A summary of the LMG event ‘Aiming for Excellence’ held at the Society of Antiquaries on 25 June, told from the point of view of the event coordinator, Alex Murphy.
When asked to put together a conference to discuss the Arts Council’s first goal – ‘Excellence is thriving and celebrated in museums, arts and culture’, I realised I have a lot of questions about the word excellence. It feels vague and unobtainable, and used a lot by people to descirbe a broad range of work. How do you measure excellence? Who is the judge? How do you know if you achieve excellence, and what do you do then?
To deal with this issue, I thought about the kinds of people who consider excellence within their work, as well as people for whom excellence in museums was their bread and butter. So along with John Orna-Ornstein from ACE and Bernadette Lynch, an evaluator, visionary and professional thinker, I felt we would benefit from hearing from an artist, Hughie O’Donoghue, and Geoffrey Colman, who is in charge of selecting the students for one of the country’s most prestigious acting courses.
Museums, excellence and audience
John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Museums for ACE set the tone for the day by showing off that his job allows him to visit lots of museums all over the country, which offers him a good jumping off point to discuss what makes an excellent museum experience.
The first discussion is on the relationship between collections and excellence, and Orna-Ornstein aims to put everyone’s mind at rest that the Arts Council does not equate excellence in museums *just* with excellent collections.
He encouraged museums to think about excellence not just in our terms but also how the museum is perceived by the visitor, the customer – what are their criteria for excellence?
However, despite giving examples of what he personally thinks of as excellence, he says it is not the Arts Council’s job to define excellence for museums. It is your job to decide what excellence looks like for you. Be empowered by this – he is not wimping out here, he is handing the reins of power to us, the museum professionals at the coalface – take them, they are yours, and with them you can control the direction you move in, and the way you are judged.
Orna-Ornstein says the Arts Council’s role is one of development and support, and to achieve that, they must listen to what museum professionals are telling them about what the sector needs, and respond to that.
“Our only job is supporting you to be excellent in the things you want to do.”
Dr Bernadette Lynch
What use ‘excellence’? Challenging the use-value of notions of excellence in the arts and heritage.
Dr Bernadette Lynch steps up to agitate the conversation, and delve more deeply into what the museums’ purpose is in society. She acknowledges that museums exist in a troubled world, and are up against many pressures as a result. However, quoting Robert Janes, Editor-in-Chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, she attacks the commodification of the museum experience as damaging and narrow minded, and calls for a review of what the museum institution is there to achieve – we should be looking at the relationships between the museum and the people outside the museum to see if it is excellent, rather than the quality of the exhibition inside, and the takings in the shop and cafe.
Calling for an increase in the active agency that we give to the people we collaborate with, Lynch says we have to make participation such an everyday part of a museums work, that artists are freed up to be creative thinkers and facilitators, rather than the bridge between a museum and its local community.
Lynch sites the Our Museum programme funded by Paul Hamlyn, looking at organisational change in museums, to break the reliance on project funding for engagement work. This model keeps engagement work at the periphery of what the museum is doing, instead of embedding it at the heart of the museum’s practice and purpose. She suggests (looking Orna-Onstein in the eye) that this kind of role; supporting museums to develop radical new ways of working and supporting themselves, would be an entirely appropriate way for the Arts Council to work with and fund museums.
In terms of defining excellence – Lynch suggests that you ask yourself and your team the following questions when yo get back to work:
“What are we here to achieve, in all the uniqueness of your museum in your setting, what are you here to do, and who are you here to do it with? That is how you define your excellence.”
Excellence: A Moving Experience?
Hughie O’Donoghue took the stand and introduced himself as a painter, who never aims to make a non-excellent painting, and as Coordinator of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014. Having spent months shortlisting and deciding which pieces to include, he received a letter he received from a friend of the RA, which reads,
“We came to see the Summer Exhibition, and looked at all 1,262 exhibits… None of which were any good!”
O’Donoghue takes us back 100 years. When the 1914 RA Summer Exhibition opened, it was in a context of supreme clarity and confidence of what was good and bad, in the world in general and especially in the art world. There was a hierarchy in Visual Art, and the top strata of that hierarchy was History Paintings. During the run of the exhibition, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and war was declared, and that certainty died.
