Cultural Playing Field

Excellence in the voluntary arts – some starting points by robinosterley
May 9, 2008, 8:52 am
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The post above gives some background to the seminar that DCMS is hosting on June 4th. The purpose of this post is to start a debate about the kinds of discussions that might take place at the seminar.

A few years ago, Francois Matarasso defined quality in the arts in the following way. I hope he doesn’t mind me recycling this material: hopefully he will contribute to this blog if he has changed or refined any of his views:

  • Firstly, technical competence. Not brilliance, note, nor virtuosic extravagance, but competence, in other words the ability to translate accurately the creator’s wishes into a performance.
  • Secondly, originality. Something about the performance needs to be different from what has gone before.
  • Thirdly, ambition. The performers must have a need to improve their performance and to constantly aspire to something better.
  • Fourthly, a quality performance requires relevance. It must be something that has a shared meaning with its audience – he sometimes refers to this as resonance.
  • And fifthly, which he admits is a bit of a cop-out, he requires “magic” – self-explanatory I guess.

OK these are by no means perfect, but might be a interesting place to start. How can voluntary arts be excellent (we all know it can be) without the degree of technical excellence displayed by professional artists? What does this mean? Is it simply about contextualising artistic activities within their community or is it about something else? Can we have excellent art without technical excellence? If so how? Does technical excellence always mean excellence (not many would subscribe to that one I suspect)? Indeed should we be debating this at all, or simply say that there are enough examples of technical excellence in the voluntary arts for this not to be a problem? These are the issues we want to explore – let’s get the debate going now.

9 Comments so far
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When considering relevance (or resonance) the idea that quality in the arts is something that has a shared meaning with its audience, brings into focus all the issues around marketing.

Is there a need for the voluntary arts sector to provide an appropriate infrastructure for practitioners to enable them to build links with their audience? For example, communication with audiences, PR, promotion, and other marketing related skills may be needed to ensure successful and sustainable audience participation…

Comment by Tony Gibbs

I think Tony is right that there is a fairly common need for capacity-building in voluntary arts organisations in relation to marketing – which does seem to link to the ‘resonance’ aspect of quality. But I don’t think this failing is confined to the voluntary arts.

It has been suggested that Francois Matarasso’s definition works better for the performing arts than situations where art is being created rather than ‘translated’. But I do like his emphasis on technical competence rather than brilliance or virtuosic extravagance. In a programme to mark the 30th anniversary of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, the 1990 winner Nicola Loud said recently: “So often people can come onto a stage and perform something that is ‘correct’ – all the notes are there and the rhythm is there – but that’s not what music is all about, I think. It’s about creating a moment in time with yourself and the audience.”

Using the word ‘correct’ helps to make it clear that ‘excellence’ is something beyond doing it technically ‘better’.

Comment by Robin Simpson

I agree with all of whats been said before.

“All labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”–Martin Luther King, Jr.

Excellence can be attained if you care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.–Anon

Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.–Booker T. Washington

The pursuit of excellence is a repetitive, lifelong habit, the pursuit of perfection is a mistake. — Me – quote me if you like!

It belongs in the still, small voice of humanity and is not the exclusive property of the professional artist. — Thats me again.

The x factor has shown that so called “excellence” can be found at any time within anyone.

Comment by Reemer

If excellence in the arts is to be achieved then it needs to start from a wide base: those who have taken an active part in the voluntary arts are in better position to appreciate and support other artists – both professional and amateur – and they also have the potential to themselves achieve excellence.
The government proposal to provide all school children with 5 hours of ‘culture’ per week is a step in the right direction, but it is unclear how this can be provided.
For adults wishing to participate in arts activity there needs to be some way of filling the gap left by the decimation of adult/community education classes – students attend such classes for a variety of reasons; for many their aim is excellence and when it is achieved it is recognised by the whole class (not to mention the spur it gives to the tutor!)

Comment by Gil Dye

My concerns over the McMaster report are several. I do find it a lightweight piece of work espousing concepts that many of us have held dear for some time but offering no realistic solutions to how cultural institutions may make them happen. This is why, despite it having been embraced, adequate definitions of its concepts are still being sought.

“From measurement to judgement” opens up concerns as to who will be the judges and about the further removal of transparency.

The emphasis on innovation and risk taking calls into question the value of traditional arts…my own musical practice is in improvisation, collaborations with laptop musicians and contemporary music but I would have to acknowledge a debt to traditional musics. Where would, for instance, this leave opera and, more importantly, folk musics.

I am also concerned about the emphasis on excellence. I run an improvised music club and its success rests on removing the pressures of striving for excellence thus allowing people who are new to the game to work alongside those of us who are much more experience. The results justify the approach, with some exceptions, producing work that is sensitive and creative but I repeat is borne out of the removal of the banner of “excellence”.

Wearing my other hat, as national arts development manager for Mencap, I am continually confronted by the arts worlds’ inability to understand and appropriately contextualise the work of learning disabled artists and performers. I cannot but fear that this inability will be compounded by a focus on “excellence”.

Art is, as McMaster seems to acknowledge, about exploration and understanding. This does not always lead to excellence.

