It perhaps seems counter-intuitive to celebrate our failures. Who, after all, wants to draw attention to things that have gone wrong?! Additionally, in the participatory/social arts, where jobs are precarious and funding is even precarious-er, it seems practically suicidal to gleefully tell our funders and our bosses that our best laid plans have ‘gang aft a-gley’? Surely in a context where support is so hard to come by, it would be beneficial to focus on all the things that went right: to sing praises of our successes in order to ensure that we continue to be funded and to be supported going forward.
But, if all we do is present our successes, how can we effect systemic improvements when they are needed? It is, after all, through reflecting on failure that we learn and develop. Perhaps more problematically, often because of the precarious nature of arts funding and support, artists can feel impelled to hide things that haven't gone so well from their funders because of the fear of censure. However, if such failures are made invisible, how can we reflect and learn as a field?
Rachel Blanche and Anthony Schrag have both been exploring this problem, and indeed this research on failure pertains to other research going on in the Centre for Communication, Cultural and Media Studies at QMU, such as David Stevenson’s work with Leila Jancovich, from the University of Leeds. Last year, Rachel and Anthony developed a seminar to explore these questions, inviting artists, commissioners, funders and community members to reflect on the benefits of discussing failure. Titled the Failure of Participation seminar series, the first one was held in May last year and focused upon the infrastructures of funding, commissioning and delivering public and participatory artwork, asking where ‘failure’ fits into that process. Must these projects always succeed? How can we value the learning that comes from failure? Are we too afraid to admit failures for fear of economic censure? How do we define ‘success’ and is it ok if we do not achieve that? The second and third seminars are currently being planned and intend to look at people, practitioners and policy. Through this series, they hope to start a conversation about this sensitive issue, and look afresh at our infrastructures that support participatory and public arts, in the hopes of doing more of it, better.
These conversations have already yielded interesting results and led to a conversation with Sinead O'Reilly at Arts Council Ireland who invited Rachel and Anthony to deliver a day-long workshop to all Local Authority Arts Officers, to see how they might embed reflective considerations of failure for the benefit of their delivery and evaluation of participatory arts projects.
The delivered seminars tie in very neatly with Rachel’s work on Quality and pertains to the Quality Frameworks for Participation that she has worked on with both Creative Scotland and Artworks Cymru. This work also relates to the new MA Applied Arts and Social Practice being developed by QMU.
Some of the main themes that emerged from our delegates thinking about these questions were:
the necessity of not being rushed, of having sufficient time; the importance of nurturing an open space for reflection; the freedom to report honestly; a consideration of the lexicon and how frightened some organisations are of the word ‘failure’; and the permission to keep asking awkward questions. Building in a shared understanding of quality at the inception of projects and for partners to review and learn together was also recognised as key to improved practice.
A good starting point for implementing some of these desired practices are the Creative Scotland and Artworks Cymru partnership tools mentioned above. Watch this space as Rachel and Anthony continue to explore ways in which they might stimulate system-wide changes to incorporate ‘good’ failures.