Quality and Community

The Elephant in the Room (Photo Credits Below)

A respondent to an earlier post raised the issue of “quality” with respect to community engagement, suggesting in essence that engagement efforts inevitably result in a reduction in the artistic merit of the work. My response was, among other things, that if there is a decline in artistic quality in the arts engagement process, it’s not engagement’s fault. In fairness, I need to elaborate on that. We’ve got to address this elephant in the room eventually. This is as good a time as any.

Coming from a “high arts” background, I was sympathetic to this concern early on. Over the years, however, I’ve become increasingly impatient with it. Let’s see how succinctly (and dispassionately) I can articulate my thoughts. This may take more than one post. There are at least three questions I’d like to pose: Who decides what quality is? What do we mean by quality? and What impact does access to resources have on artistic quality?

Who decides what quality is?
While it’s not always the case, at least sometimes when the quality issue is raised it is being done by a gatekeeper who, consciously or not, is concerned about the loss of authority that could come with admitting “non-standard” [e.g,, non-Western or non-“high art”] artistic expression into the canon. Expertise in one artistic expression does not yield expertise in all. If the issue of quality is going to be raised, it’s necessary to have experts in the art weigh in. Outsiders are poor judges of quality in unfamiliar realms. I sometimes ask students whether the fact that they (or friends of theirs) don’t like opera means that opera is not good. Eventually even they must admit that in terms of absolute quality, they may not have sufficient background to make the call. In evaluating arguments opposing engagement, the perspective (and unconscious motivations) of the person arguing in opposition must be considered.

What do we mean by quality?
We know it when we see/hear it?  This is not a standard that works well for pornography; it also has limited value for assessing artistic merit.  The European canon privileges “spectator art” (non-participatory arts experiences) and technical excellence (you hear the word “prowess” often used in this context). I don’t deny that much greatness is found here. That’s the background from which I come. But there are other ways to think about this. There need to be multiple categories to consider when assessing quality.

For instance, why is spectator art more inherently excellent than participatory art? A case can be made (and I would like to make it) that the capacity for an artistic expression to welcome participation should be on the list of criteria for excellence–not the sole criterion by any means, but on the list. Not all art should be participatory. Art that does is valuable; art that does not is simply lacking this element–not a negative criticism, just an observation.

Similarly, why is technical excellence an a priori good? As I pointed out in The Arts’ Four Noble Truths, Arlene Goldbard showed me a new way of thinking about this: the greater the technical excellence, the more artificial it could be considered. That is not absolute truth, but it is an important alternative understanding. The phenomenon of castrati in 17th- and 18th-century opera demonstrates a telling extreme in the relationship between technique and artificiality. To make the same argument via a positive spin from the other perspective, handmade/home made work is arguably richer and more authentic.

A further thought is to be found in Scott Walters’ post on the meaning of excellence in his blog Theatre Ideas. (I won’t begin to try to parse the difference between excellence and quality here.) He says that “Excellence exists not in the work of art itself but rather in the interaction between the work of art and its audience.” While I would not go so far as to say that this is the only criterion for excellence, I would agree that it is one and, to me, an important one. To put it another way, if the art doesn’t touch anyone (and I will include posterity here) how valuable is it? And to take posterity out of it, if it doesn’t touch anyone now, is it more valuable (excellent, of high quality) than work that does? If the art fell in the woods and no one heard it . . . . oh well, you get the idea.

I’d better stop for this time. But, if we are going to have a conversation about quality and community engagement we need to open our view to a broader understanding of what quality (or excellence) means. When I’ve got the energy to continue this, I’ll address the resource equity issue and a couple of related ideas.


The Pillsbury House + Theatre in Minneapolis, MN is dedicated to the proposition that excellence rests in both community engagement and artistic product. [Disclosure, again: PHT is the subject of a case study that Noel Raymond and Denise Kulawik have written for Building Communities, Not Audiences.] PHT is a (nearly) twenty-year-old Equity company “operating within the context of (and subordinate to) a large human services agency with a mission of both social service and social change.” What they say about the quality issue is ” While, increasingly, we hear about the need for arts participation independent of any considerations of quality, our experience tells us that the quality of the art created and the overall experience is key to organizational effectiveness. Furthermore, working with under-served communities makes the emphasis on quality of even greater importance.” I am particularly struck by the concern to emphasize quality in their dealings with under-served populations.

As a side note, PHT has learned some interesting marketing lessons from outside the realm of arts marketing thought. As they say, “Our audience building success owes more to strategies gleaned from the fields of community organizing and human services than arts marketing.” Just one of the benefits of engagement.



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  1. says

    Hi, Doug,

    Interesting discussion. I think there’s another elephant too, which is the presumption of quality that attaches to marble halls and red velvet curtains.

