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Quality in Participatory Art by Toby Lowe

Whenever I give a presentation or a lecture on cultural value in relation to cultural policy, I try to sneak into my talk a quote by Richard Hoggart, which I think expresses pithily yet compellingly the essence of the ‘issue’ for which cultural value is often used as a shorthand. In ‘The Way We Live Now’, Hoggart commented, in relation to arts funding, that ‘There will never be enough money’ (and this statement, first made in 1995, certainly feels still valid today!). Hence, he said, ‘Choices will always have to be made, judgments-between’. What is to drive, then, the ‘judgments-between’ that are at the heart of arts funding decisions? ‘Quality’ is usually referred to as a key criterion to establish where funding should be directed. However, what is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality? These are the fundamental questions of arts policy and the inescapable ‘no through road’ where discussions of cultural value usually run aground. To complicate matters further, policy makers and funders refer continually to quality, but shy away from defining it, thus contributing to the ambiguousness and lack of agreements on these matters. And yet, undefined as it may be, ‘quality’ remains a key concept in cultural policy, which is why this guest post by Toby Lowe, ex- Chief Executive of Helix Arts, on the work Helix has done to develop collaboratively a shared notion of what quality might look like for artists working in participatory arts is an important contribution to the value debate.


At some point, discussions about cultural value will inevitably turn to the idea of ‘quality’ – because we are bound to value the cultural experiences which we feel are good.

The question of quality in any arts discipline is tricky, as there is a hefty chunk of subjectivity in all such conversations. And, when thinking about participatory arts – meaning the range of arts practice in which an artist (of any medium) facilitates a creative process with people – then the trickiness of such conversations seems to be magnified. This has led many people to shy away from having these conversations.

And yet it doesn’t have to be this way – we can, and we should, have these conversations. Why? Because participatory arts is the artistic discipline that most frequently asks the question: ‘who gets to make art?’ It is the part of the arts that speaks most regularly of the importance of equality in the cultural voice that people have: who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture? And if the people who are asking these questions aren’t also having conversations about what good work looks like, then the practice that is done in their name will soon become stale and uninteresting. In order to address the massive inequality of art-making opportunity, those who currently have least access to cultural capital deserve the best. They should get to work with the best artists, they should have the best equipment and materials, because their stories matter.

Unfortunately, conversations about quality in participatory art have been more difficult than ever in the past few years. The ‘do more for less’ agenda has led to corner-cutting (generally skimping on artist’s time and fees) and so artists have less time and space for critical reflection and learning. And because participatory art often works alongside social policy, debate in this area has become infected with the notion that you can judge the quality of the work by the outcomes it produces. (This notion doesn’t even work within the world of social policy, but despite being false, it is still widely-held).

Critical Conversations and Peer Reflection

So, what do we need to do put this right? Firstly, we need to understand that it’s critical reflection that makes our practice better. The work of participatory artists and arts organisations requires making difficult decisions in complex, uncertain environments. The only way we can learn and improve is by being open with one another about why and how we do what we do, and receiving the honest feedback of our peers when we do so.

In order to do this, we need to do two things:

  • We create time and resources for critical reflection on participatory practice
  • We provide a framework for having those conversations, so artists (and others) can draw on the support of others; no-one should have to feel like they’re starting these conversations from scratch.

It’s up to each of us to generate the time and resources required for critical reflection. That’s a shared task. And at Helix Arts, we’ve also been working on the second of these jobs.

We’ve led the process of developing a Peer Reflection tool, which helps artists and arts organisations to reflect on their practice. The tool has been piloted by a number of artists and organisations from across the UK, and it’s available for anyone to use.

We’ve also created our own ‘group crit’ practice for participatory artists, called ‘Critical Conversations’, which have been piloted by artists and organisations who have been part of the Artworks North East pathfinder programme. These have been a set of discussions in which artists have been given the opportunity to critically reflect on their practice. What questions are important to them? What answers do people find to the questions that are raised?

Crucially, we recorded each of these Conversations, so that others can learn from the questions that are asked, and the responses that different practitioners find. Too much of previous discussion about what quality practice looks like in participatory arts has melted away – so that each set of practitioners who have these conversations feels like they are starting from scratch. By recording the conversations, we begin to build a shared resource from which everyone can learn.

