Following the McMaster review, Sue Hoyle considers how ‘quality’ in the arts might be evaluated.
Charged with the task of advising Government as to how best public sector support for the arts can be used to encourage excellence, Sir Brian McMaster has come up with a set of wide range of far-reaching recommendations, published last month in the ‘McMaster Review: Supporting excellence in the arts - from measurement to judgement’. Some have been widely welcomed by the arts sector, but others are more controversial and questions are being asked about the feasibility of implementing them. To stimulate debate about these critical issues, which are set to be adopted as Government policy for the arts sector, AP has asked a number of senior figures to respond to aspects of the McMaster Review. The series starts with a response by Sue Hoyle, who considers how ‘quality’ in the arts might be evaluated in the future, and concludes that mutual trust and respect between funders and the funded is at the heart of the issue.
Brian McMaster’s report throws down a challenge to the public bodies that fund cultural activity. He calls on them to develop a new method of assessment based on self-assessment and peer review, focused on what he describes as ‘objective’ judgements about excellence, innovation and risk-taking.
Some people have assumed that the report’s recommendations could signal a return to advisory panels, appraisals and show reports – the tools used by Arts Council England (ACE) to assess quality some ten years or more ago – but I doubt that Brian McMaster is asking for that. His report is not about turning the clock back; in the new McMaster world, artists will be at the heart of the discussion on quality, they are the ones who will drive the debate, and the starting point for judgements on excellence will be practitioners’ own self-assessments, ‘complemented’ by peer review. All this will be informed by funders who, McMaster says, should be confident in their judgements and equipped to intervene if necessary.
How might this work in practice? The report emphasises the importance of dialogue between funder and cultural organisation in considering standards of excellence. For dialogue to be effective, trust will have to be rebuilt between funders and practitioners and there will need to be continued investment in the professional development of officers, to ensure they are knowledgeable about their specialisms and about the broader cultural sector. Turning their heads away from ticking boxes on computer screens will not be enough – officers will need to feel valued, stretched, and re-energised by opportunities to see work and to engage in critical discourse about it.
That discourse should not simply be a one-to-one dialogue with particular organisations. They should be eager to analyse and discuss the contribution that the artist makes to the development of the form, and to the broader creative landscape as well. I would expect funding officers to create, facilitate and respond to different kinds of opportunities to question what is meant by excellence, innovation and risk-taking. Together with practitioners, they should be encouraging open debate about aesthetic and artistic value, involving a broad range of participants from the UK and beyond.
As a first step towards developing this new funding ecology, it will be important to develop clear guidelines for self-assessment. McMaster suggests this be developed by funding bodies working with representatives of cultural organisations. I think this is right – almost. I believe that individuals, not just organisations, should be involved in the process, for, as the report states, “excellence in culture occurs when an experience affects and changes an individual”.
Some of those individuals will be cultural practitioners; others (including members of the public) may bring knowledge and views from other fields. If there is to be a new relationship between funder and practitioner (in which the latter feels respected and listened to, rather than an anxious suppliant under constant review), then practitioners will need to commit time, knowledge and intellectual effort to help getting it right. In return, they will need to feel that their contribution is worth making and is recognised. I believe that a funding body that trusts its practitioners will want to ensure they are not only at the centre of the assessment process, but also involved in taking decisions affecting the future of cultural life.
The recent furore around ACE’s funding decisions has focused attention on one particular public funder. McMaster’s recommendations are aimed at all public funders, and I hope the report will be a spur for the various arts funders to work together on a fairer, more rigorous approach to considering quality, drawing on the depth and breadth of practitioners’ experience and on respected, knowledgeable and expert officers.