ArtWorks Alliance is committed to improving the quality of participatory arts. How are members going about doing that? From Kathryn Deane…

Oh to be a widget maker. Everything about what distinguishes the truly excellent widget from the merely passable is known, measurable and codified. More: every widget maker and widget user agrees on those metrics, and they’re all set down in the official Book.

Oh to be working in participatory arts. Distinguishing the best work from lesser work is complicated, convoluted, contingent. And a compromise. Get four or five participatory arts workers together – and you’ll have a dozen different views on what constitutes quality, where it resides, and how it might be measured. Instead of the one Little Book of Widget Quality, we have Quality Frameworks. Dozens of them, all slightly different, totalling maybe 1,400 separate metrics.

We tried tying them all together, but learned the truth of a wise saying that “if you have 27 frameworks for something and you try to tie them all together, all you’ll get is 28 frameworks.” We tried tying just two together, but to no better effect.

No-one wants uniformity – it wouldn’t suit the art, the artist or above all the unique and individual participant at all well. But there are, it has to be said, drawbacks to this pluralism. Is one quality framework of, er, better quality than another? What if a funder or commissioner demanded all their artists followed Framework A, when Framework B would be far more appropriate for some activities? What if artist C was trained by an organisation using Framework D, and later moved to E, where they all used F?

Actually, chance would be a fine thing. The only thing worse than having too many frameworks to follow is not following any of them. And by and large the use of quality frameworks is not great which is a pity. Because any quality guide is (probably) better than no quality guide, if it gets you thinking about quality, what constitutes it, how it can be improved, who benefits. If you regularly use a quality guide – whether an artist, organisation, commissioner, funder, researcher – give yourself a pat on the back.

If you don’t, it’s time to think why not? Don’t you know what guides are available? Maybe it’s not clear how you’d use one. Or perhaps you’re concerned you’d end up playing Scrabble Quality as above? Or you don’t like any of the frameworks, or it’s just one more burden, or they’re all useless anyhow and no-one would take any notice, Or any of a hundred more reasons.

That’s why the work of the quality action group in ArtWorks Alliance is so important. They’ve developed two frameworks for use by artists and funders – as have others. But critically, this is just the starting point for the group’s work. Now, they are looking at how to roll these frameworks out, how to encourage artists, commissioners, funders and others to actually use them. And, how to work with other organisations developing and using frameworks to make the most of the plurality that exists. ArtWorks Alliance, working across artforms, countries and settings, is uniquely placed to do this job.