Quality as process: the view from a solo artist – by Jan Reynolds, EMPAF

Historically those involved in delivering participatory and community arts have debated issues around ’Quality’ and they continue to do so. Why is this?

The ‘Quality’ debate has been at the centre of my work for the last 30 years.

As a solo participatory artist, as part of a ‘micro’ participatory arts company, as manager of participation and learning programme at a large arts organisation and as a co-director of EMPAF (East Midlands Participatory Arts Froum) recognising ‘Quality’  for me, is a  many stranded but essential  process.

Community and Participatory Arts (CA/PA) involves a collaborative process for all participating in, or connected to, an event, workshop, activity, project or programme of work. Each of those involved will have different aspirations for the work and therefore different ways of determining quality.

What is critical is that there is an honest, open process which agrees where we are all heading and continually looks at what is happening and what, if anything, needs to be changed to enable a best possible ‘outcome’ for all. Please note I say ‘a’ best not ‘the’. This is art. It’s risky and there will be more than one way to do something. It wouldn’t be fun, engaging, stimulating, inspiring, creative, and impactful if it weren’t a bit risky! This continuous ‘evaluation’ process happens from the moment the work is conceived, though the planning, the delivery, the celebration and the next steps development. It happens with all involved at different stages and in different ways.

CA/PA artists and organisations have been working in this way for years. It is part of the artistic and creative process, part of the vision for the work.  That’s why we dedicate so much time to a project and why we do not have the time to shout about the quality of what we do. It is the reason we are still working, making art with, by and for children, young people and others. It is why we will continue to work with thousands of participants, and a multitude of partners and funders, even in this not too optimistic economic climate.  We have a product, and if it is not of quality, if it does not meet their needs, then people will not want it.

We understand that when others recognise ‘quality’ they will invest and work with us. Participants who have had a good experience and feel ownership of the work will come back or will progress onto other things. Support workers, care staff and families will see something new in those they have charge of, will see things differently. Funders and commissioners will have met their targets and recognised the impact of the work. Other audiences will have felt connected to the work, inspired, entertained.

I agree with François Matarasso when at the recent ‘How do we know it’s any good?’ event he suggested that we should see the process as our product. For me the ‘process’ involved in participatory arts is an artistic product in its own right. It should always be driven by a vision, a concept, and uses the interactive process as the tools of the trade. If there is also a tangible product, for example a performance, a picture, an installation, then this too is part of the product and should be experienced in the context of the work as a whole.

Therefore when determining quality ‘the whole’ must be considered and everyone involved must be allowed to determine quality from their point of view.

Of course we don’t always get it totally right. Maybe never do. Absolute quality is probably impossible, however, in CA/PA we are always striving for it and this is one of the reasons that the conversation around quality must be on going.

Since quality is so important to what we do why haven’t we come up with a method of defining it before? We have tried. I believe it is because it is so complicated, so multi-faceted.  I am sure we will be able to agree on core principles leading to good practice, at EMPAF we intend to trial CPAL’s Core Competencies Framework, however, whatever is decided must not be definitive, must be continually revised and must be flexible both in itself and in its use.  If it isn’t it will inevitably restrict creative and artistic practice, restrict development, will ensure that the work is not responsive to environmental and social change.

Here I can only touch on one aspect on the discussion around quality. It is also only my opinion, and I need to bounce it around. If anyone would like to engage in a more interactive forum do join the EMPAF website http://www.empaf.com/ or email jane@empaf.com if you think EMPAF needs to hold a symposium on this topic.

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