A Relevant Excellence — 21.12.17

The Trust Deed of the Arts Foundation tells us to focus on the highest standards of artistic expression, and the word ‘excellence’ appears repeatedly in our award criteria.

Excellence is one of those words that has always troubled me when applied to any arts practice – after all, one person’s excellence is another’s …... unlike sport, where the determination is usually very straightforward: the fastest performer or the team with the most points wins the gold medal.

One of the important founders of the Arts Foundation, Sir Ronald Scott, received a knighthood for chairing the organising committee of the 1974 Commonwealth Games. Ron loved sport and he also loved the arts. Some of the Arts Foundation’s founding focus on excellence can be traced to its beginnings in Ron’s experience with the Sports Foundation. In Ron’s time, the Sports Foundation made an active decision to give support to a limited group of elite athletes across the many sport codes. Ron wanted that same support to go to the ‘gold medallists’ of the arts.

While it is easy to locate excellence across all art forms – with New Zealand practitioners increasingly achieving global recognition – the arts struggles with the ‘gold medal’ approach, and I find myself agreeing with a friend who says ’excellence’ should never be used in the arts sector; instead, ‘relevance’ is the more appropriate term when distinguishing any arts practice of consequence.

Arts Foundation award recipients are selected by a panel that are independent of Trustees and Governors. Along with the Chair of the Trustees, as Chair of the Governors, I sit in on the selection process as an observer. This year we observed robust discussion by the panel on how community-based practices can be assessed using our criteria of ‘excellence’. In this arena, artists create work with audiences and other practitioners working on many levels. For example, 2017 New Generation Award recipient Tiffany Singh was commissioned by festivals in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to create a work that included 15,000 prayer flags created by 8-12 year olds from low decile schools.

Where is the assessment of excellence located in such a project - with the artist leading it or the outcome? Are we moving beyond the simple frame that identifies a single artist to a more complex notion of excellence? Should we instead be talking about a work’s ‘relevance’? Perhaps then it becomes a more interesting conversation.

In many ways our crowdfunding platform Boosted takes us deeper into this territory of community engagement. While there are many levels of excellence within the projects that are supported, it is the community that decides what is funded. The democratic approach to funding leaves any judgement of value to the participating donors. Put all of the Boosted projects together and you have a lot of art makers given the capacity to produce work now and in the future at all levels in Aotearoa.

Well-run Boosted campaigns have a parallel similar to community practice. Donors are invited into the world of the Boosted artist as a way of ensuring a donor feels like a participant through backstage events and insights from the creative process. In this manner, the depth of experience and the relationship to the work is heightened.

This audience role in making and funding work is impacting how we value art. Art will only be valued if it is considered relevant, and whether that’s by identifying ‘gold medallists’ or involving communities in making and funding it, this is what Sir Ron wanted - the arts to be valued by more New Zealanders.

Warwick Freeman, Applause Issue 23, 2017