I recently read with great interest and anticipation A Quality Framework for Helix Arts’ Participatory Practice.  Having long bemoaned the lack debate around quality in participatory arts it was a welcome addition.  Being familiar with Helix’s excellent work and reputation, and having contributed to Toby Lowe’s blog about quality I was keen to see where the company’s thinking was, and what it might offer the rest of the sector.  Both Helix and Collective Encounters are currently part of Arts Council England’s pilot attempt to assess the participatory art process, and I believe firmly that we should be trying to find shared understandings about what high quality participation looks like.  But reading the Quality Framework has reminded me why this is so difficult: it’s a vast, diverse practice and while there is certainly common ground, there are also very important differences.

The Framework begins by highlighting a sliding scale of participation: from participant as being “in a process of creative enquiry, which they help to shape” to participants as “material for an artists’ work”.  It is a very useful reminder for those of us who, like Helix, are mostly engaged at the first end of the scale and are working with participants as equal co-creators, that the other end of the scale is still considered as involving participation at all!  When you’re passionately committed to art as an empowering, inclusive process it’s easy to think that your notion of participation is the only one.  It’s helpful to be reminded that there is a spectrum, and that in describing your work and situating it within a broader field of practice you first need to place yourself on the spectrum.  Where you situate your work in this regard has massive implications that will inform questions of quality, experience and evaluation. I can’t help but question though, if we shouldn’t be more specific as a sector about what we think participatory arts is: I doubt that networks such as CPAL and EMPAF (North West and Midlands based networks of participatory arts organisations) would recognise the ‘participant as material for an artists work’ end of the scale as participatory arts practice at all.  My personal feeling is that in discussing the quality of participatory arts practice the quality and depth of participation should be central, and this raises questions (political, ethical and practical) about the process of and beyond the arts practice: to what extent are participants not only involved creatively, but also involved in planning and shaping projects.

Next, the Framework offers a critical perspective drawing on Dialogical Aesthetics and relating this directly to participatory arts practice.  This opens up some very interesting territory, and allows Helix to develop some key principles of practice that I think would find common currency in the sector.  The ideas are closely aligned to the theoretical principles that underpin Collective Encounters work, but they are not a complete match.  They come from a very different perspective, and here I return to the challenge inherent in this diverse set of practices.  Collective Encounters’ theoretical framework is drawn from the field of Theatre for Social Change: while this shares many of the ideas of Dialogical Aesthetics that Helix discusses, it is more driven by consideration of the political and ethical aspects of the work, as well as aesthetic and processual considerations.  For us, the politics of participation are inseparable from the aesthetics of participation.  Other arts organisations draw their theoretical frameworks from Applied Theatre, Relational Aesthetics or from Community Arts.  Helix’s Framework is very useful in prompting us to think about the theoretical underpinnings of our own work and offer a helpful starting point for informed discussion around what the key values and principles of participatory arts practice might be.  But they remind the reader that one size does not fit all.

Finally, the Framework attempts to translate the principles into a critical framework for participatory arts practice.  In this regard it offers a useful set of questions for discussing the experience of participation, but I think it could be clearer in articulating what Helix really thinks a quality experience looks like. Towards what is the work striving?  How will participants be involved in discussing, shaping and reflecting on their experiences?  There is a focus on the logistics of creating an appropriate space for the work: a thorough, detailed self-assessment framework is set out that illustrates how practical reality can be shaped by guiding principles; and how this can be usefully measured and assessed.  And a very interesting approach, drawn from the visual arts teaching tradition, is taken to enabling artists to reflect on and share their practice.  We shall certainly borrow from both these processes.

In short Helix’s Framework is well worth a read by anyone considering the question of quality in participatory arts.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all, but is a useful provocation with much to offer.  I hope it will prompt rigorous debate and look forward to discussing the ideas it raises with Helix and others.  It’s a timely and valuable contribution to the debate.

To look at Collective Encounters Quality and Evaluation Framework, including our Quality Indicators for process, product and management of creative activity and our social change indicators visit here.