Young people know what’s excellent and what’s not – by Eloise Malone, Effervescent

Last month, I had an alcohol-fueled argument with a very nice man who had just curated an incredibly high-profile arts event, and hadn’t put in a single work that was created collaboratively or through socially-engaged practice.

It was one of those conversations where you realise half way through that what he’s criticising is a lame example of stuff involving tissue paper and glue and lollipop sticks led by someone standing at the front of the class, and what we’re talking about is genuinely, eye-bleedingly fabulous, collaborative arts practice informed by the ideas and experience of a bunch of young people with something to say and in need of a way to say it so that the right people take notice.  But he doesn’t know that practice exists because he’s already decided all work made by young people is rubbish.

Young people and children are immersed in a world full of high quality media, advertising, film, fashion, design, music and performances.  They’re not fools – they know what’s excellent, and they know what’s lame and limp and bland and embarrassing.  Young people have original and profound ideas. What we do at Effervescent is structure and “hold” (much of the time, in the psychotherapeutic sense) a process that supports those young people to bring those ideas and experiences to the wider world.  We draw their attention to the artistic choices they’re going to make, so they make them from a place of informed criticality.

We help them to develop the artistic skills to realise their vision, and to feel safe to use them.

Lynn Froggett, in her 2011 study for Gulbenkian on New Model Visual Arts Practice, talks about the Aesthetic Third as a crucial element of socially-engaged arts – it’s where the artist’s body of practice, and the young people’s ideas and energy and experience and talents come together to create an aesthetic conjunction which meets an audience’s imagination and attention in a moment that is magical, resonant, unique and extraordinary.

That art product is crucial: it’s a rare moment when young people genuinely have power.

The educational, social and emotional development of young people we work with is central to us, and we’re careful to work with young people to measure it in terms of distance travelled towards very demanding aims around recovery from painful experiences and disadvantage, but that development comes *through* the arts practice, not instead of it.  So many people talk about arts as a means to educate or better young people, as if young people are just there to receive instruction.  Participants shouldn’t slog through an intensive and emotionally/intellectually/physically challenging experience just to walk away – they want to show what they did, and offer something to the world, have something to keep to prove they succeeded.  Maybe for the first time.

For us at Effervescent, there is no process versus product.  Everything is both the process and the product.

Our big realisation in 2009, was that we were moving heaven and earth to create really interesting work, which was then performed one-off to a group of social workers or parents or in public, and then abandoned, never seen again.  Nobody in the arts world knew who we were, and nobody cared.  Since then we’ve made it a big part of our quality framework (it was all lines and squiggles in the beginning, but we do have one) to ensure that as many people have access to the work we make as possible.  Because their work is there online, the participants have used it months or years later as evidence to get into college or university or to take an apprenticeship, and the work has been viewed internationally and has won prizes, which has brought us more – and more interesting – work opportunities.

Visibility is the key to quality – if enough people see what young people are capable of, they’ll start curating it in art shows, alongside other high profile artists.  And maybe then socially-engaged practice with young people will be seen to create the beautiful, resonant, original art works we all know it’s capable of.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Effervescent supports children and young people to use art processes to make sense of their experiences, and to create art works which support target audiences or wider society to prevent, understand better, or positively react to these experiences from a fresh and authentic perspective.

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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 ( 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 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 (, 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

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By Steve Shaw, Paddington Arts – “How Do We Know It’s Any Good?”…

…is a fair question in relation to Youth Arts/ Community Arts/ Participatory Arts or any Art or Arts come to that.

Actually, we can ask the same question in relation to a film or a restaurant. We make the decision for ourselves, or listen to what our friends/people we trust/critics have to say.

We have to look at who is asking the question and why now?

I welcome a debate amongst practitioners, and, personally I would welcome a national Youth Arts Conference. The last one I remember was in 2001.

(BBoyz/girlz from Paddington Arts on Vimeo)

In terms of assessing quality we have to recognise the age-old debate ‘Process v Product.’ To me, and my organisation, both are equally important, but I know disagreement will follow, when I qualify this: Process and Product are both important, However, if pushed, then I would say I would put Product on 51% and Process at 49%.

I can offer criteria on which to make a qualitative assessment: for Process the most important aspect is engagement, and I could attend any activity session and give marks out of 10. Other criteria would be, to what extent do the ideas from the young people get incorporated; what is the relationship between the tutor and the young people, in particular ‘respect’ between them.

For Product, the criteria would be originality, interpretation, engagement/enthusiasm, inclusivity.

However, the most important advice I would give to funders would be: get out of the office and come and see the work (process and product). The most valuable evidence you can collect is by using your eyes and ears; a form, even if it runs to 100 pages with 1000 questions is still not going to provide you with the definitive proof you are hoping for. In fact, less is more. In my opinion, if a funder cannot discover the answers they are looking for in five questions, they are not going to find it in twenty.

Funders want reassurance and guarantees that their investment is going to produce the results they want. The great thing about working in this sector, is that young people and the arts are both unpredictable, and also what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. All we can say is, look at our track record and experience, we know that what we do can transform lives, and help people in all sorts of ways.

