What does excellence mean to the communities experiencing the arts through the Creative People and Places programme?  Mark Robinson and Jamie Buttrick report on their research.

Photo of acrobat in circus tent
Bianco, NoFit State Circus, Stoke-on-Trent, Appetite, 2013
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Andrew Billington

Sometimes debates around quality or excellence fall into the trap of seeming to argue that ‘excellence means excellence’. It’s either just obvious when something’s excellent, goes the argument, or it depends entirely on individual responses. And anyway, trying to define it is a task for philosophers, bean counters or fools.

Our new report What it does to you: Excellence in Creative People and Places was commissioned as a thematic study to support the evaluation and learning work of Creative People and Places (CPP).

Excellence is much examined but ultimately uncaptured, and we knew from day one of our research that it would remain so

Tasked with considering approaches to excellence of product and excellence of the process of engaging communities within this national programme, we were nervous that we might draw conclusions as tautological as ‘excellence means excellence’. However, it became clear during our research that the reality of CPP has been far more rich and complex.

Relationships and engagement

CPP has taken risks to build relationships leading to projects that break down barriers to participation through quality of engagement, rather than simply offering what is deemed by others to be ‘the best’. It also became apparent that although quality frameworks can be valuable in many contexts, it is the process of reflection upon activity that is most helpful in assessing and refining both product and process of engagement. Indeed, by opening up the excellence debate, CPP shows that these supposed binaries combine to shape arts experiences.

CPP aims to increase engagement in the arts in places with the lowest levels of engagment (as defined by the Taking Part survey). The CPP projects have worked with communities, artists and partners to develop their work in highly varied ways, with local context shaping all programmes.

Relating the range of CPP activity to current debates was part of our challenge. We reviewed recent frameworks and metrics relating to excellence. The frameworks have much in common, and many differences. Excellence is much examined but ultimately uncaptured, and we knew from day one of our research that it would remain so. CPP, with its reflective and inclusive way of working with artists, partners and local people, has demonstrated that the value lays in the search, the exploration.

Although some individual places have developed quality frameworks, CPP has not adopted a national standard definition of excellence, though directors have created ‘An incomplete (and contradictory) glossary of the qualities of artistic quality. It has seven key ideas: integrity, resonance, originality, technical proficiency, ambition, long-term impact and magic.

One limitation of our research was we were not engaging directly with local people, although we did speak to some community connectors and ambassadors. The language of ‘excellence’ was noted as off-putting to many non-arts professionals, and most CPPs are exploring this directly with local people in ways not often found elsewhere.

Programming choices

There are a number of continuums that can be said to exist across the CPP projects. Some place greater emphasis on audience-focused ‘product’, others on small-scale participatory work. Some CPPs have focused on facilitating others to make community-driven programming choices, while others have been more team-driven or seen themselves as providing specialist expertise.

Some would describe their programming as ‘community-informed’ without delegating final decision-making about artist commissions. Most programmes combine approaches and have put time and resources into supporting local people to explore what quality means for them through discussion, ‘go and see’ visits and opening up the commissioning processes.

There are a number of approaches that we suggest are key to success. Framing discussions around local and personal context, and building in active and meaningful community involvement means the excellence debate remains relevant. CPPs have been collaborative in leadership style, often working in partnership with local activists. Making choices shaped by clarity of vision remains crucial – involving a broader range of people does not mean arts leaders do not make choices.

The breadth of approach to be found across the 21 programmes is a strength, providing choice for the public and different routes to engagement. Excellence cannot be tied to one kind of activity, be it participatory or spectacular, intimate or large-scale. Ensuring the right calibre of artists for the specific project and context is key, as is avoiding artspeak, a barrier to many people.

Quality metrics

Finally, and crucially in the context of the future use of quality metrics by funded arts organisations, we found flexibility to be vital. (Our report was completed before recent announcements by Arts Council England, and the brief was unconnected.) It takes time and adaptability to build long-term relationships that embrace excellence as part of an engagement process incorporating reflection and learning.

While we recommend that CPPs should consider the potential uses of quality metrics, we stress that this needs to fit with bespoke, contextual approaches to development and evaluation. We encourage CPPs to involve as wide a range of people as possible in their reflections, including partner national portfolio organisations. We also suggest that Arts Council England consider the insights relating to excellence from CPP in their work.

What it does to you

Poet Simon Armitage wrote: “It ain’t what you do, it’s what it does to you.” CPPs are delivering excellence in a wide range of ways and they emphasise what it does to you. Our study also suggests that while the content aspect of what you do may be important to the quality of the experience or the impact on people, the process of how you do it and how you then reflect upon the process are also vital, especially when involving communities.

Mark Robinson is Director of Thinking Practice and Jamie Buttrick is a Co-Director of Consilium Research.
www.thinkingpractice.co.uk
www.consiliumresearch.co.uk

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