A Quality Process: nail your colours to the mast – By Sarah Thornton, Collective Encounters

Following on from Toby Lowe’s recent blog on quality in participatory arts…

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 and 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 of course very different 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 (http://tinyurl.com/75smnde) 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 (http://tinyurl.com/7busrct) 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 the Consortium for Participatory Arts Learning (C-PAL) and EMPAF (who blogged here earlier) are invaluable, and the Core Competencies Framework launched last week by C-PAL (http://tinyurl.com/72ppuh6), 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!

Sarah Thornton
founding Artistic Director of Collective Encounters

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

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