If you want to measure the impact and evaluate our work, look at our core values, which have remained the same for more than twenty years, and decide for yourself if what is written on paper is reflected in our actions and in the lives of the young people who come through our doors.

Paddington Arts: Core Values – Access; Excellence; Education; Fun

Access means recognising, and attempting to remove, barriers to participation. We have a safe, friendly and fully accessible building. By having ‘open’ classes, and performing groups we offer young people a fully flexible approach to joining in on their own terms and at their own level. Young people are encouraged to make their own choices and commitment.

By Excellence we mean striving for the ‘best’ possible; to do one’s best; to work for oneself and for each other. Our members love to perform; and the drive to excel and produce top quality work in the arts, is not only an achievement for the individual and the group, but an inspiration for other young people in the audience.

All our work is Educational in the broadest sense. Performing arts develops the body and the mind, stretches the imagination as well as one’s limbs. Media skills are essential in today’s technological world, and it is important for young people to become producers as well as consumers. Learning social skills, developing an understanding of group dynamics, engaging with wider society is also be part of our programme. It is also important to remember that adults working with young people will also have a learning experience, as well as the other way round.

We believe that Fun is good! That people learn far more if they are enjoying themselves; that as well as offering hard work and qualifications, a ‘good time’ is both a motivation for ‘disaffected’ youth, and also an objective in itself, especially for those who have had more than their fair share of struggle and hardship.

Steve Shaw
Paddington Arts
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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 or email if you think EMPAF needs to hold a symposium on this topic.

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How to move on! – by Stuart Mullins, THEATRE IS…

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THEATRE IS… inspires and ignites the artistic leadership of the 21st century…

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.

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Pragmatism + Idealism = Keeping it simple + acknowledging complexity – by Emily Pringle, Tate

The writer Saville Kushner, commenting on the difficulty of evaluating participatory arts projects taking place in education contexts, once observed that ‘evaluation – as a representation of human experience – is an intractable a problem as the art it observes and all evaluators can ever do is their best’.

Arguably there is a particularly urgent need for evaluators to ‘do their best’ at the moment as policy makers, funders, project co-ordinators and participants recognise the importance of understanding and articulating what constitutes ‘quality’.  Effective evaluation is needed not only to assess the ‘success’ of projects, but also to enhance the progress of a programme, represent different participants’ experiences, disseminate good practice and learn from previous activities.  In simple terms we need to understand and make explicit what we are doing, how we are doing it, why we are doing it, the effects it has and what we could do better.  Identifying ‘quality’ is no easy task.

One response to this challenge is to search for the holy grail in the form of the workable and ‘objective’ evaluation framework; the single, simple, yet effective tool that can make sense of the total human experience.  One of the most commonly used of these (The Generic Learning Outcomes model) provides a method for demonstrating impacts and outcomes.   It is an approach that has undoubted value and, in my experience, can prove useful in terms of advocacy.  Others I know have used it as a starting point for discussion internally, with the ‘outcomes’ serving as provocations.  But what this framework does not do is present the whole picture.  For instance, in my view, the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of arts education activity are difficult to evaluate using the GLOs, which in turn can make it challenging to consider how the processes, structures and systems we are using can be improved.   Focusing only on one aspect (in this case, outcomes) can lead to partial representations and insights.   This in turn suggests that multiple frameworks need to be employed, in order to have ‘complete’ understanding.

But the need for evaluation methods that are not too time-consuming or unwieldy also remains.  Funders understandably need meaningful evaluation of work they have supported and practitioners want ways of understanding and improving programmes.  All this when, in most cases, time and resources are limited.  Complicated data collection techniques and multiple approaches that require hours of analysis are not realistic. Within the Learning department at Tate Gallery, despite its size and scale, the situation is no different.  We seek to understand what constitutes quality in all that we do, but in a realistic and sustainable way and, therefore, we are adopting approaches to interrogating and mapping ‘quality’ in ways that are simultaneously pragmatic and idealistic.   We are doing this by going back to first principles; by identifying the complexity of what we are trying to look at, but acknowledging the need for simplicity; by making clear what the values are that underpin our activity in order to provide a basis against which to evaluate, but recognising that there are other agendas to consider; by drawing on a range of evaluation frameworks and methods that best suit the nature and ambitions of the specific programme and the audience for whom the evaluation is intended and by trying to be as clear and honest as possible in what we are attempting to do.  As far as possible we aspire to embed evaluation within the activity, rather than bolting it on at specific moments.

We are, without question, facing challenges and frustrations, but greater understanding is emerging and the usefulness and relevance of particular concepts and frameworks are becoming clearer (GLOs for advocacy, ‘Appreciative Enquiry’ for programme development, for example).  It is work in progress, with a view to using and developing evaluation frameworks (understood within a ‘meta-framework’) that are genuinely fit for purpose.   Above all, and with Saville Kushner’s observation in mind, we are trying to do ‘our best’.

Emily Pringle

Head of Learning Practice, Research and Policy


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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

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