Supporting individual and community art activities, Voluntary Arts is a national organisation funded on a devolved basis: it is part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio, and has regular funding in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Turnover fluctuates depending on project activities between £700,000-£1m. It generally has between 18 and 20 staff, led since 2005 by chief executive Robin Simpson.
Mission: to promote participation in creative cultural activity
Outside of work hours, Robin Simpson plays French horn in an amateur orchestra: his belief in the benefits of “participation in creative cultural activity” is personal as well as professional. When he joined Voluntary Arts in 2005, it had been in existence for 14 years, with a mission to be “the national voice of the amateur arts. We think – though no one is entirely sure – that there are about 63,000 local voluntary or amateur arts groups across the UK and Ireland, involving about 10,000,000 people regularly taking part, mostly on a weekly basis. But it’s not a sector that thinks of itself as a sector: if you sing in a choir you think of yourself as a singer, not part of the voluntary arts sector.” Voluntary Arts set out to “catalyse a network, so a lot work that we do is partnerships, and bringing together existing organisations and agencies who don’t necessarily talk to each other”.
During his tenure, Voluntary Arts has changed how it thinks about promoting participation, moving from “a very traditional deficit model that says there are people who do this and people that don’t do this, and we’ve got to get the people who don’t do it and make them do it, to more of a realisation that actually everybody is quite creative in a variety of ways, but might not call it art or culture – it might be cookery, or gardening or DIY. Our model now is much more about taking what you already know and already do and building on that, rather than telling you that you’re not creative and you need to be.”
Simpson splits Voluntary Arts’ work into three parts:
1: Lobbying and advocacy
This role functions on multiple levels: Voluntary Arts is the voice of several thousand local groups; nationally promotes the importance of everyday creativity, for instance by helping to run the Get Creative campaign with the BBC; and lobbies civil servants and politicians about regulation and compliance – including licensing, health and safety and copyright laws – to ensure “the development or implementation of new regulation is as relevant and applicable to local volunteer-led groups as possible”.
2: Information and advice
That work related to regulation is expanded by a team and officer within each UK nation that is dedicated to producing information leaflets, and also “sharing best practice: many people have been running local amateur groups for years and we take the best of that and share it so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel”. Voluntary Arts also offers training to groups on marketing their activities and making them accessible.
Simpson describes this as the “more public-facing role, where we put into practice our theories about how you get more people participating and how you support this sector”. Working on a project basis, and in partnership with local organisations, for instance BBC local radio stations, Voluntary Arts will “set up taster events, demonstration activities in shopping centres, in railway stations, in public places, to encourage more people to come and have a go – the USP being that the people doing the activity in these events are local volunteers and amateurs from that community, so they’re attainable role models, people like you from down your street showing you that you can try these things too”. This happens on a project basis because “we genuinely don’t have an ambition to have a member of staff in every local authority area. We’re always intending to appear in an area for a few years, try and build up networks and contacts, and hope that it could sustain itself without our direct involvement thereafter.”
Diversity and inclusion
During the past two years, Voluntary Arts has also done some targeted work on how to “connect better to creative activity in BAME communities”. This has involved “a 12-month process of establishing a BAME advisory panel, experts in cultural activity in different BAME communities, almost all of whom have now become trustees on the main board”. Voluntary Arts staff also interviewed “about 40 groups in different BAME communities to begin to understand how some of their activity is organised. The trick was to realise that those groups are just a sample: BAME communities are enormous and varied and there isn’t one answer to the BAME question. We asked them what they did and had a very open conversation and what people said to us was, this is refreshing because you’ve come and taken a genuine interest in us, and value what we do.”
That lesson, Simpson feels, can now be applied to different diversity questions. He points to “the sense that a lot of the communities that voted leave in the EU referendum were poorer communities which come up low on the arts engagement indicators”. Rather than sending artists to those communities “to help those people to understand they voted the wrong way”, Voluntary Arts aims to visit them
“to talk to people who do creative activities, and recognise the value of the creative activity that they do there. I think that more open, inquisitive conversation and valuing of that everyday creativity is a more useful starting point to build and create a more cultural sector across the country.”
Simpson admits that Voluntary Arts can feel caught between two camps: “I always say we spend half of our time arguing about the importance of the voluntary and amateur within the arts sector and the other half arguing about the importance of the arts within the voluntary sector.” He feels there is a need to change “attitudes, perceptions and understanding of this huge and varied sector”, raising awareness of the ways in which participating in community arts can “provide a very social capital bonding role, creating an identity for a community and a sense of belonging which you don’t always get through other charity or volunteering work”.
He particularly wants voluntary arts brought into the conversation about social change: “Every time we talk about any community issue, it’s about how arts organisations can help in schools or help in prisons or the role of arts organisations in relations to care homes. Well there are 30,000 care homes in England, and only 700 NPOs – but there might be 50,000 voluntary arts organisations. Those amateur groups have a much more interesting potential role to play there, but tend to get forgotten unless we’re there shouting about it.” He finds it frustrating that, in these conversations, the quality of amateur arts is assumed to be lacking: “Firstly a lot of voluntary arts activity is very high quality – while not all funded and professional arts activity is of the highest quality. But also, we’ve never really answered those questions about what do we mean by quality: when you’re working with people with dementia in a care home or working in a school, it’s less about pure artistic quality and more about the quality of the facilitation.”
Looking to the future, Simpson hopes to build on this argument, challenging the “isolation” of voluntary arts groups: “If you join a poetry group, you might have good connections with other poetry groups, but you probably haven’t much connection to groups doing different things in your community. So we’re trying to get groups to work more coherently within their place, to work alongside health organisations, learning organisations, because we’ve got more to gain by banding together and being part of the local council for voluntary service. If we could get this huge sector that doesn’t think of itself as a sector to play a more active role within the local cultural community, across these different policy agenda areas, there’s potential for them to play a much more interesting civic role and to build on the scale that the art sector provides and that sense of identity and belonging that they bring to a community”
This aligns with an ongoing campaign Voluntary Arts has been running with Arts Development UK, called Our Cultural Commons, which proposes that the solution to austerity cuts and shrinking access to public space might be asset-sharing. “It’s very much about that broader, collective, collaborative approach to the local cultural infrastructure: couldn’t we make better use of existing assets within the community by thinking of them more collectively. So there may no longer be a theatre because it’s just closed, but there’s an adult education college, there’s a care home with a function room, there are places we don’t necessarily think of as arts venues but they’re culturally part of the same community.” It’s another expression of Voluntary Arts’ approach to participation and diversity: keeping the focus on the “more we could do with what we’ve already got”.