We Need to Talk About Excellence

Fun Palaces’ Co-Director Stella Duffy on ‘excellence’ :

We’re halfway through the Arts Council’s 2010-2020 ten year strategic framework, Great Art and Culture for Everyone, and the five goals still seem viable and important in terms of what we might yet all do to create value as artists and arts practitioners, even – or especially – in straightened times.

  1. Excellence is thriving and celebrated in the arts, museums and libraries.
  2. Everyone has the opportunity to experience and be inspired by the arts, museums and libraries.
  3. The arts, museums and libraries are resilient and environmentally sustainable.
  4. The leadership and workforce in the arts, museums and libraries are diverse and appropriately skilled.
  5. Every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts, museums and libraries.

Those of us who care about fairer, more shared use, of already-existing buildings will agree that point 3 might actually mean building less, and better use of the buildings we already have. However, the really tricky point, as it has been for some time, is the word EXCELLENCE.

And that’s not merely because excellence is such a highly subjective term – whose ‘excellent’ dance, music, literature etc do we use as the standard? Michael Gove’s standard of excellence? Tracey Emin’s standard of excellence? The ‘excellent’ that is the standard of the disaffected fifteen year old who lives up the road from me in Loughborough Junction? (Arguably, if we do want every child and young person “to experience the richness of the arts, museums and libraries” then it’s possible that this latter standard of excellence is the one we ought to put our highest store by.)

What if excellence wasn’t – as it all too often is now – used to mean ‘high art’, used as a judgment of quality?

What if ‘excellent’ meant that work which was most inclusive, encouraged engagement from the most people, reached out to the widest range of people – enabled and inspired the greatest number, not only of existing artists, but of potential artists?

As long as all of our people do not have the opportunity to experience and be inspired by the arts, museums and libraries, and further, do not have the opportunity to create the arts, museums and libraries (and those of us working in the arts know only too well that they don’t) we simply cannot say that ANY of our work is excellent. The pool from which our ‘excellent’ is judged is too small.

When we are, finally, enabling or engaging EVERY potential artist in Britain, every writer, every creator, every curator, only then can we say that work or this is ‘excellent’, only then will it be appropriate to make such a judgment.

Until we have excellence of engagement, enabling not only arts for all, but the possibility that every potential artist has the opportunity to discover and develop their creativity, then we are not only losing present and future artists, we are losing their work. (And because we believe in the value of linking arts and sciences, in the possibility of great new work when we link arts and sciences, Fun Palaces would extend this need to reach further, deeper, to every potential scientist too.)

We cannot know what excellence is, because we are not yet offering everyone the opportunity to be creative – therefore, without excellence of engagement, there can be no true excellence of work.

(And yes, of course we think Fun Palaces is one of the ways to achieve this excellence.)