Can we afford to put quality over quantity? by Sharon Paulger

When asked to contribute to this blog I was asked on the basis that I run a small community arts organisation. So when thinking about quality I wondered what the difference the size of the organisation would make. My conclusion is that it means I can’t escape from the reality of what we do. We work with young people who have a range of different issues to deal with in their lives. Because it is a small organisation I meet these young people, their parents, their siblings, their support workers. I hear their stories and hear about the challenges they face in their everyday lives.  They come to us not only to do art but also to escape, to feel good about themselves, to make friends. I see first hand what a difference being involved in our projects makes to them. I also see that what they like and I have discovered what they think is good art is often different from what I think is good art.

I am disappointed to say that I fell for the Arts Council quality argument for years. I agreed that the young people I worked with deserved to work with the best artists and have access to the best resources. I thought this mainly out of a feeling of injustice, having seen large sums of money being spent in galleries and theatres on elitist works. But I find that I am no longer able to defend this. I have realised this is not what the people I work with want. Dare I say this, but actually what they want is quantity. They need opportunities. Often what they need is something which is safe, comfortable and easy because their lives are already full of challenges.  And when we give them opportunities it is the young people that give us the quality. On the whole they do not want us to spend lots of money of them, and I feel uncomfortable spending lots of money when many of the families may well be struggling to pay for the very basics. I believe art is good for us but, especially in the current financial situation, we need to be frugal. And that is one of the great things about art, it can be cheap because it is about creativity.

The Arts Council ambition of Great Art for Everyone is a wonderful aspiration but not if ends up being Great Art for Some and No Art for the Rest. Sadly, as I see long established Community Arts organisations losing Arts Council funding I fear that is where we are heading.

I have learnt never to make a judgement on a community project unless I heard first hand from someone who had taken part. That has to be the only of knowing how good/ great/high quality the work is. It would be lovely if once in a while the Arts Council made the effort to meet with the people we  work with but I can’t see that happening because, after all, people have been suggesting this for over ten years now and it still doesn’t seem to be happening.  And is that really possible or feasible? Without this I can’t imagine there is ever going to be a satisfactory answer to the quality question and we should accept that and move on. What we need to do is to trust that the people we work with know what they want and will let us know when we get it wrong, if only by not turning up.

I know the Arts Council needs to make decisions on funding but they could do this on the basis of measurable things including value of money, good practice in terms of safeguarding, level of attendance and through ensuring there is a certain level of provision per capita. There may be some things that get funded that are not quite as good as the others but, given a wider range of experiences, our participants will have choices and become increasingly discerning.

Sharon Paulger was until very recently the director of Inter-Action MK, a community arts charity serving the people of Milton Keynes
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