ARTICLES Civil society for fun

Civil society for fun

A Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in Huddersfield was created in 2012 by a team of dedicated ukulele-playing music enthusiasts who volunteered their time because they wanted to produce “a festival that is truly like no other”.

Government research tells us that A Grand Northern Ukulele Festival is one of 49,140 voluntary and amateur arts groups in England, regularly involving 9.4 million people (‘Our Creative Talent’, DCMS/Arts Council England, 2008). There are thousands of choirs, amateur theatre groups, brass bands, morris dance troupes, quilters, lace-makers, painters, handbell ringers, ukulele festivals and much more. This vast sector forms a significant proportion of England’s civil society but tends to be somewhat overlooked in discussions about the future of civil society.

A Grand Northern Ukulele Festival 2018 in Huddersfield. Photo: James Millar

Maybe this is because, unlike many other civil society organisations, voluntary arts groups are not usually created in order to alleviate a particular social problem, to regenerate an area or to campaign for policy change. Voluntary arts groups are typically formed by people who want an opportunity to take part in a creative activity because they enjoy it and want to share it with others. On the face of it this may appear less worthy than more traditional charitable aims.

But the activities of these tens of thousands of voluntary arts groups have been shown to: enhance health and wellbeing; increase self esteem and self confidence; improve communication and social skills; develop leadership skills; create a sense of identity and belonging; improve social cohesion; increase intergenerational contact; increase desirability of an area; increase literacy, verbal and communication skills; and generate a considerable amount of economic activity and value (‘The role of grassroots arts activities in communities: a scoping study’, Third Sector Research Centre, 2011).

A Grand Northern Ukulele Festival has worked with well known performer Tricity Vogue to better engage with those who identify as LGBTQ+. The festival has been welcoming of performers young and old and also involved local students in placements with the stage crew.

A Grand Northern Ukulele Festival team with Rosalind Lowry (Mid & East Antrim Borough Council) and Dr. Tara Byrne (Bealtaine Festival) at the Epic Awards 2018 in Dublin.

GNUF has mentored the organisers of festivals in Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria and The Wirral and has been awarded The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. In 2018 they were the England winners at the Voluntary Arts Epic Awards, which highlight excellence and innovation in the voluntary arts.

The fact that so many millions of people are attracted to take part in voluntary arts groups suggests that the motivation of doing something you enjoy is a good way to generate a wide range of benefits for participants and communities. The voluntary arts attracts huge numbers of people who would not otherwise play an active role in their communities. Voluntary arts activity is often cross-generational and brings people together who would otherwise have little contact with each other.

It is important that we manage to retain the balance between civil society in response to need, and civil society for fun: civil society is not only good for society, but also good for the people who take part.