Lisa Baxter, 10 January 2016

Inspired by my recent work in Australia, informed by the Australia Council's Artistic

Vibrancy report and toolkit, I was interested in opening up a converstaion here in the

UK because ‘excellence’ is a much used word whereas ‘vibrancy’ rarely uttered (and

presumably then, rarely considered and not fully understood).

What is Artistic Excellence?

- one of ACE's priorities, but what does this mean? Is it about perceived quality, and if

it is, who determines the quality, and how can quality be assessed with the rise of new

and hybrid artforms, which unlike the ‘classic’ arts, do not lend themselves to

acknowledged dimensions of excellence. There was an associated discomfort around

‘excellence’ being determined by a group of ‘experts’.

- an important question was raised about the difference between ‘perceived

excellence’ and ‘perceived value’.

- the perception of excellence is perhaps more associated with London work rather

than the regions.

- excellence was also equated very much with individual skill of the practitioner, the

collective skills of a creative team and the quality of the process/collaboration. The

impact of this applied excellence is, from the audience perspective, a sense of

wonder, marvel, and appreciation of ‘what a piece of work is man’ (meaning the artist).

It gives rise to questions around the unanswerable - how did they do that!

- there was some disquiet about the fact that there exists a coterie of recognised

‘excellent practitioners’ who appear to dominate the market, making it difficult for

others to break in.

- the concept of ‘perceived excellence’ is a motivational trigger for some audiences,

but may also contribute to ‘perceived elitism’ by those who feel less qualified to

appreciate the excellence of the work.

- the conferring of ‘excellence’ on a piece of work by peers, critics and audiences is

often received as an accolade, something to be welcomed and can be used to

demonstrate worth.

- this led to a discussion about why do we want to be excellent? Is it to be the best that

we can be? Is it about recognition? Is it about helping future funding applications? Is it

about wanting to create great work for the audiences? To create work that connects

and resonates with them. Here, we talked briefly about why artists are in the arts in the

first place: for themselves or for others, for practice or for purpose.

What is artistic vibrancy?

- the audience experience such as fulfillment, community, belonging, buzz,

excitement, anticipation, something that is quintessentially experiential. it is something

that you ‘feel’ whereas perceived excellent is perhaps more of a judgment.

- vibrancy can be about the individual and shared experience of a piece of work or

event. We can all experience vibrancy at the same event, but in different ways.

- there is also the vibrancy of an artistic scene, a diversity of offer rather than a clique.

- whilst a piece of work may be excellently conceived and delivered, it may not be

vibrant if it fails to ‘land’ with the audience … this begs the question about the degree

to which artistic vibrancy is determined by the audience experience.

How do we determine artistic vibrancy?

I suggested that if artistic vibrancy resided in great measure in the audience

experience, perhaps we should explore ways in which to capture those experiences.

This would be an excellent artistic reflection mechanism to enable artists to develop

their audience sensibility and hone their craft, not in a deterministic way, but in a

process of life-long artistic learning.

Intentionality is key - the degree to which artistic intention and audience experience

align, rather than working to externally determined dimensions of audience


I followed this up by sharing a piece of work I did with a touring drama doing just that

… This divided opinion.

On the one had, there was a view that this approach was too ‘cerebral’, that they do

not want to adjust their work in relation to audience taste, and that this approach is

‘dangerous’ as it would lead to the quantifying of creativity. Also, artists are also

finding it hard to balance thinking and doing, and this extra layer of ‘navel gazing’

would detract from their focus on making work.

On the other hand, there was a feeling that the process of artistic reflection informed

by audience feedback (and what I mean here is the dimensions of the audience

experience and impacts relative to artistic intention - which goes much further than

asking audiences if they liked a show and why) is a valuable one. Artists should be

curious about how their work lands, to enable them to understand the experiences and

thoughts they have elicited, and to use that as a learning experience. The initiative at

Manchester Royal Exchange where they are inviting audiences into the building for a

series of creative exchanges and dialogue was cited as a good example of this.

Other comments here included:

- you can use audience feedback to learn about what works in a particular locality

which can affect programme choice. Not just in terms of booking ‘bankable’ shows but

in informing degrees of risk.

- studies into vibrancy should be used to aid but not affect creativity.

- in the current climate, in order to gain credibility in the arts we need to serve the

makers and the funders, not the audience.

Australia Council for the Arts

To conclude, I briefly shared the 5 dimensions of artistic vibrancy as articulated by

Australia Council:

- excellence of craft

- audience engagement (e.g. intrinsic experiences)

- development of the artist

- development of the artform

- community relevance

Overall, everyone present thought it was a useful model. Then … time ran out.

So … if anyone would like to add or continue this conversation, I'd truly welcome an

opportunity to engage.


Experience, empathy, Audience, excellence, audience, vibrancy, insight, experience