Since starting the Art and Social Practice course I’ve been subscribing to the free Mailout newsletter, which is full of useful information. The most recent issue mentions a paper by Francois  Matarasso, ‘Creative Progression: Reflections on quality in participatory arts‘, which is based based on a case study of this project by Helix Arts.

We are the stage of reflecting critically on our course projects (effective deadline Thursday lunchtime when  we set off for Shetland!), and there is lots of relevant food for thought here.

“Change, like quality, is an neutral term. The extent of its desirability depends on the nature of a change … an artistic experience may change someone’s experience of living for the worse” p.4

“The use of phrases such as ‘high quality art’ is dangerous because it makes it harder to discuss and determine the value of arts practice, while also tending to exclude those who believe themselves less able than professionals to recognise quality in art.” p.4

“We may not be able to define excellence, but we can certainly identify good and less good, admirable and acceptable.” p.5

Matarasso identifies “five stages of a process: conception, contracting, working, creation and completion”. p.5


He contrasts the personal transformative purpose of the arts in general with the “concepts of social change, whether at an individual or group level, associated with participatory arts in the minds of many funding bodies” and questions whether artists should or even can act as agents of “social instruction”. p.6

“Uncertainty of outcome is a characteristic of art practice. An artist cannot guarantee the success of an idea, a task or even a project, although, if working with others, they might be expected to guarantee the standard of their processes.” p.6

He notes that, in medicine, “complexity makes individual health outcomes unpredictable, so medicine uses probability” for forecasting and decisionmaking, and argues that such methods would be “more appropriate and more useful than those currently employed in British arts policy and management”. p.6

He stresses the importance of including theoretical questions in the “conception and planning of a project”, to have any chance of testing the “quality or value” of activities, and use time scale as an example. In a long programme, some people may gain most from a short segment like a workshop – “Six hours of energy, excitement, focus and limited commitment”. Whereas adult education may transform cumulatively, participation in art can be intensely and almost instantly transformative.

A “clear articulation of how and why specific arts interventions are expected to result in change is an essential theoretical basis” to participatory arts practice and evaluation.

I’ll come back to this in a second post – Matarasso goes on to say some very interesting things about success, ‘good failure’ and ‘bad failure’, and about empowerment.

Matarasso, F (2013), Creative Progression: Reflections on quality in participatory arts, UNESCO Observatory Multi-Disciplinary Journal in the Arts, 3:3.

quality and participatory arts