Striving for excellence...or not?

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I've been part of the Arts Council's Working group on Quality of work for, with and by children and young people since its inception 18 months ago. I have enjoyed the many, many informal conversations; contributed to the NFER / Shared Intelligence research and the December 2011 event in Birmingham, and I think that the seven principles for testing those processes generated a good platform to build from. Before getting involved in this I've worked with colleagues in my own organisation, The Sage Gateshead, to create a Quality framework that our practitioners use to help them facilitate, lead and support the best possible work with all our participants and learners.

How do you know it's Propa Belta, the recent youth-led consultation event takes this whole debate to another level, however. The 50 or so young participants took the seven principles and subjected them to a good-natured and uncompromising investigation, turning them inside out, upside down and backwards, and producing brilliant insights and recommendations. Phrases long cherished by well-meaning professionals - 'sense of ownership', 'striving for excellence' - were thoroughly scrutinised and found wanting. On the matter of 'sense of ownership', the delegates suggested that young people might just simply own their experiences....

Turning to the ubiquitous 'striving for excellence', one group made a passionate case for the whole concept being defunct, proposing first that the goal of participation in arts and culture should be to achieve personal best, rather than be driven by any external, arbitrary standard of excellence as the benchmark; and secondly that rather than striving to produce excellent work, we should strive to make work that provokes a reaction.

I find that a terrifically energising vision. I think it tells us that the notion of 'striving for excellence' conflates two distinct, and equally important concepts.

The first is to do with rights and responsibilities - it's the job of leaders and facilitators (of any age) to ensure that their actions and interventions are nurturing, challenging and appropriate to the core task of enabling individuals they are working with to be the best they can be, on their own terms. 

The second is to do with the purpose of art itself - it may be that excellence as a technical, aesthetic or socio-cultural construct is irrelevant to this debate. Aiming to provoke a reaction isn't to do with the inert or objective characteristics of the work produced, it is about the relationships between all the people involved - makers, watchers,  listeners, performers, producers, facilitators  - and charged with emotions, thoughts and insights.

This dynamic art made or experienced by people being the best that they can be would be truly excellent.

This post was written by Katherine Zeserson, who is the Director of Learning and Participation for The Sage Gateshead, responsible for the strategic design, direction and implementation of its ambitious, internationally acclaimed Learning and Participation programme.

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