Participatory arts: How do we know it’s any good? – by Toby Lowe, Helix Arts

(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.

It’s timely
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.

Toby Lowe
Helix Arts

Agree? Disagree? Different take? Posting a comment only takes a minute – let us know what you think.

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5 Responses to Participatory arts: How do we know it’s any good? – by Toby Lowe, Helix Arts

  1. I agree with Toby that the discussions about quality in participatory arts shouldn’t be confined to work with children and young people, it’s a discussion that needs to be had across the board and that should impact on all artists and organisations delivering participatory/outreach/education programmes.

    And I agree that the discussion is very timely – it’s high time we were honest about what good participatory work looks like and what shoddy participatory work looks like. That’s not to say that we should be aiming to create a one-size-fits-all model for participation – any discussion of quality must recognise that the very essense of this work is creative, flexible, responsive and ever-changing. But I do think we can identify the core values, the ethics, the principles that underpin high quality participatory arts work.

    I think peer reviewing is a good idea – if ACE can send out people to assess the quality of our products, why not to look at our processes. But I think the assessors would need to be very expert in our field, and would need to be trusted and respected by those they were assessing. And of course the conditions would need to be very carefully and sensitively managed – going into observe a workshop, perhaps with a very vulnerable group of participants, is far from going to watch a show, for instance.

    But before we get as far as peer reviewing we need more honest conversations within our own organisations and within the sector. Until a couple of years ago I assumed everyone knew what I meant when I said ‘high quality participation’, eventually it was pointed out to me that it probably meant different things to different people so I drew up ‘Quality Indicators’ for use within Collective Encounters. These are:

    Inclusive: participants are treated equally and fairly; their contributions are valued and their differences are respected; the environment is safe.
    Creative: the process involves artistic and creative development for all involved; it is exciting, fun and enriching; it increases understanding and appreciation of theatre and the arts.
    Challenging: participants are encouraged to ask questions and explore ideas that they might not otherwise have done; and to try out new ways of tackling old situations.
    Empowering: participants are supported to make sense of their place in the world, to think in different ways, to break down barriers and challenge received wisdom.
    Responsive: to the needs of individuals and the group; as far possible, the process and subject matter are guided by participants; and there is a strong sense of ownership.
    Developmental: the process offers opportunities for progression, the chance to develop new skills and affects or changes participants in a way that they deem positive.

    They’re pretty simple and nothing ground breaking, but having them means that the artists who work with us know what we expect from their process; they inform our evaluation policy, so we have something to measure the process’ success against; and they make the values stated in our Manifesto ( practical and realisable. At the same time we created indicators for high quality theatre performance (which work equally well for both our professional and participatory performances) and for management process ( I’m not saying this is the way for all organisations to go, but it has certainly given us an internal clarity.

    In terms of moving forward across the sector, I think networks like CPAL and EMPAF are invaluable, and the Core Competencies Framework launched last week by CPAL (, following two years of careful, collaborative development, is a real step forward. There’s a lot of discussion and publication happening across the sector – it would be great if this could be pulled together. And thanks to Toby for starting this blog – it’s a really good opportunity to have a national discussion about something that most of us feel very passionately about!

    • Thanks for leaving your quality indicators on this post, I think these are hugely relevant and appropriate and I agree that people’s perception of quality in this context can vary greatly. I think it is important to look at quality in a sort of onion approach. Using your indicators: Inclusive, Creative, Challenging, Empowering, Responsive, Developmental; which can inform quality across a range of onion layers which includes the structure and partnerships which manage the programme as a whole, the recruitment and selection and contractual arrangement of the artists, the artistic process, the capturing of the process/evaluation, the output, the presentation of the output and the audience engagement and dissemination of practice and learning. Without applying this value system across all these areas, the risk is compromise on quality.

      • I totally agree Kevin, quality has to run across the board. In our case the quality indicators I listed here are for the creative process specifically, but we do also have similar indicators for theatre product and for management process But I’m sure that as you suggest they could be designed to be equally relevant across the areas. Also, the Core Competencies Framework I mentioned above tries to do just that.

  2. lazlomarx says:

    It all depends on what you think you are trying to achieve. For me, it’s all about the art – and whether art is ‘quality’ is entirely subjective. Peer reviews, ‘measurables’, endless discussion just end up creating a framework which the best work is likely to sit outside anyway. The best art is not the art that is considered best by the establishment, the best art always lives in the fringes, takes risks and approaches that aren’t easily defined or measured. With the good stuff, you just feel it’s good – or are we more concerned with ‘the width’ than the quality? I don’t feel the need to justify what I do, using art to explore, connect, make sense of things, just ‘cos I happen to choose to do that using a participatory approach. The effects of the work are gravy, the art is the driver, the art is the raison d’etre and any outcomes are a by-product, not a function and should not be the focus. Otherwise, maybe you’re just a social worker who happens to use creative techniques (in answer to that old saw)? If I say I am an artist, then that is what I should be doing, making art, or I’m, I don’t know, a participation worker or something.
    We all have our ways of making decisions about a project or artwork, I can tell a shit one from a mile off, and you probably can, too, but I think it’s dangerous to create some kind of ‘objective’ measure to it, what next – ‘league tables’? At least just having an opinion is honest, and can’t be said to be definitive. The ‘quality indicators’ mentioned above are based on the subjective views of the assessor, so are inherently unfair – and one assessment may differ from another depending on the viewpoint of the assessor, whether they got laid the night before, etc.(that’s why good funding apps get rejected, frustrated assessors, I’m convinced). These only have a value as self-assessment or evaluation tools and should not be used as some kind of ringfence around the participatory arts.
    What we do is to make judgements on our own work, continually try to improve, then if you are making quality work, stakeholders will know and not put resources into crap work. It’s worked for us for 20 years and we don’t see a need to change it.
    So, let’s stop wasting time on ultimately pointless, heirarchical attempts to measure quality, and spend our energy making the best work we can. So, how can you tell a good piece of participatory art from a bad one? You just can.