    I’ve often heard funders and major institution reps make general comments about the uneven quality of community arts. I always reply that the same pertains to the establishment arts: whether judged by audience response or the opinions of critics and experts, a fair proportion of all performing arts productions and visual arts exhibitions are judged wanting. No one sets out to make bad art, but being human, they do it anyway. Projects may be poorly conceived, badly executed, or simply fail to resonate with those who experience them. It’s all a matter of opinion, of course—my favorite example of bad art may be your favorite production, or vice versa. But allowing for subjectivity, I’d say that the primary difference between failures of quality occurring in community-based and establishment-arts work is how much money it cost to make bad art.

    The trouble is, expensively framed and packaged art is just assumed to be of intrinsically higher quality, and there’s a laziness in the discourse that allows that assumption to go unchallenged way too often.

  2. says

    Fairly significant elephant, I’d say. The tendency to see flaws in the unfamiliar to which we are (relatively) blind in our own backyard is a significant truth in every field. Thanks for pointing out this pachyderm.

  3. says

    Liz Lerman has contributed some great insights around these issues. I often go back to her three standards of “quality”

    1) that people are 100% committed to what they’re doing;
    2) they know why they’re doing what they’re doing; and
    3) something is revealed.

    Now that last one is a little more subjective. What is revealed?
    It could be that the performer goes through a transformation;
    it could be that something about the world is revealed; or
    something in the institution is revealed. But something has to
    unfold that makes things different from where you started.
    Dancers might be able to get their legs up high but they don’t
    have a clue why they’re doing what they’re doing. Whereas I
    can bring in a bunch of sixth graders who are just learning and
    they’ll know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing and
    they will be 100% committed and the room will be totally
    transformed by their presence. But that’s where I think we
    could do some serious digging to try to get the classicists to
    address some of this. Studying modern dance in the 60s and
    70s, I was raised in a tradition in which the individual’s ability
    to create an absolute new movement vocabulary was the
    standard by which you would be judged. When I started to
    spend a lot of time with a particular group of African dancers,
    the work had nothing to do with advancing a particular
    movement vocabulary. It was all about the way they stayed
    connected. So a dance critic who comes to the theater—who
    would have been educated the way I was
    educated—could write about that company that
    they were terrible when in fact they were brilliant
    at what they were doing. This idea that a dance
    form could be about how people are connected,
    not about how an individual makes something
    brand new is spectacular for this country at this
    moment. Which of those two values might help
    us more at this moment in time? I’ve thought about how this
    question of quality can start to be the massive obstacle and I
    don’t think that can be an option. It’s almost as if you would
    like to wipe that argument off the table for five years or ten
    years. Let’s come back to that in ten years. Meanwhile, let’s
    go and see what happens!

    Source, page 8

  4. Carol Fineberg says

    I am not often compelled to respond to artsJournalblogs, but this topic and the discourse are irresistible! Having worked in the halls of “high art” and “community,” I have found that artists and arts organizations with a true, non patronizing attitude toward “outreach,” have no problem reaching the highest arts standards that are within their grasp. Artists and arts organizations who take outreach as missionary work tend to provide dumbed down offerings to the grateful unwashed. Acknowledging class distinctions and the varying backgrounds of community based audiences does not automatically require simplistic programming or patronizing “hands on” activities. There are political issues here that needs attention: what is the quid pro quo when “taxpayers” support community based cultural and arts organizations and individual artists? When community programming is a required part of the funding bargain, how does the grantee respond? When the community demands or requests programming that recognizes its cultural values, when is it appropriate for an organization’s leaders to say either yes or no, depending upon the organization’s capacity to do honor to what is requested. And speaking of elephants, when are more of our “high art” organizations going to contribute to “high art” training in middle schools and high schools as opposed to some kind of clumsy mishmash that is not their specialty.

    • says

      Thank you, Doug for raising this issue for discussion.

      I’m with you, Carol when you say “I have found that artists and arts organizations with a true, non patronizing attitude toward “outreach,” have no problem reaching the highest arts standards that are within their grasp”.

      For the past two years, I have been working with community play writer and director Jon Oram at Claque Theatre. Claque’s mission is to engage the widest range of people from a community to produce and participate in an original play of ‘artistic excellence and contemporary relevance.’ The standards Claque typically set are extremely high and we see anything less as condescending to the real possibilities within people.

      In his paper ‘Regenerating Community Through Performance’, Jon says…

      “Experience has shown communities are capable of creating dynamic high quality theatre that can and has profound and long-term effects on their neighbourhood. Communities can improve skills in communication and management, feel more confident and empowered and better informed through participating in a community play.”

      The read the full article, click here: http://www.claquetheatre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Article_Regenerating-Community.pdf

      We’re working on our 33rd UK play this year in Hartfield, East Sussex – the home of A.A. Milne and the inspiration for the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I have high hopes that with a purposeful arts programme (including the launch of a Children’s Book Festival) and the commitment of an experienced team of theatre practitioners, we will acheive the highest artistic standards we can on the budget we have…. and that this will translate as ‘quality’ for the vast majority of people who experience it.