Cultural Playing Field

Culture UK launch by Robin Simpson
April 4, 2017, 2:39 pm
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , , , ,

On Tuesday Damien and I were in the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House in London for the launch of Culture UK – a new partnership between the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland.


BBC Director-General, Tony Hall, said the aim of Culture UK is “to excite the nation about the arts, opening up funding to a range of arts organisations to make content which can be shown on the BBC, developing UK-wide cultural festivals that can reach new audiences, creating opportunities to showcase emerging and diverse talent, and making the most of technology to inspire new experiences in the arts.”

Tony Hall said “culture makes us believe in the future”. He spoke about the importance of inspiring people about the arts, saying “there are communities we simply don’t engage with: that has to change”. Culture UK will have a development team from across the UK (modelled on that created for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) which will work towards three big landmark moments a year. Culture UK was launched with the announcement of 26 new commissions. See:
Robin Simpson.


2016 Epic Awards Ceremony by Robin Simpson
April 8, 2016, 9:55 am
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , ,

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.


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:


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:

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”.


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.

Welsh Language Commissioner/WCVA Parliamentary Reception by Robin Simpson
January 22, 2016, 10:46 am
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , ,
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
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , ,

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:

Robin Simpson.

Our Cultural Commons roundtable, Cardiff by Robin Simpson
March 6, 2015, 3:34 pm
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , , ,

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:

Cultural Campaigning Network meeting by Robin Simpson
February 26, 2015, 9:06 pm
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , ,

On Monday afternoon I was in London to take part in a meeting of the Cultural Campaigning Network. This regular gathering of national organisations engaged in campaigning in relation to culture is always a fascinating and incredibly useful forum. On Monday we talked about the BBC Get Creative campaign, the Government’s consultation on lotteries, the Warwick Commission report, the UK general election, the 2016 elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and much more.

Robin Simpson.

Meeting the Shadow Culture Minister, Chris Bryant by Robin Simpson
February 20, 2015, 2:06 pm
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , ,

On Monday afternoon I was at Portcullis House in Westminster to meet the Labour Shadow Culture Minister, Chris Bryant MP. In a wide-ranging conversation we talked about Our Cultural Commons, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, the BBC Get Creative campaign, the Arts Council England Creative People and Places scheme, the final GPS Culture report ‘A New Destination for the Arts’ and the DCMS Select Committee report on the work of Arts Council England. We discussed the policies of Arts Council England and the Arts Council of Wales in relation to participation and the voluntary arts. We also talked about the speech given by the Welsh Deputy Minister for Culture and Sport, Ken Skates AM, to the Arts Council of Wales conference last week. Chris spoke about the development of the Labour Party’s election manifesto and speeches on the arts to be given next week by Ed Miliband (on Monday 23rd February in London) and Chris himself (on Wednesday 25th February in Birmingham). Chris is also going to be addressing the All Party Parliamentary Group on crafts in the next few weeks. It was an interesting first meeting with the new Shadow Culture Minister. He understands the importance of the voluntary arts sector – and spoke about several examples of voluntary arts groups in his own constituency – but his focus is, naturally, on the forthcoming general election.

Robin Simpson.

What Next? Cardiff by Robin Simpson
October 31, 2014, 2:01 pm
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , ,

I was in Cardiff on Wednesday morning to address the What Next? Cardiff meeting. The weekly meeting of the Cardiff chapter of What Next?, chaired by our old friend Laura Drane, brings together representatives of a range of arts and cultural organisations to find new ways of engaging with “the ever-expanding millions who value and take part in the cultural work that happens day-in, day-out”, across Wales. I gave a general introduction to Voluntary Arts and the voluntary arts sector and stressed the importance of understanding and articulating the interconnectedness of the whole cultural ecology. I also spoke about Epic Awards and Our Cultural Commons and encouraged everyone to join in the conversation about innovative local collaborative practice to sustain and develop local cultural infrastructure at

Robin Simpson.

