Qualities of excellence; excellent qualities.

Provoked by the end of my last blog about quality and excellence I went back to the Arts Council England ‘Great art and culture for everyone’. Greatness distinctively pops up in the National Curriculum for Music where it’s expected pupils be taught to ‘appreciate and understand a wide range of high-quality live and recorded music drawn from different traditions and from great composers and musician’.

I’m not convinced greatness, excellence and quality are synonyms; but there is potentially an assumption that these adjectives apply to the work of professionals (whatever a professional might be), and we are then seemingly applying quite stratospheric expectations on those at the earlier stages of their learning in and through arts.

But someone somewhere needed to decide what excellence is/was to apply such criteria to organisations and work applying for public funds; the assumption could be those in receipt of Arts Council England funding had been deemed excellent. I’ve selected a few quotes from the 2013 ‘Great art and culture for everyone’ where I’d spotted the use of excellence.

We want arts and culture to thrive and to be excellent, and we want to make sure we and others create the right conditions for that; we want as many people as possible to be stimulated by arts and culture wherever they are; and it
is important that children and young people are exposed to culture and can gain from it either as audiences or as people with a talent to pursue. Underlying these three fundamental goals are two supporting ones; we want the models of provision to be resilient, and the leadership and workforce to be truly diverse, reflecting the population and able to support the right talent to make great art for the country.

Arts Council England (2013). Great art and culture for everyone. London: Arts Council England.

Over the past 15 years, the arts and the wider cultural sector
in England have enjoyed a period of outstanding success… The quality on offer has in turn attracted more people. Between 2006 and 2013 overall arts engagement in England increased by 10 per cent, with over 34 million people engaging in the arts


Arts Council investment has provided stability during a time of change and has given arts organisations the space to plan ahead, to continue to be ambitious and to experiment. It has created the conditions under which the best and most innovative art and culture can emerge. An enhanced range of quality arts has reached more people through touring and, in recent years, through digital distribution.


We acknowledge that excellence is difficult to define, and that it will always be, quite rightly, the subject of debate. We also know that the criteria for excellence in a theatre performance will not be the same as for a museum exhibition. We will be honest about how excellence will mean different things for different disciplines, organisations, and ways of creating and presenting work. We are clear that excellence cannot be separated from the people that value it, and that this relationship will be relative, subtle and complex. We believe there is more that we can do to work with the arts and cultural sector to agree more rigorous definitions of both ‘excellence’ and ‘reach’ and to use these to measure the effectiveness of our work and to help shape our investment decision.


We want to prize our creativity, originality and ambition. We want to offer arts and cultural organisations the commitment and freedom that allows them to experiment and take risks. We want them to produce work that is the best of its kind – work that challenges our accepted notions of what arts and culture can do and who can be involved. We want to support cultural exchange, so that the best of international arts and culture is being enjoyed regularly by the public in this country, and the best of our arts and culture finds new audiences overseas. Our job is to nurture the conditions under which this excellence can flourish


Excellence seems to interface with freedom and risk-taking; challenging ‘accepted notions of what arts and culture can do’. But the ACE document recognises excellence comes from the people who value it; so, who are these people? The audience? The maker? The cultural sector professional? What could a rigorous definition of excellence look like, and why is excellence connected to reach? But what is clear in 2013 is that excellence and reach are metrics for effectiveness that help ‘shape’ investment decisions.

Jumping to Let’s Create, the ACE strategy for 2020-2030 that followed ‘Great art and culture for everyone’. The introduction to the strategy sets the scene sharing the impact of the Jeremy Deller and National Theatre director Rufus Norris through their ‘monumental public artwork that stretched the length and breadth of the land’.

When I think of Arts Council England’s new 10-year Strategy, it’s this image that I have in my mind: crowds of volunteers in stations around the country, motionless amid the evening floods of commuters, bringing concourses to a halt as they burst into song. It seems to me to hold within it both the past and the future: standing as one of the tremendous achievements supported by the Arts Council’s last 10-year Strategy, under which we were able to invest in two exceptional artists to create a work of scale and ambition, while at the same time pointing the way forward.

The boldness of the vision, and its trajectory from public spaces onto social media; the collective creativity of all the participants; the partnerships, local and national, that brought the piece to life; and perhaps most important of all, the dissolving of barriers between artists and the audiences with whom they interact

We have exceptional here, referring to the professionals Deller and Norris. Their work is exceptional. Not excellent. But again, exceptional is paired with scale (previously ‘reach’). The new addition here being the ‘dissolving of barriers’.

I didn’t see ‘excellence’ appearing. The commitment to artists remained, and the strategy ‘want[s] them to learn, take risks, fail where necessary, and finally to flourish in pursuit of making new work’. This strategy seems more concerned not with artists now, but with artists of the future; ‘the great artists, performers, writers and curators of 2040 and 2050 need to be nurtured now: our investment in them is, at heart, an investment in a future that we believe can be brighter and better with culture and creativity at its core’.

Quality makes an appearance. ‘By 2030, we want England to be a country in which the creativity of each of us is valued and given the chance to flourish, and where every one of us has access to a remarkable range of high-quality cultural experience’. It also notes that children and young people should be able to ‘access the highest-quality cultural experiences where they live, where they go to school and where they spend their free time’.

The investment principles include ambition and quality; ‘cultural organisations are ambitious and committed to improving the quality of their work’. ‘We do not believe that certain types or scales of creative activity are inherently better or of greater value than others: excellence can be found in village halls and concert halls, and in both the process of participation and the work that is produced’. Excellence is no longer a product, and no longer confined to ‘concert halls’. Interestingly this strategy reminds us ‘judgments about quality are inevitably complex and open to debate’, as noted in ‘great art and culture for everyone’. It also reminds us ACE ’will therefore continue to work with the cultural sector to establish a shared language around it’ (no mention of rigorous definitions here) and we get a new embellishment that ‘in the end it will be the Arts Council’s responsibility to use our experience and expertise to make the judgments that determine those decisions’.

Greatness is realised through ‘best’; ‘we expect [organisations we fund] to be aware of the best work in their field – wherever it happens in the world – and to tell us how they will apply that knowledge to their own development’. I’m feeling there is a developmental angle to this strategy that assumes organisations haven’t achieved their best yet.

I’m still left not knowing what great, best, excellent, quality arts are. But such qualities remain connected to reach. More reading to do.

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