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Who gets to feel the magic? By Ben Lee

In his guest post for the blog, Ben Lee of Shared Intelligence reports on a piece of work commissioned by Arts Council England for the purpose of exploring new ways of understanding and assessing ‘quality’ and ‘excellence’, especially in projects that also have a social aim and whose ambition is to have a real impact in the lives of participants yet reject the notion that this requires compromises on the quality front. These are all central questions to the cultural value debate, and more generally to discussions of arts funding and policy, where anxieties over marrying quality and excellence with the goal of widening participation and achieving impact are an enduring feature. To make things more interesting (and complex) still, the projects that Ben’s research focused on were all targeted at children and young people. The post therefore explores (and challenge) another common ‘value’ assumption: that creative work produced for or with children and young people is not quite on a par – in terms of quality, skills and value – to mainstream ‘adult’ work. Yet, with new forms of practice blurring the boundaries between community and professional work, project participants and artists, Ben reminds us that the question of valuation becomes a lot more complicated.


The settlement which enables public funding of art and culture in the UK is based on a premise that great art does good and that those who engage with great art experience something good, even magical.

Generally speaking this settlement comes with no strings about who gets a piece of that magic and who it reaches.  The exception to this is art and cultural activity relating to children and young people. But is that changing?

Our three year action research project with Arts Council England began with the study Raising the standard of work by with and for children and young people. It sought to define what good looks like in relation to children and young people.  From interviews with artists, arts managers, and from the literature on quality, children’s arts, and education we distilled seven ‘principles’.  These break down quality and excellence into seven constituent elements.

Our project considered artistic work “for” “by” and “with” children and young people.  This reflects the breadth of practice – from performances and exhibitions where the role of producer and audience is quite distinct, to situations where participation, co-production, and making, are integral to the artistic work and boundaries between creation and consumption are blurred or non-existent.

Having distilled the seven quality principles we began working with Arts Council England to test them out with arts and cultural organisations across England – to see how they can be used and applied and to find out how practitioners incorporate them in their practice.  In the past year 15 organisations have been directly involved in putting the principles into practice through pilot projects which have reached more than 40,000 children and young people and involved another 700 other arts organisations.  We have just begun working with a further 34 organisations and look forward to seeing the ripples reach further still.

The quality principles reflect a view of ‘quality’ and ‘excellence’ which we encountered among those working with children and young people which is not just about creating great art but also about having an impact on people’s lives, in particular creating opportunities.  Not simply economic opportunities, but opportunities for young people to achieve their full human potential – emotionally, socially, physically and intellectually. And not just for whoever turns up, but targeted at those who stand to benefit most.

These goals – of making a difference and enabling individuals to achieve their potential – while common in education contexts are less consistently associated with the arts.  They also set children’s and youth arts apart from ‘normal’ or ‘adult’ arts where funders, creators and the public tend to define “great” only in terms of technical excellence, favourable critical reception, or commercial success – but not social impact.   For ‘adult’ arts less attention also tends to get paid to the question of who experiences it, or what difference it makes to their lives.

The paradox is that going this extra mile in children and youth arts is sometimes seen as reducing artistic merit or greatness rather than increasing it. Many of the artists we have spoken with who work with children, find that venues see their work as educational projects not ‘real art’ – the implication being that it’s artistic value is less pure, less cosmopolitan, and that it is generally of less artistic importance[1].

So to be a great art or cultural experience for children and young people, social impact or changing lives is often an essential success measure.

Yet for greatness in ‘normal’ art and culture, changing lives is often optional, or may even be seen to detract from greatness.

But how entrenched is this? Is there a latent or emerging desire among creators, funders, or the general public for all art and culture to change lives and create opportunities – or even in the words of the title of one of the AHRC-funded cultural value projects, for art and culture to be tested in terms of its emancipatory power?

Perhaps Matthew Bourne’s dance-theatre production of Lord of the Flies (one of the quality principles pilot projects) offers a glimpse of a new perspective.  The production is transgressive in many ways and deliberately hard to categorise.  The source novel is on one hand a children’s story, yet also a highly respected (by adults) in its own right.  The production mixes a cast of professional dancers with teenage amateurs who perform the roles of the younger boys – having been selected through dozens of workshops held in each of the stops on the tour. In terms of identifying as either a social project or a commercial show Matthew Bourne and his team present the production as no different from any other produced by the New Adventures company; setting the bar at the highest level of technical quality, and artistic appeal[2].

Most importantly perhaps, the company in setting their own definition of success for Lord of the Flies explain it as: being technically perfect, commercially successful, achieving critical acclaim, and changing lives through dance – simultaneously. They see this as increasing the greatness, the ambitiousness, the bravery and riskiness of the work, not compromising it.

Lord of the Flies is an exception. Most publicly funded mainstream arts and cultural offerings do not have such audacious ambitions.  They are happy simply to inspire and bring pleasure to whoever seeks them out, books tickets, or turns up – which as we know tends to those who are happier, healthier, better educated and better off.

But is Lord of the Flies an early signal of changing expectations?  Is it a sign of movement in the settlement on which public funding for art and culture is based?  Might we see more ‘mainstream’ arts move in the direction set by children’s and young people’s arts?  And what might be the longer term implications if achieving greatness in art and culture is measured not just by technical excellence, critically respect, and popularity – but also by social impact?




Ben Lee – Programme Director at Shared Intelligence

Ben is on the senior team at Shared Intelligence, an independent organisation who provide public policy research and advice. He co-authored Raising the standard of work by with and for children and young people and has worked on other arts and cultural research projects including Envisioning the Library of the Future – also for Arts Council England. He advises a wide range of public service organisations, charities, and community-led organisations.  In other work he also helps to create and support communities of practice for professionals and volunteers, involving public services and community-led projects, and works with organisations to develop methods and processes for self-evaluation.





[1] The findings of the interviews with artists and arts managers are reported in detail in the NFER/Si report cited above.

[2] Early reviews have been very positive, notably from national mainstream press critics


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