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So here we go again, the old quality debate! How do we know its good and therefore by inference, what is bad? It’s a debate that’s been raging for at least the 17 years I’ve been working in the sector, and probably well before that. Which makes me think perhaps it’s a debate that may never be satisfactorily concluded!
We need to move on, to decide how we create the best conditions with which to make art for, by and with children and young people? The question ‘How do we know its any good?’ is therefore the wrong one, although I applaud the sentiments behind it. What we need to do is to have a debate about what are the conditions that enable us to make the best work possible for young audiences; work together to develops the best possible tools for advocating the impact of our work; enabling us to secure the resources needed to make great art for every child and young person.
Over the last four years I’ve been fortunate to visit other European countries and observe the processes and outcomes of their art for young audiences. I’ve seen some brilliant work for young audiences in Holland and Belgium. I may not always like it but there is no doubting the quality of this work, the quality of the ideas, the artistry and skill behind that work. It’s been made under the most rigorous of conditions; a realistic amount of time and investment is made in research and development; rehearsal processes are lengthy and allow for a real engagement with its target audience – and innovation is not just encouraged but insisted upon.
Even closer to home I have observed the Scottish theatre scene for young audiences. Before the days of Creative Scotland, Scottish Arts Council’s Drama Department agreed on a principle that 20% of all project funds would be invested in theatre for young audiences. This is one of the reasons theatre for young audiences in Scotland is now being recognised as world class. Scotland has one of the leading international festivals for young audiences, Imaginate, where Scottish work is put onto the same platform as the very best from abroad. Programmers from Sydney to New York come to see the work and programme it. Scottish practitioners rise to meet the challenge set by the expectations of those programmers!
The irony is that in England we are constantly distracted from making great art, because we spend so much time ‘proving’ that what we do is good and effective to myriad different audiences requiring countless different outcomes. So many of us who work in this field play a mind numbing game of guess what the funders want? Filling in pointless forms that fail to capture the very real life – changing impact of our work.
It’s vital therefore for the Arts Council to work with the sector as a whole to create a coherency of outcomes. Lets educate our funders to understand the most important impacts of our work; lets educate each other in the best ways to respond to the demands of our various funders. The measurement game, and I often regard it as a game, is best played by the major institutions in the arts; those who can afford the expertise and resources to measure and prove the impact of their work. Many of those organisations were the ones who helped to frame the conversation surrounding How Do We Know Its Any good? Its useful to know what the Sage or the Tate is doing to measure the impact of its work. However an organisation like ours, like Theatre Is, has nowhere near the resources to do this despite playing an essential role in creating nuanced and young person-led art.
To conclude I suggest the debate develops as follows:
That the Arts Council works with large scale organisations to support organisations like Theatre Is to build tangible models of measurement, finding the best way to advocate that subsidized arts for young people and children are vital to the economic and social interests of this country.
That we recognise that there are models in Europe and indeed in Scotland which have created a consistency of quality, partly due to the levels of investment, but mainly because the work for children and young people is valued above all else.
Lastly we recognise the key role that young people and young emerging artists have in developing a positive and open conversation about what art children and young people want to either consume or participate in. Their voice has to be at the heart of this debate.