Reclaiming excellence

‘The time has come to reclaim the word ‘excellence’ from its historic, elitist undertones and to recognise that the very best art and culture is for everyone’ writes James Purnell in the 2008 report ‘Supporting Excellence in the Arts’. Brian McMaster, the author of the report, writes that ‘the desire and ability to innovate and the willingness to take risks is fundamental for any organisation striving to be excellent’. He goes on to write ‘it is vital that young people are given the chance to experience culture within and outside school, and that this experience is excellent’, and that touring of ‘excellent work’ is ‘crucial’; ‘we must provide the opportunity to experience excellence across the whole country’.

McMaster goes on to define excellence.

Excellent culture takes and combines complex meanings, gives us new insights and new understandings of the world around us and is relevant to every single one of us… If culture is excellent it can help us make sense of our place in the world, ask questions we would not otherwise have asked, understand the answers in ways we couldn’t otherwise have understood and appreciate things we have never before experienced. The greater its power to do these things the more excellent the cultural experience.

The best definition of excellence I have heard is that excellence in culture occurs when an experience affects and changes an individual. An excellent cultural experience goes to the root of living. This idea may seem abstract, but in fact it is quite concrete. We have all been to performances which have been good technically but stopped short of being excellent. We can train artists to a degree of technical ability so that their work is of high quality. Excellence is another quality altogether.

McMaster separates high-quality from excellent; excellent work ‘affects and changes the individual’ where ‘good technically’ that doesn’t go to the ‘root of living’ isn’t excellent. McMaster notes that ‘good practice alone, however, is not what I mean by excellence’.

Cultural excellence is not just the preserve of the performing or visual arts. Excellence in museums and galleries, just like excellence in any other cultural sphere, is about life-changing experiences. Just as an excellent theatrical, orchestral or operatic work can help an individual make sense of the world around them, so can an excellent gallery, museum, exhibition or display. As has been said, if museums and galleries, like all arts organisations, want to matter, they should aim to have the creativity of great artists, the radicalism and drive of environmental campaigners and the insight of contemporary novelists.

Excellence changes lives; excellence makes ‘sense of the world’; excellence is the ‘creativity of great artists’. For McMaster, excellence is radicalism and insight. He writes that ‘culture’ needs to ‘innovate to be excellent… if it is to be truly relevant to our society’. McMaster sees ‘innovation… [as] an integral part of the search for excellence, and should be encouraged if we are to encourage excellence’. And for McMaster excellence cannot only be achieved through innovation but through diversity, as ‘culture can only be excellent when it is relevant, and thus nothing can be excellent without reflecting the society which produces and experiences it’.

Children and young people, for McMaster, deserve to experience ‘the power of culture at an early age’. McMaster highlights that ‘the Government announced in the Children’s Plan… its ambition to move to a position where all children and young people, no matter where they live or what their background, have the opportunity to engage in five hours of cultural activity a week’. But he notes that ‘as well as quantity, however, we must also see quality. The excellence and depth of the experience must form the core of any activity included in any ‘cultural offer’ made to young people’.

For McMaster, only excellent work should be a recipient of public funding. But those in receipt of such funding should be warned against ‘complacency’ as ‘longer-term funding may in fact work against innovation and risk-taking and bring about complacency’. McMaster believed ‘that an excellent practitioner or organisation always strives for constant improvement, and may in fact never accept that they are excellent’. So only excellent work should be funded, but you shouldn’t consider you have achieved excellence (to warrant funding) as you’re always trying to be better. But you can’t be high-quality (the level just below excellence for McMaster) as high-quality doesn’t go to the ‘root of living’ and change lives. A bit of a bind for arts organisations. You need to be in the luminal space between high-quality and excellence; excellent enough for funding but not too excellent to seem complacent of your excellent.

‘The notion that the arts are not for everyone must be tackled head-on, since excellent art is by definition for, and relevant to, absolutely everyone’. It’s seemingly quite simple for McMaster that those who don’t engage are suffering from an illness: ‘The ‘it’s not for me’ syndrome, combined with high ticket prices in many cultural organisations has conspired to put off many potential audience members and exclude them from experiences that could transform their lives’. For McMaster museums and galleries where there are ‘free tickets’ seems to be the ideal solution to enhancing engagement ‘where a great many people have been enabled to experience cultural excellence is free admission’. But McMaster believes ‘very strongly that excellence attracts an audience… however… too many organisations, particularly in the performing arts, have been content to supply audiences with a superficial experience that provides immediate satisfaction but no lasting impact’.

So it’s paying for tickets that puts the audience off. But also performing arts organisations are guilty of ‘superficial experiences’; ‘lasting impact’ is excellent. Lasting impact changes lives. Excellent work changes lives and attracts the audience.

McMaster recommends peer-review and trusting artists to judge the quality of their work (its ‘excellence’): ‘There was a high degree of unanimity amongst respondents [in this review] that peer review is an effective way to judge artistic excellence’. Peer-review and self-assessment would support judgments by funders who should have the ‘expectation that all organisations aspire to excellence and seek innovation and risk-taking in their work’. Innovation and risk-taking are highlighted again as the tenets of excellence. But don’t take risks that don’t change lives, or are too costly as ticket prices might put off an audience from experiencing the excellence.

Looking to the 2010-2020 and 2020-2030 strategies of Arts Council England excellence still remains undefined; in fact, it feels much looser than what McMaster proposes. But McMaster concludes that ‘there needs to be a more confident articulation of the concept of excellence – from government and funders to artists and cultural organisations. A greater sense of what excellence is within public discourse on culture is required. This must be led by practitioners better articulating their vision and intent, and by cultural organisations meeting public demand for a deeper engagement with the arts’. By the 2020-2030 ACE strategy is clear that they ultimately have the ‘responsibility to use our experience and expertise to make … judgments’. Those judgments ultimately of what excellence is.

While not denying that excellence is something which should be striven for in culture, as in all things, the fact that [McMaster’s] definition is itself based on a subjective, personal opinion rather undermines the value of McMaster’s report and gives it the status of nothing more than a well-researched opinion piece from the very beginning… Furthermore, the core difficulty and inherent contradictions of attempting to define, measure and judge excellence and quality in the arts remain largely unaddressed and totally unresolved.

Eckersley (2008)


Eckersley, S. (2008). Supporting excellence in the arts: from measurement to judgement. Cultural trends17(3), 183-187.

McMaster, B. (2008). Supporting excellence in the arts. From Measurement to Judgement.

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