During and after the war, History Paintings lost the respect of the public, and came to be seen as corny and idealised, and in that setting art such as We are Making a New World by Paul Nash, and Marcel DuChamp’s The Fountain were born.
Unlike the pictures we’ve seen before this, which follow a canon of British art and are understandable as a representation of the world, DuChamp’s work is a departure from that – an off the peg urinal, signed. It is a turning point in how art can represent the world. So, there is excellence in terms of how art responds to the world, and there is a shifting landscape of what kind of art is appreciated, in response to a changing world.
Dipping back into the current RA Summer Exhibition, O’Donoghue talks us through a monochrome room, curated by Cornelia Parker. In Parker’s space, irony is king. The selection includes a neon light piece by Martin Creed that says ‘Assholes’ – a piece that owes something to The Fountain. At the time, DuChamp was doing something different, new, unheard of, that shook things up. O’Donoghue argues that now, irony is the norm, the orthodox form of art of our time. 100 years on, we have institutionalised the revolution.
O’Donoghue says when thinking about excellence in art, the artist must be true to himself, and guard against complacency. And what was complacent in 1914 is different to what is complacent now.
This conclusion for me highlights the point that as museums, we must define what excellence means for individual organisations, and we must be connected to what is happening in the world. Definitions of excellence shift and change, and what is considered excellent at one time, can later come to be seen as complacent and irrelevant.
Faster, Louder, Funnier
Our final speaker is Geoffrey Colman, Head of Acting at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and a director and acting coach with a long career behind him. For the acting course each year, Central receives 7000 applications for just 30 places, and it is Geoffrey’s job to decide who gets the places.
Lawrence Olivier confessed to wanting to eradicate the excellent reputation of an earlier actor Henry Irving, because of his overwhelming need for that definition, that status. Colman’s fear is that now, artists are less concerned with newness, and destroying the past to make for a bright new definition of excellence as Olivier dreamt of, but instead have become auditors of ‘best practice’, and the art of acting will be seen as a passive re-enactment of whatever is requested, rather than an artist perfecting his craft.
In relation to his teaching work Colman asks, is accountability the new excellence? Judith Butler alarmingly suggests that “We may all be busy being transparent but empty.” This is something Colman recognises, and fears that in his role in the school, his ideologies are being replaced by the amount of time and energy required to be accountable. Can creativity and artistry thrive under these conditions? Does the need for good statistics begin to be the standard of excellence, rather than the strongly held artistic beliefs he came to the school with?
Is the current climate of museum project funding, best practice case studies and self-evaluation taking the museum sector down the same route? Can we take risks, pursue excellence, and accept failures, when required every quarter to write up the ways in which targets, aims and objectives are being met, and to account for every penny spent in a way that won’t lead a funder to withdraw their support?
Working under these conditions can lead one to feel powerless, never really knowing who deals the cards, or actually what the game is in the first place. Colman speaks to each individual in the room and says, to work in the cultural sector is meaningful and impactful, and we need to know that we deal the cards. That power cannot be given away.
“Let’s be idealistic about Excellence.”
I began this process with a page full of question marks. I cannot with any truth say that that number has diminished. However, I leave this discussion feeling empowered, feeling that a light has been shone on what questions are the most relevant, and the best ways in which to ask them.
We have been given the reins by Orna-Ornstein to define excellence for ourselves, and tell ACE what it is that we need. We have been challenged by Lynch to consider the role of museum in society, and whether our current ways of working are suitable to achieve that. O’Donoghue gave us a fascinating walk through art history to enlighten the ways in which notions of excellence shift and change, and how risk-taking and creativity can dramatically change the culture. And Colman, through the Olivier anecdote and his own fears about what accountability is doing to his ideals, calls upon us to stay in control, to deal our own cards, and to aim high.
If it is excellence you want, define it, then go for it.
Alex Murphy is a freelance museum professional, and works with members of the LMG Committee to organise the 2014 events. Contact her at @lexmurphy.