There will be winners and losers in the arts funding game. I fear is that if there is an emphasis on innovation those who work within other traditional art forms, or art forms that are still not fully understood, will.

On a more positive note the inclusion of artists and practitioners on boards is welcome but again who will decide who these are to be and how?

Is McMaster likely to move us away from community or participatory arts born out of social functions and from communities into a top down vision of excellence? I don’t think this is the intention but my overall feeling is that the very premise of the report is misplaced and is likely to move us further in this direction.

To overcome the concept of “it’s not for me” is to replace it with “it came from me”. Free admissions are to be welcomed but of themselves will not achieve this.

I believe that while there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the spirit of the McMaster report the likely outcomes are worrying.

It is all very well to describe “excellence in culture as being when an experience affects and changes an individual” but to go on to say this is in fact quite concrete is questionable. It begs the question of who the individual is and when and where and how this experience happens. Fine stuff indeed for debate but not a concrete basis for “objective” judgment.

When he talks about innovation I agree with the concepts of reinterpretation and refining but this is not innovation. Innovation as a concept belongs more happily to the world of science. Renewal is the term I apply to the human process of the arts.

Comment by Gus Garside

[…] Excellence in the voluntary arts – some starting points […]

Pingback by Excellence and the voluntary arts - join the debate « Cultural Playing Field


Apologies for the delay in my comments.

Pierre Bourdieu in his book “Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste”(1984)probably recognised as one of the most important books written in the field of sociology in the 20th century talks about “taste” or “cultural need” being the product of upbringing, social status and education. In other words it is a matter of taste and “relevance” as Macmaster calls it. The problem in our cultural heirarchy is that standards of taste compete with each other but some are elevated above others and then become legitimised as “excellent” (an absolute value).

Essentially the current portfolio of esteemed professional art is arguably only relevant to a few and its important to note that the vast majority of those people have higher levels of education and were potentially continually introduced to this kind of work at a very early age. The recent push for a cultural offer and macmaster talking about a “cultural framework” for children aim to battle with this issue.

Tak Wing Chan from the department of sociology
at Oxford University along with another colleague from Nuffield College applies this and develops it in an article called “Social Stratification of Cultural Consumption Across three domains : Music, Thetare, Dance and Cinema, and the visual arts (2006). Interestingly these guys have written for the arts council very recently. That article can be found at :

The above article hammers home the issue of lack of relevance. The figures they communicate are not unknown to us and are a little scary as per usual. Again it is interesting to note that this article has been released so soon after Alan Davey’s arrival. These academics fully understand in much more detail what I’m touching on above.

The rest of what I have to say tries to bring this back to our discussion about the voluntary arts although the above also relates to those who create arts on a professional basis and need to communicate on a much wider basis. Whatever happened to the genius of “simplicity”!

Although I have no baseline research (maybe interesting to do this) people come to our theatre in redditch to watch amateur theatre and operatics. Whats my point you may ask?! They don’t belong to the society, they have no links with the society, nobodies in the show who they know! They just watch it because they relate to real people and certainly not highly regulated performers (said by some professional theatre practioners including myself to be automatons within a professional training system which has also become arguably socially constructed. Although only my gut recation from working on the coal face in various inner and outer city communities as well as rural areas affluent and deprived people are alienated by art and often fundamentally relate to amateur practice because it is closer to their own experience.

In addition to supporting amateur art in this country should it be used as a tool to explore or research the “relevance” issue for professional artists and gradually close the gap this way. Maybe this is our way in.

Can anyone else add to what I am saying and how it could add to what we are discussing later in the week?!

I think we need really bang on about “relevance” within Macmaster’s report. This is the key and what we are winning hands down at!

Jonathan Cochrane

Comment by Jonathan Cochrane

Hello all.

Really interesting comments here, I am looking forward to the meeting at the Arts council tomorrow.

I share your concerns, Gus, that without more exploration of what excellence means, the outcomes of McMaster could be negative.

I think a study of what excellence means in the voluntary arts would have really useful learning for the Arts Council and professional artists and indeed anyone who is interested in turning the McMaster report into a real framework that can be implemented and trusted by stakeholders in the arts in England.

If misapplied,the concept may help perpetuate vague and simplistic assertions that equate “excellence” only with technical competence and ground-breaking technique, so there persists adn entrenched barrier between the professional arts sector that stands for excellence and innovation and an amateur sector that exists primarily for a social purpose in the minds of funders of the arts and the public.

From my limited reading on this, and from comments here, the key to successful implementation seems to lie in ensuring the concept of excellence balances intrinsic and instrumental value in arts and gives policymakers, funders and artists in the professional and voluntary sectors and the public greater confidence and trust in the funding and assessment system.

For this to happen though, I think the Arts Council and DCMS will need to listen and respond to what’s been said here about quality, relevance and the subjective experience of that “magic” of the arts which neither the voluntary or professional sectors have a monopoly on.

Jake Eliot, NCVO.

Comment by Jake Eliot

[…] Excellence in the voluntary arts – some starting points […]

Pingback by Excellence and the Voluntary Arts: The Seminar « Cultural Playing Field

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