Must “quality” and “community” be mutually exclusive? Clearly I believe not, in spite of a widespread opinion to the contrary on the part of many in the established arts world. That prejudice against community is the elephant in the room I called out in my earlier Quality and Community post. In it I addressed, at least in a preliminary way, two of the three questions I put forward to begin the discussion: Who decides what quality is? and What do we mean by quality? The gist of the argument is that there needs to be an expansion of the things we evaluate in ascertaining quality. The criteria many of us hold in our minds are not the only ones that have merit. As an example, whether a work is rooted in a broad spectrum of human experience and/or has meaning for a wide swath of people is one (of several) that we should consider. The third question, What impact does access to resources have on artistic quality?, is where I’ll begin today.
What impact does access to resources have on artistic quality?
If I am going to be honest, that is very nearly a rhetorical question. The answer is fairly obvious. Resources–financial, human, “infrastructural” (e.g., physical facilities, educational institutions and programming)–have for centuries been lavished upon the reflective arts of the European tradition by patrons and enthusiasts. After such a history, how could the arts so supported not have considerable advantage at least with respect to technical excellence? If it were true that in absolute terms the arts presented by the arts establishment were of demonstrably higher quality than community-based arts (and that is not a premise I am willing to grant), what does that mean? Do we continue to privilege the privileged arts? Even if the handwriting on the wall did not demand change, concern for equity and fairness would suggest that the disparity should be addressed. Does that threaten the status quo? Yes . . . .
Before I close this round of the conversation, there are two other issues to note that relate to perceptions people have about this topic. One is the fact that the practice of engaging communities in the arts is complex, requiring a variety of skills not heretofore part of the training of artists: how to build effective partnerships, understanding diverse constituencies, how to work with segments of the community (government, business, faith-based) to name just a few. Until engagement practitioners become knowledgeable and skilled in these and other areas, the quality of the end results will not be as high as they could be.
Another observation is that engagement can actually enhance artistic quality. As the number of engaged populations is increased, the richness of the cultural experience available as an artistic resource will be expanded. Each culture and subset of the community has a heritage, an experience unique unto itself. Tapping this wealth provides access to creative possibilities that otherwise would not have existed.
As I observed in my earlier post, if there is a decline in artistic quality in the arts engagement process, it’s not engagement’s fault.
For the example here, apropos of this post, I am going to, once again, introduce an organization that serves as a case study in Building Communities, Not Audiences, Ballet Memphis. Introducing her article about the company, founder and artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh says:
My company, Ballet Memphis, continues to stand in its first position: one foot firmly planted on the board of ballet tradition, the other on concern for and responsibility to the city that is our home. We began committed to each; experience has drawn us more deeply into both. Contrary to the thinking of some in the ballet community or in the community development world, it is possible. In the case of Memphis, it is not only possible, it has proven essential.
Ballet Memphis’ website says:
Identified as a “national treasure” by the Ford Foundation, Ballet Memphis continues to produce original works with the classical ballets we’ve long enjoyed. Our combined programs—company, ballet school, educational enrichment and Pilates Centre—serve 75,000 people annually. Our mission: creating, presenting and teaching ballet and dance in many forms as we celebrate the human spirit through our bodies. But at the core of it all is our belief that everyone matters. [Underlined emphasis mine]
The point is that they view (and live) the quality and community issue as an “and,” realizing that sacrificing quality does a disservice to the community and sacrificing engagement will negatively impact quality. Dance on, Ballet Memphis!