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.


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.


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:


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: 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.


‘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:

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.

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event at Toynbee Hall by Robin Simpson
January 29, 2015, 12:26 pm
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#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

On Tuesday evening Daniel, Cassandra and I were at Toynbee Hall in London for the #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event. This project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme, set out to show how craft activities can help improve wellbeing by involving participants in the fun, connected, sensory and mindful process of making things. People across the UK were invited to join in and hand-embroider, knit or crochet a flower for the #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden, while reflecting on the importance of wellbeing and what we need in order to flourish as individuals and as a society. The #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden UK project is a partnership between the Craftivist Collective, Falmouth University, Voluntary Arts and Arts for Health Cornwall & Isles of Scilly. See:

Fiona Hackney from Falmouth University said that 750 flowers had been made as part of the project and the activity seemed to have proved very meaningful for people from all parts of the UK. 40 volunteer facilitators had run #wellMAKING groups to “craft, connect, reflect, challenge and grow”, realising the value of making together. The project had encouraged “quiet activism”. Daniel described how our Hand on Crafts project had demonstrated profound wellbeing benefits for those taking part and encouraged everyone to get involved in Craftbomb and Woollen Woods as part of Voluntary Arts Week 2015 (see:

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

Jayne Howard, Director of Arts for Health Cornwall & Isles of Scilly said something different happens when people engage in crafts. This is an under-researched area. She spoke about a programme of work with GP surgeries which had showed that crafts practice seemed to help participants bond more quickly. It generated talk, the pace was quite gentle, there were periods of silence but they never felt uncomfortable. The activity provided an opportunity to demonstrate achievement and produced something tangible to take home or give as a gift. Sarah Desmarais, AHRC Research Fellow at Falmouth University, had acted as a participant observer in two groups. She reported that the activities had allowed participants to safely access social companionship. She spoke abut the power of playfulness to give a creative state of mind. Playfulness can be relearned and craft can be very useful in this. Participants become progressively more confident.

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective, spoke about “activism through needlework”, challenging and trying to change social structures that are preventing people achieving their potential. The World Health Organisation defines wellbeing as:
* Realising our potential
* Coping with daily stress
* Contributing productively to society

Sarah said crafting helps with all three aspects of wellbeing. She said “craft slows me down and makes me think”.

The #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden was a fascinating event. It was wonderful to hear about the experiences of participants, brilliant to see the flowers displayed and lovely to be at an event at which many of the audience were actually stitching and knitting throughout the speeches.

Robin Simpson.

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

#wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event, Toynbee Hall, London

Culture and Wellbeing by Robin Simpson
December 13, 2013, 4:13 pm
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On Wednesday evening I was at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster to attend a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics. This session focussed on Culture and Wellbeing with guest speakers from the museums and theatre sectors, the London School of Economics, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England. Alan Davey, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, described the work ACE is doing to develop a holistic case for investment in culture. He said they are looking at the immediate effects of cultural activity on individual citizens, the economic effects and the social effects, including wellbeing. Alan said he thought culture does have a part to play in wellbeing and this could lever in funding from other sources but he was less convinced about using wellbeing measures to help to decide the destination of cultural funding which he stressed was a complex process.

The final speaker was Dr David O’Brien from City University London (who sits on the AHRC Cultural Value Project Steering Group with me). He noted the wide range of uses of the term ‘wellbeing’ by the previous speakers. He suggested that wellbeing has an ‘apple pie quality’ – no-one wants to decrease it. We need to be careful about the definition of wellbeing. David suggested that being healthy and being employed are the key drivers of wellbeing and everything else is peripheral. He wondered whether having wellbeing as a policy agenda would merely result in the improved wellbeing of people who already have high wellbeing.

The Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics, former Arts Minister David Lammy, then invited the Shadow Culture Minister, Helen Goodman, and another former Arts Minister, Lord Howarth, to comment on the speakers. Helen Goodman said she understood that health and employment are the really big factors, but those things are intractable and difficult so she asked whether there are any quick wins from culture on wellbeing. Alan Howarth said he was hugely enthusiastic about the elevation of the concept of national wellbeing as a policy goal. He thought it was a statement of resounding banality that the arts promote well-being – of course they do – but it is hard to ascribe monetary values to emotional states. Lord Howarth thought the new Health and Wellbeing Boards ought to present an opportunity for the cultural sector as they would have significant funding.

Robin Simpson.

National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing meeting by Robin Simpson
December 13, 2013, 4:12 pm
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On Wednesday I was at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London for a meeting organised by the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing. The Alliance is made up of 9 regional arts and health associations across England, including the London Arts and Health Forum which provides the secretariat. The main focus of the Alliance is advocacy, influencing policy makers in relation to arts, health and wellbeing. The Alliance was established to be: an observatory for the sector; a research hub; a coherent voice for the sector; and to raise standards in arts, health and wellbeing practice. Wednesday’s meeting was a small gathering of national organisations involved, in various ways, with arts, health and wellbeing. Because of the regional structure of the Alliance it has not always been easy for organisations working nationally to engage with it. We agreed to try to establish a regular, informal forum for national organisations to feed into the strategic development of the Alliance. The Alliance has been developing an All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing which will hold its first meeting in January 2014. The Alliance is also developing a relationship with the UK Arts and Health Research Network, funded by AHRC, which comprises about 35 researchers. The London Arts and Health Forum runs Creativity and Wellbeing Week in June each year: from June 2014 there will also be events in other parts of the country. The 2014 Creativity and Wellbeing Week is from 4-11 June.

Robin Simpson.