The McMaster Review
Fashions sometimes change quickly in the arts, and in arts policy too. In July 2007, the then Secretary of State for Culture, James Purnell, commissioned Sir Brian McMaster to undertake a review of ‘excellence in the arts’. The report was published in January 2008 and for a few months, the art world buzzed with the idea. I wrote something myself about it at the time for the Voluntary Arts Network.
Then Mr Purnell began his rapid exit from politics, via a stint at the Department of Work and Pensions. There was a change of government, and the buzzwords became philanthropy and digital. The DCMS pages about Sir Brian McMaster’s work now reside in the National Archives.
A new essay on quality in community arts
But the issue of excellence remains a central preoccupation of artists, whatever the policy world does. Indeed, one of the questionable aspects of the whole exercise was the implicit assertion that people had lost sight of excellence. I’ve never met anyone working in the arts or cultural sector who was not committed to producing the best work that could be achieved. The challenge has always lain in the fact that there are many ideas of what ‘best’ or ‘excellent’ means.
I’ve just published a new essay looking at on some of the issues in the context of community arts practice in a UNESCO e-journal on Multi-Disiplinary Research in the Arts, at the University of Melbourne. Click here to download the essay or follow this link to the University of Melbourne website to download the whole journal.
This paper takes Creative Progression, an arts programme whose aim was to support the progress of the homeless participants towards health, wellbeing and independent living, by Helix Arts (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK), as a case study through which to which to reflect on the meaning and assessment of quality in participatory arts. It considers the use of the word ‘quality’ by arts professionals, and the recent focus on ‘excellence’ in British cultural policy discourse, suggesting that the first term is often confused with ‘good’, partly because of uncertainty about concepts and partly because doing so may help to avoid potential challenges about values.
The paper then identifies five stages in a participatory arts process—conception, contracting, working, creation and completion—considering in turn some of the problems of defining or securing quality in performance, using the experience of the Creative Progression programme as a framework. It concludes by suggesting that, given the inevitably subjective nature of both arts practice and artistic experience, it is impossible to define fixed standards of quality in performance or outcome. Nor, indeed, would it be desirable to try to do so.
However, the quality of self-awareness and critical reflection exercised by artists working participatory contexts, and the extent to which that reflection is open to all participants, is central both to an ethically-defensible process and to the probability of programmes achieving their stated goals.
Download Creative Progression: Reflections on quality in participatory arts, François Matarasso 2013