Kathryn Welch: You too can be epic or get creative through the efforts of the voluntary arts sector

Young people from Reach For Change autism project at the Epic Awards Shortlist Celebration. Photo credit Derek Anderson
Young people from Reach For Change autism project at the Epic Awards Shortlist Celebration. Photo credit Derek Anderson
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One of the hardest jobs the Voluntary Arts Scotland team has to do each year is pick the winner and runner-up for our annual Epic Awards. Of course, it’s also one of the most joyful.

Each year, we receive nominations from groups and projects across Scotland, who bring creativity to their local communities in a wide variety of ways. This year was no different – except we received even more nominations than usual, and the standard was higher than ever. Like I said, it’s a hard job – but somebody has to do it, and I’m glad it’s us.

Kathryn Welch, director, Voluntary Arts Scotland

Kathryn Welch, director, Voluntary Arts Scotland

If the voluntary sector is the unsung hero of society, then the voluntary arts sector is even less recognised for the contribution it makes. This year’s Epic Awards shortlist is comprised of 32 groups doing amazing things across the UK, ten of which are based in Scotland. From a fiddle group offering free instruments and lessons to children in the Borders, to a group of young people in Greenock who produced a drama about life on the autistic spectrum, the impact these groups have on local lives cannot be underestimated.

We brought the ten Scottish groups together recently, for a celebration event at the beautiful Botanic Cottage at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. Not only to say ‘well done’ for making it on to the shortlist in a very competitive year, but because it’s important that these groups know they are appreciated. The volunteer effort that goes into running a music or book festival, holding free sewing classes for refugees, building a creative hub for disadvantaged young people, assembling a 70-strong orchestra or holding a Christmas event for isolated people (all of which are on this year’s shortlist) is huge.

Similarly, putting together the Epic Awards is a true community effort. We are indebted to Keegan and Pennykid Insurance – great advocates of the third sector – who sponsored our Botanic Garden event, covering the costs of bringing the groups together in one place. As June Pennykid said in her opening address: “It is wonderful to be able to publically celebrate the diverse work of these creative groups and to recognise the wide-reaching impact they have on our communities.”

Once together, the volunteers made good use of the space and time – learning from each other, swapping contact details and sowing the seeds for future conversations and collaborations. It was inspiring to watch. We are told time and again that opportunities to network with other groups are invaluable in the voluntary sector – yet that too takes time, money and organisation, something the groups themselves have precious little of.

Each of the projects on this year’s shortlist is unique, but one thing they all have in common is the passion, drive and countless hours invested by the volunteers who run them – and the joy, purpose, skills and friendship they bring to the people taking part in their endeavours.

Voluntary Arts Scotland’s commitment to these groups, and others like them, is manifold. We provide a myriad of resources and training to ensure best practice across the voluntary arts sector. We speak on behalf of this incredible group of people to policy makers, to ensure their voice doesn’t go unheard. And we promote creativity in all its glorious forms, to ensure everyone knows what a dynamic vehicle for mental and physical well-being the arts can be.

At a time when the role of ‘umbrella organisations’, as we’re often called, has been questioned, we’re proud to represent and champion a sector which receives very little public funding in return for its enormous and important contribution to everyday lives.

The groups have done their bit – now it’s your turn. Voting is open until 11 April, so cast your eye over the shortlist at www.epicawards.co.uk then vote for your favourite to win the People’s Choice Award. Our judging panel will select a winner and runner-up from the Scotland shortlist, and they’ll all head to Dublin in May for the Winners’ Reception – an event that groups talk about for years afterwards, citing it as a huge morale boost for the volunteers and much-needed recognition that what they do is important.

Before then, the Get Creative Festival (newly formed out of the former Voluntary Arts Festival and Get Creative Weekend) will take place across the UK. Run by Voluntary Arts, in conjunction with other partners including the BBC, Get Creative encourages groups who already enjoy the benefits of taking part in creative activity to share that passion with others, by opening their doors sometime between 17 – 25 March. From taster sessions to workshops, it’s a chance for people to try something new or re-visit an activity they once loved but lost sight of.

Like the Epic Awards, Get Creative puts the voluntary arts sector on the map and in the spotlight – just where it belongs.

Kathryn Welch, director, Voluntary Arts Scotland