‘This research promotes the idea that critical examination of arts learning experiences (not merely arts activities) is a truer test of excellence in arts education than the production of artistic products’, written in Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education (Project Zero). I was searching on Google Scholar ‘quality arts education’ and this was one of the first hits. Already that quoted sentence above can be unpacked into numerous issues; it differentiates ‘arts activities’ and ‘arts learning experiences’, the former being somehow a lower ‘quality’ offering. ‘Critical examination’ is the ‘truer test’ (can we have a ‘truer test’?) of ‘excellence’ than ‘products’. From the get-go it’s placing the outputs as of far less importance than the process.
‘The quality of the arts and cultural experience can vary considerably from one learning environment to the next’, writes Anne Bamford (2010). Bamford quotes the Project Zero research above: ‘the quality of arts learning opportunities that are available to young people is a serious concern” (p. 7). The report summarised the perception of the quality of arts education offered in many schools as being “uninspired and infrequent”’. Bamford sees a lack of quality assurance as a key issue, noting ‘there is a lack of appropriate quality assurance mechanisms for the arts in schools and in some cases a reluctance from the arts sector to put substantial research and pedagogical focus on quality assurance’.
Bamford writes ‘high quality does not apply only to more traditional genres of arts practice or to those that are the most expensive. For example, you can have good and bad opera programmes in schools as you can good or bad rap projects.’ But she notes that ‘it could be argued that, from a child-centred approach, many of the quality indicators are evident less in product and more in process’. Bamford writes of the differing perceptions of quality from the school and artist/organisation perspective; it’s not until after the latter that she considers issues of ‘merit’ and ‘worth’ with regards to quality. It’s an interesting paper and can be read here.
Bamford concludes: ‘Quality is often seen as the proverbial elephant in the room for arts education. This has had negative consequences for arts education. Quality assurance is not the enemy of creativity, but should be seen as an ally. Indeed, the countries that have embraced QA have seen marked improvements in the impact of arts education programmes. To this end all quality assurance systems need to be evaluated and analysed within the given situation in which they operate. The best quality assurance framework for arts education should be flexible in its approach. It is an epistemological truism, that the social reality can be seen through different conceptual lenses’.
Maybe the audience perspective and perception of quality is important here, as Bamford writes too, that children and young people (or whomever is the recipient of arts and cultural education) should be the judge of quality. Radbourne et al (2010) note that the audience view of work had received little attention, and noted that ‘quality’ was determined by funding and public bodies, critical reviews in press etc. Radbourne et al’s study ‘focused on four components of the audience experience: knowledge, risk, authenticity and collective engagement. The aim of
the primary research was to test the idea of the audience or spectator experience as a measure of quality, thus empowering arts audiences to actively participate in the co-production of artistic quality’.
I went to see glass human, Sam Fernando’s new opera with Glyndebourne Touring, at the weekend. I met the artistic director before the performance (he was meeting a group of donors after an earlier performance of glass human), and he was giving a short introduction to the work. I enjoyed the comments from the guests; ‘I don’t think I liked it’, and ‘I didn’t understand it’. But one person made a really fascinating point that they needed to hear it more than once; he reflected on a past experience of a new opera where he had seen it in rehearsal and performance a number of times and it had grown on him. He needed repeated experience to appreciate it. Sadly, contemporary music/opera might get few performances and such opportunities might be rare.
Radbourne’s et al idea of ‘knowledge’ was what could be provided to enhance the experience in advance; and I wondered after my Glyndebourne experience what an audience member needed to experience glass human well. I’m a composer, studied music for many years and the experience for me was not new; I had the knowledge to understand the musical experience and could follow the musical narrative. My ears were tuned to contemporary classical music. But should we expect an audience member to be tuned to the musical logic? I’d expect not. I’d expect any listener to be able to attend to a contemporary opera. But perhaps I am naive.
‘Risk’ is an interesting second category in Radbourne’s research. Expectation meeting. And in the post-show conversations at Glyndebourne it was clear the opera hadn’t met the expectations of some in the room, and I noted during their exchanges how the much more familiar territory of works such as la bohème were their expectation. And this is not making a judgment on their musical tastes; it was interesting for me to hear that their measure of operatic quality (and one felt this was being agreed by the various nods and interjections of agreement) that Puccini et al were opera.
I’m less convinced by the first category of authenticity in Radbourne et al: ‘Authenticity can be seen to have two main components. One is authenticity of what is being offered: Is the performance up to technical standards? Does the audience believe the play is by the playwright whose name appears on the program? Is the music performance faithful to the score?’. This category of authenticity supposes knowledge to make such an assessment.
I am more convinced and fascinated by the ‘second component to authenticity’: ‘the audience’s emotional perception’.
Authenticity is generally associated with reality, truth and believability, yet these qualities mean different things to different consumers; whether or not an experience is considered authentic is based on the perception of the consumer (Arnould and Price, 2000; Grayson and Martinec, 2004). Furthermore, as Wang (1999) writes: “That which is judged as inauthentic or staged authenticity by experts, intellectuals or elite may be experienced as authentic and real from an emic perspective” (p. 353). Therefore, in the context of the performing arts, audience members may experience a performance as “authentic” even if it is not faithful to its original script or score.
It’s an interesting article, and pleased to see Pitts’ work referenced too. I need to follow these threads up. I’m interested to consider the various stakeholders, as Bamford does (2010) and would be keen to investigate the understanding of ‘quality’ (I’m less keen to consider the idea of ‘excellence’) as perceived by teachers, artists and children. I’m keen though to consider what audience research can illuminate in these conversations, and how such research activity might inform how we as arts educators engage with our audience. But I’m left wondering how much we can investigate quality in the process and the product(s) of our arts education work. I’ll keep reading (and writing).
Bamford, A. (2010). Issues of global and local quality in arts education. Encounters in Theory and History of Education, 11, 47-66.
Radbourne, J., Johanson, K., Glow, H., & White, T. (2009). The Audience Experience: Measuring Quality in the Performing Arts. International Journal of Arts Management, 11(3), 16–29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41064995
Seidel, S., Tishman, S., Winner, E., Hetland, L., & Palmer, P. (2009). The qualities of quality: Understanding excellence in arts education. Cambridge, MA: Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education.