care. He had emphasised the importance of personal creativity and said he saw social prescribing as central to prevention, and prevention as central to the NHS. Lord Howarth said we need to do all we can to ensure this is not a flash in the pan and that social prescribing is firmly established and embedded in the overall culture across government and across health providers. He said it will not be edicts from on high but a change of culture that will make the difference and it will be the health and social care professionals who will ultimately determine whether this opportunity is taken. Alan Howarth also spoke about the need for a Creative Health Centre, led by the sector, to take on responsibility for driving progress. He said “we are at a tipping point for arts, culture and health” and noted a “growing realisation that to pathologise unhappiness doesn’t work”.

Robin Simpson.



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.



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.



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.



Evolve 2015 – the NCVO annual conference by Robin Simpson
June 18, 2015, 1:33 pm
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David Moorcroft speaking at Evolve 2015

David Moorcroft speaking at Evolve 2015

On Monday Kat and I were at The Brewery in London for Evolve 2015 – the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). The conference opened with a session on volunteering in sport. NCVO President, Tanni Grey-Thompson, was joined by David Moorcroft, Director of Sport at Join In (and still the proud holder of the 3000m world record he set in 1982) and Daisy Robinson – a Join In local leader. David Moorcroft said every successful athlete at London 2012 could trace their success back to volunteers. He said volunteering is part of the fabric of this country, but almost always doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Join In has used the latest valuation techniques in the economics of wellbeing to reveal that one volunteer in sport creates wellbeing worth £16,032, for themselves and for those they help play sport, see: https://www.joininuk.org/hidden-diamonds-true-value-of-sport-volunteers/

I then attended three breakout sessions:

  • NCVO analysis of the 2015 election: The implications for your organisation, with Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of Politics, University of Southampton, and Andrew O’Brien, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Charity Finance Group
  • Influencing and Campaigning, Post Election, with Emily Robinson, Deputy Chief Executive, Alcohol Concern, and Jonathan Ellis, Head of Policy, Research and Advocacy, British Red Cross
  • Measuring impact is a waste of time: discuss, with Fazilet Hadi, Group Director Inclusive Society RNIB, Sally Cupitt, Head of NCVO Charities Evaluation Services, and Sarah Mistry, Director of Effectiveness and Learning, Bond.

The conference concluded with an entertaining discussion about the likely political landscape for the next five years, with Andrew Pierce, Consultant Editor of The Daily Mail and Kevin Maguire, Associate Editor of The Daily Mirror, chaired by NCVO Chair, Martyn Lewis.

NCVO CHair, Martyn Lewis, at Evolve 2015

NCVO CHair, Martyn Lewis, at Evolve 2015



Our Cultural Commons roundtable, Cardiff by Robin Simpson
March 6, 2015, 3:34 pm
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On Friday I was at the beautiful setting of the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay for the second of the Our Cultural Commons high-level national policy roundtables. This event was co-hosted for us by Nick Capaldi, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales and included representatives of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Literature Wales, Creu Cymru, Cadw (Welsh Government’s historic environment service), National Theatre Wales, Wrexham Borough Council, Rhondda Cynon Taff Council, Disability Arts Cymru, the Adult Learning and the Culture Sector Consultancy and others.

Nick Capaldi opened the discussion by saying he thought Our Cultural Commons “a very interesting proposition in these very challenging times – what it is to sustain and promote local arts and creativity, continuing to make things happen despite difficult circumstances”. He asked what needs to happen to create the environment for this activity to take place. Nick pointed out that if “our cutural life, first and last, is local” this presents an interesting challenge to the Arts Council of Wales as a national organisation. He said “I can think of no better organisation than Voluntary Arts to be working with on this”.

Voluntary Arts Wales Chair, Hamish Fyfe, outlined the concept of Our Cultural Commons, saying “partnership is necessary for us to carry on doing what we do”.

Lee Corner, Convener of Our Cultural Commons, then chaired the debate. It was a fascinating discussion which looked at community asset transfer, volunteering, partnerships, networking, capacity building, sharing of control and power and much more.

John McGrath from National Theatre Wales spoke about three models – the participatory arts model, the amateur arts model and the voluntary sector training volunteers to fulfil roles. I emphasised the need to develop better connections between these three models – and the difficulty of doing so. I spoke about how Voluntary Arts supports the creative citizens who run voluntary arts groups and the work we are doing (through the Putting Down Roots project funded by the Arts Council of Wales and our Spirit of 2012 project) to connect professionally-led participatory arts initiatives to local amateur arts groups, and our work (also through the Spirit of 2012 project) to connect amateur arts groups to Volunteer Centres.

In summing up the discussion I asked: 1. if everyone agrees that we need the kind of collaborative approach suggested by Our Cultural Commons, why are not doing more of this already?; 2. how do we gather together a broader range of cultural partners, beyond the people we already know?; 3. is the need to sustain and develop the local cultural infrastructure a sufficient incentive to bring people together or do we also need to look at collaborating on cultural activity?

I urged everyone to continue the conversation, by signing up to the Our Cultural Commons newsletter, joining the growing set of partner organisations listed on the Our Cultural Commons website and writing provocations or think-pieces about Our Cultural Commons for the website. Further roundtables are planned in Belfast, Dublin and London over the coming weeks. More details at: http://www.ourculturalcommons.org



Fuel by Robin Simpson
December 5, 2014, 2:26 pm
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On Tuesday afternoon I was at Somerset House in London to meet Louise Blackwell and Bridget Floyer at Fuel. Fuel is a producing arts organisation working in partnership with a range of artists to develop, create and present new work across the UK. I first met Louise, and her Co-Director Kate McGrath, in July 2013 and we have kept in touch since, considering ways in which Fuel and Voluntary Arts might be able to collaborate. Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood research project is exploring ways in which the company can improve the way it tours shows, “building stronger relationships with partners, connecting artists and the communities we visit in inspiring and meaningful ways, and developing audiences”. The project has been working in six areas in England since 2013. Two of these areas are geographically close to some of the locations for our Spirit of 2012 and Culture Guides projects and we discussed the potential for developing connections between these projects.

Robin SImpson.