(Read more on my blog…)
On 6th December, Arts Council England are hosting a conference about quality in arts activity for children and young people. The event is called How do we know it’s any good? and it sets out to encourage quality debate “about the principles of work for, with and by children and young people”.
There’s many things to say in response to the Arts Council’s question, so I’ll try and limit myself to a few points.
The question is deliberately provocative, but in different participatory arts organisations up and down the country, similar questions are already being asked. Here at Helix Arts, we’ve been asking ourselves what quality means in our work for the last couple of years, and organisations like Connected Culture, the network for adult participatory arts in London, is just completing a pilot peer review process, which looks at how participatory arts work can be judged. There’s definitely a timeliness to this.
It’s not just about young people
For us, the question isn’t limited to arts activity for and with children and young people. It’s a question about how participatory arts work with people of all ages can be judged. It feels to me that the reason the Arts Council feels the need to bring organisations together to discuss and debate this issue is because of the participatory element of work with children and young people. We already have prizes for children’s literature, and established mechanisms for critique and review from children and young people of all types of artwork (for example, The Nuffield Theatre’s Young Reviewers programme). The arts sector has pretty much worked out how to review and critique the quality of work for young people.
I would guess that the reason the Arts Council feels the need to bring together debate on this topic is that there isn’t any agreed (or even contested) framework for discussing quality in participatory arts. (If you want to know what I mean by participatory arts, see here).
Why is asking about quality hard?
Why does it seem to be difficult to discuss quality in participatory arts? As a set of practices, its forty years old, at least. People might well ask why this question still needs to be raised.
Firstly, I think there’s been a reluctance in the participatory arts sector (and it’s forerunner, the community arts sector) to discuss the quality of work. It feels like that’s a product of a couple of things: a) the sector has, until recently, often been ignored, and marginalised within the arts world at large. This produced a defensive response from participatory artists and arts organisations. We felt under attack, and the last thing that people who are being attacked do is to engage in serious self-reflection and critique. b) I think there was a feeling amongst some practitioners and organisations that it wasn’t appropriate to critique participatory work because that would involve passing judgement on the work of people who were often marginalised and vulnerable.
The times are changing. It feels like the sector is much more confident of its place in the arts world. And so people are ready to ask critical questions of pieces of practice. And we have a more nuanced understanding of critique – we know that the purpose of asking probing questions about a piece of participatory arts practice is to understand, share and improve the practice of people who do this work.
We now have the theory…
The key to this change is the desire of participatory arts organisations and practitioners to devise a framework for asking critical questions that springs from, and is relevant to, participatory practice. Previously, there was always the feeling that traditional arts critique lacked the philosophical (and often political) approach that could make it relevant to participatory arts. That has changed. From a visual arts background, Grant Kester, Professor of Art History at University of California, has provided an excellent theoretical starting point with his work on dialogical aesthetics and papers have been written from performing arts perspectives too.
Participatory art is process-based work
One key insight that we can take from these works is that participatory arts activity is process-based activity – it takes place in weekly workshops, in drop-in sessions, in visits to art galleries, in conversation between artist and participants. Participatory practice might lead to the production of an exhibition or installation, a book, a film or a performance of some kind. But those ‘products’ are only a part of what that piece of participatory art is and has been. As Kate Sweeney, one of the artists who often works with Helix Arts, put it, those products are “just the trace left by participatory art”. It helps to explain another aspect of why people have felt that it’s difficult to judge quality in participatory arts. How do you judge any practice that is 9/10ths hidden from view?
Theory into action
These theoretical starting points help us to begin to formulate frameworks for talking about quality, and point us in the direction of the questions we can ask one another. At Helix Arts, where we work exclusively with the most disadvantaged and marginalised people, we ask ourselves two types of question:
1) How have we created the best possible context for artists and participants to work together? For example:
• How were participants involved in the design of the programme?
• How were they empowered to make an informed choice about the creative journey they wanted to undertake?
• How were their practical and emotional support needs met?
• How well was the project managed?
• How well were spaces for reflection and learning created?
• How were participants supported to progress onto their own-self-directed creative activity?
2) What was the artist’s practice like in that context?
To understand and critique artists’ practice, it must first be revealed. So we have developed a process of “Critical Conversations” which we have piloted and now seeking to embed in all of our work. This involves creating a small event at the end of each project where the artists involved present their practice on the project to a small group of artists and Helix Arts staff. Each artist is given a brief to speak to – a set of provocation questions about their practice and how they feel about the work. Following their presentation the group discusses whatever issues those presentations have created. All of this is videoed, and will be made available on the web (shortly!)
The crucial aspect of this is that it is a process of exploration. It’s a mechanism to explore the details of participatory practice – what do artists say about how they work when given a safe but challenging reflexive space? By repeating these critical conversations, we’ll be able to understand what are the interesting provocation questions to ask, and what kinds of issues informed people want to discuss when they’ve heard about the work.
A critical mass (Hah!)
If participatory artists and organisations can undertake, record and share this kind of process, if we can build this kind of critical conversation into our everyday practice, we’ll have a critical mass of material to help us understand quality. We’ll have thousands of examples interrogating the detail of practice from hundreds of different contexts. And by analysing this material we can build an understanding of excellence from the bottom up. We’ll know what questions to ask of our own and one another’s work, and the different answers that interest us. And that will be good.