I’ve written a report which attempts to draw out some themes from these Conversations. This was an amazing process to undertake, immersing myself in artists’ dialogue was fascinating. There’s no way I can accurately summarise the depth and nuance of the conversations here, but I can highlight just a few of the range of areas that artists felt were important to explore:

  • The theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of participatory practice, which link to relational and dialogical aesthetics.
  • The relationship between participatory art and social change – particularly the sense that it can help to achieve social change, but not if it is used as a sticking plaster. It has to be done authentically, and with rigour.
  • The conditions required for good participatory work: dialogue with (and challenge to) commissioners, understanding context, time to develop meaningful relationships, access to quality materials and equipment.
  • The roles which artists play when working on participatory projects – from directorial approaches to facilitating the creativity of others. This also exposed different questions which related to the different roles, including questions about the ‘ownership’ of the work, and how consent is negotiated.
  • The importance of professionalism and rigour. There was a strong consensus that the artist’s role was about bringing rigour, discipline, and professionalism to participatory work.
  • The relationship of participatory work to audiences – when is it appropriate to think about audience needs in participatory work, challenging audience expectations of participatory work, and of relationships between artists, participant, and audiences, and between different types of audience.
  • Markers of quality:
    • in artists’ practice: professionalism, radical listening, change in the artist
    • change in group dynamics, and the technical skill-level of participants
    • in the work: in the aesthetic of work produced. In particular, the value of subtlety, nuance, originality and the avoidance of cliché was a strong, common theme.
  • What artists feel has worked well in their practice, in terms of:
    • Relationship building: artists reflected on a range of techniques they used to build relationships with people. A key feature of many of these artists’ practice was that they started by listening, understanding and responding to context, rather than by pushing their perspective, and that this starts the relationship on a pathway which enables the artist to convey their passion for their practice.
    • The role of ‘not knowing’: the starting point for many artists was a questioning, non-expert position, which treated the participants themselves (and their wider context) as the source of expertise in the work.
    • Exposing participants to excellence, and engaging them in critical reflection. There was a strong sense from artists that involving participants in a process of critical reflection about the work was a key factor in producing strong work.
    • Planning, and responding to failure and change. Participatory practice is both highly structured (with both individual workshop plans and plans for a whole programme of workshops) and highly fluid – requiring artists to respond creatively to ‘failure’ (which often brings exciting new possibilities) and to other forms of change. This is just one of a number of contradictions which the artist is required to hold, and deal with.
    • Enabling people to escape previously defined identities.
    • Artists discussed how to recognise the ‘ignition point’ of participatory projects, that moment when the core idea of the work appears.
  • The unresolved challenges that artists face: when, and how much to push participants, when to intervene, and questions of the relationship between consent and censorship.

These are just some of the topics that artists discussed when invited to reflect on the quality of their own practice amongst an audience of supportive peers. The more we are each able to be open about the complex judgements we make, and the uncertainties we feel about those judgements, the better all our work will be.



Toby has is a Senior Research Associate at Newcastle University Business School, helping to build relationships between the Business School and the people working for social change. He undertakes action research on the public and social sectors, supporting those seeking to make social change to free themselves from the paradoxes of outcome-based performance management. Previously he was Chief Executive of Helix Arts, a national leader in the participatory arts field. He likes ping pong and dancing – preferably at the same time.


One Response to “Quality in Participatory Art by Toby Lowe”

  1. This essay by Toby Lowe raises a host of interesting questions about notions of “quality” and the nature of “participatory arts” practice. As a socially engaged practitioner and PhD candidate exploring the potentialities of socially engaged art – particularly around new forms of truly democratic societies linked to notions of social justice and critical utopias – I felt I must respond. My response, “Quality in participatory arts: fit for whose purpose & in need of qualification?” is available on my blog: https://colouringinculture.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/quality-in-participatory-arts-fit-for-whose-purpose-in-need-of-qualification/

    I welcome comments and responses.

    P.S. “quality” is an old collegue – we go way back!

    Posted by Stephen Pritchard | February 9, 2015, 6:22 pm

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