Arts Development UK annual conference, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff by Robin Simpson
October 17, 2014, 10:50 am
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Peter Stark giving the keynote speech at the Arts Development UK Conference in Cardiff

Peter Stark giving the keynote speech at the Arts Development UK Conference in Cardiff

On Thursday I was at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff to attend the Arts Development UK annual conference where Voluntary Arts Chair, Peter Stark, gave the opening keynote speech. Peter spoke about his formative cultural experiences with the People’s Theatre youth theatre in Newcastle, saying that the work of Arts Development UK and Voluntary Arts is in his ‘structural DNA’. The fact that other people did not have the advantages he had has been his driving force. He described his career in the UK and his work in South Africa. On returning to England in 2012, he felt the country and the arts sector had changed in some fundamental way. Referring to the recent reports he has published with Christopher Gordon and David Powell (GPS Culture), Peter said:

“I realised that we had become, in a way that was far more true than I had ever experienced before, not one nation but two, geographically and by wealth and by class and by investment. So I had a set of numbers on the one hand, and a growing sense of disjunction with the structure that was dealing with culture and the arts on the other. That’s why we started doing our work. We started doing it out of a feeling that things were wrong.”

Peter emphasised the importance of valuing the creation of artistic value as much as we value the creation of instrumental effects. And he said that the key to wellbeing in the arts is participation.

Looking at the current challenges facing local cultural infrastructure, Peter said “I don’t see any way other than to start again from the bottom”. He quoted Jack Dixon saying “Noah was an amateur. The Titanic was built by professionals.”

He said the heart of how local government works is changing and “if ever there was a challenge to national bodies in our country, it is to ensure culture becomes a competence of combined authorities.”

Peter quoted Sue Isherwood’s first piece of research for the Our Cultural Commons initiative in which she says: “I have read the words and listened to the voices of committed, passionate and thoughtful people, none of whom are nationally known names; all of whom deserve to be heard in the courts of the cultural elite.”

Peter finished by launching Our Cultural Commons – a joint initiative of Voluntary Arts and Arts Development UK which will:
– collect evidence of existing innovative local collaborative practice to sustain and develop local cultural infrastructure and then promote best practice
– provide a space for discussion of potential solutions to the problems facing local cultural infrastructure and organisation and the debate on the nature of the cultural commons that we aspire to in the future
– empower and support the voice of those ‘local’ ambitions in debates on future national cultural policies, structures and funding.

You can read the full description of Our Cultural Commons and join the debate at:

Arts Development UK Professional Development Working Party meeting by Robin Simpson
September 5, 2014, 4:17 pm
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

On Friday I was in Birmingham for a meeting of the Arts Development UK (ADUK) Professional Development Working Party. We were joined by Jessica Harris from NCVO to discuss the Cultural Commissioning Programme (CCP) and the potential for links between the CCP learning programme and the ADUK professional fellowship programme. We also considered the possibility of further ADUK national events to share learning and research from the CCP, following the success of the initial national seminars on cultural commissioning in June 2014. We then discussed the ADUK Conference which will take place at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 16/17 October, where the keynote speaker will be the Chair of Voluntary Arts, Peter Stark. You can book your conference place at: We were delighted to learn that the 2016 ADUK Conference will be hosted by Hull, UK City of Culture 2016. We also looked at the programme for the next ADUK national seminar which will focus on Arts & Health and will take place at the Catrin Finch Centre at Wrexham University in February or March 2015. The ADUK Professional Development Working Party then discussed ‘Our Cultural Commons’ – which is a partnership between Voluntary Arts and ADUK. We looked in particular at the scoping research currently being undertaken by the C3 Consultancy, led by Sue Isherwood, and talked about how best to publicise Sue’s call for existing examples of innovative, collaborative approaches to local cultural infrastructure. We also considered how the proposed Our Cultural Commons national event in June or July 2015 would fit into ADUK’s wider events programme. Finally we reviewed the ADUK Professional Fellowship Programme, which has now been running for three years, and discussed how to encourage more ADUK members to take part and the potential for further progression beyond the level of Senior Fellow. The fellowship programme is a really interesting way of encouraging and enabling continuing professional development for people working in local arts development and it is good to see how well the scheme has been taken up so far.

Robin Simpson.