  3. I think this is a lazy argument that misses the point entirely. We’re not talking about measuring art, that’s a whole other discussion. And we’re not talking about ‘outcomes’ or taking an instrumental approach to art. We’re talking here about having a language to discuss the quality of a process that an artist enters into with a group of other people.

    Yes, I agree that a good practitioner can ‘feel its good’ and can instinctively tell a good project from a bad one but to say that this is indefinable and can’t be explained to some objective degree is just lazy. And worse than that, it perpetuates a system where participatory projects are too often funded on a random basis with funders having no objective criteria to inform their decisions – so when public money is so limited how are decisions to be made? Should the funder just ‘feel’ that the process they’re funding is likely to offer a quality experience to participants, or should we just not care about the experience the participants have? Or, the only criteria they can apply is a number crunch – how many people through the door, regardless of quality of experience. Yes, locally, some good organisations get funding because they have a strong and well earned reputation, but in a national picture that’s not enough.

    As well as being lazy and leading to bad funding decisions, I think this argument also serves to bolster the mystique of the creative process, which good artists working in community contexts have been trying to de-mystify for the past 40 years. How dis-empowering is it if a group is not able to discuss the quality and experience of a process they’re engaged in, because the lead artist thinks they can just feel that its been good?

    Finally, I think it’s arrogant. If you’re an individual artist making art on your own or with a collective of other similar artists then of course, your process is entirely your business. But if you’re choosing to work in a participatory setting with a group of other, potentially vulnerable, people; and you are leading that creative process then you have certain responsibilities and there are ethical implications to your work and your choices. If you choose to make art in a way that engages other people, and there is a power relationship at play (i.e. you are leading the process, as an artist) then it’s not just about the art, it has to be about the process too. Otherwise the participants are essentially your pawns. And however hard we strive to be inclusive, to be participant-led etc. there will always be a power relationship if there is a ‘lead artist’.

    The notion that saying as a sector ‘these are the key elements that inform a quality participatory creative process’, equates to moving towards ‘league tables’ or frameworks that would ‘ring fence’ practice is reactionary. In no conversations I’ve had with practitioners keen to ensure the professionalism of the sector and the quality of participant experience has anyone suggested a one-size-fits-all approach. Of course that would be nonsense. And to suggest that the desire to move towards a better quality of experience across the board makes someone a lesser artist, or turns them into a social worker or ‘participation worker’ is pejorative.

    And to say that because you’ve been doing something for 20 years you should never change or be open to new ways of thinking or working is entrenched. Surely art is about change as is the creative process. And surely all good artists are constantly striving to improve their own practice and their own art?

    Artists who choose to work in community contexts because they believe that all people should have the opportunity to engage with quality art processes and produce their own art; who value the stories participants share with them and the time they give up to engage in a process; who respect the trust that participants place in them, and the faith and courage participants show in embarking on, what is often a completely new and uncertain journey; should differentiate themselves from artists who choose egotistically to use participants to bolster their own art, or who engage in community based work simply to pay the bills or tick a box. The way of differentiating between these practices is to agree as a sector what we understand good practice to look like. Loosely, ethically, in a way that talks about principles and values not tick boxes and prescriptive measures. Sharing our own practices and values, not trying to impose them on everyone, but moving towards a place of general agreement. In this way funders will grow more able to identify which arts organisations are going to work in a community setting because they want to lever in more funding, but don’t really know what they’re doing; and which are going in because they believe in the work and will ensure a good quality of experience for all involved.

    I think this is a time of opportunity and anxiety. With ACE’s agenda for great art for everyone, all arts organisations feel compelled to deliver participatory arts work – and lets be honest they don’t all know how, or really want to do it. ACE need to be clear about what they think makes a quality process, what will a ‘great art process’ be like? Any old arts process is clearly, just not good enough. If we don’t stand up as a sector and say ‘this is what good looks like’ people outside our sector will. And if it comes to councillors in local authorities or PCT stakeholders or others who provide substantial arts funding setting the agenda I doubt very much that we’ll like what they’ll say. The signs are there and as public funding shrinks it comes ever closer. Stakeholders seek ever more instrumental, ‘best value’ approaches, using art as a constant sticking plaster and looking to high number-low impact solutions. If we leave it to others there is a real risk of ending up with inflexible measures. If we can galvanise as a sector to agree some basic principles; and get the Arts Council on board to support, promote and share these values, to lobby other funders and stakeholders, then we’ve some hope of setting the agenda.

    And apart from the money and informing funding decisions, it’s just time to move this argument forward anyway. I’ve been at this for 20 years too and I’m sick to the back teeth of watching poor creative processes, unethical practice and disempowering short-termism just because people are too afraid to grapple with the thorny and challenging question of quality.

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