Arts Volunteers in Canada: Museums & Galleries

Spotlight

Volunteering is a topic that ruffled a few feathers in the UK museum sector when it was introduced as one of the key concepts of David Cameron’s Big Society – especially in Liverpool, one of the four original ‘vanguard areas’, where the project was publicly launched in July 2010 and championed by the chair of National Museums Liverpool. Museum staff felt threatened by the prospect of being replaced by unpaid workers in times of budgetary cuts; union chiefs expressed concerns over a return to “Victorian times”; and some volunteers themselves deemed the scheme “hypocritical”, as their organisation, the Friends of National Museums Liverpool, a 1,700-strong membership group that had been providing volunteer time and financial support since the 1970s, had been deemed “unsupportive” of the organisation’s goals and disbanded by management in 2008.

Big Society def

(Liverpool officially withdrew from the Big Society pilot a few months later, in February 2011, as the £141m funding cuts imposed on the city council’s budget had a direct negative impact on the level of support it could offer to the community and voluntary sector.)

A 2010 poll run by the Museum Association in the context of the Big Society launch, asking whether volunteers are a threat to paid staff, attracted some rather unsavoury comments – but a more recent set of articles and case studies on the same website is showing a brighter picture, looking at emerging practices such as corporate volunteering, crowdsourcing and community engagement.

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Context is everything: I didn’t feel the same tension between volunteering and paid work in Canada, where volunteering is considered a civic duty, philanthropy levels are higher than in Europe, and unemployment rates lower.

For Gillian Smith, Executive Director & CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship:

Volunteerism is how every Canadian can live up to the challenge of being an active citizen. (…) Citizenship is the uniting common denominator and volunteerism is a means to connect Canadians and build a stronger Canada.

For this last post in the Arts Volunteers in Canada series, I looked at the history and features of volunteer programmes in 3 museums and galleries in Toronto. As the other volunteer schemes I listed in previous posts on Performing Arts and Festivals, they are intended as examples of well-established, fully integrated volunteer-led structures that contribute to much more than the frontline operations of arts organisations.

 

Royal Ontario Museum

The ROM is celebrating its 100 anniversary in 2014 and has developed an extensive volunteering programme, now 57 years old. In the last fiscal year, 1,219 volunteers contributed 198 637 hours, valued at $2.5 million.

Video: ROM ReCollects, calling for volunteer contributions on 100 years of the ROM history

Volunteers can help out in 10 different areas of the ROM, either interacting directly with visitors in the museum and hands-on galleries, assisting with school visits and children’s activities, supporting special events (such as Friday Night Live, a seasonal weekly series of themed events with food, drinks, music and live performances) or working behind the scenes with the Marketing and the Research & Collection teams. The main volunteering group, the Department of Museum Volunteers, is open to ROM Members only and requires a 2-year commitment. They provide visitor services inside the museum, providing guided tours, interpretation of artifacts and specimens, and assisting visitors to plan their visits; they are also active outside, offering “guided walks tours through Toronto neighbourhoods of architectural and historical interest”.

Friday Night Live @ ROM by ElectriCITY Events

Friday Night Live @ ROM by ElectriCITY Events

The museum also offers an online volunteering opportunity to update ROM-related content on Wikipedia. This programme is part of GLAM-Wiki, an initiative to help galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) “share their resources with the world through collaborative projects with experienced Wikipedia editors”. GLAM/ROM was launched in 2013 with 15 volunteer editors invited to an Edit-a-Thon event, to “Learn how to contribute to Wikipedia and collaborate with others to write articles about artifacts/important people relevant the Chinese Galleries”.

For National Volunteer Week 2014, the Department of Museum Volunteers is profiling volunteers on the ROM blog, such as David Grafstein, currently member of the DMV Executive Committee, gallery docent, ROMWalks tour guide, Gallery Interpreter and member of the Outreach Committee, presenting ROM’s artifacts in seniors’ residences and Sick Children’s hospital.

 

Textile Museum of Canada

Quilt, Canada, early 20th century – Permanent Collection of the Textile Museum of Canada

Volunteers at the Textile Museum of Canada(about 130 in 2014) have their own website, Strand News. The Volunteer Handbook retraces the history of the Volunteer Association, states the volunteers’ rights and responsibilities and provide policies and procedures, for example on conflict resolution.

Positions available in the Museum include: Conservation & Collections Management, working under Museum staff supervision to conduct collection inventory and process new acquisitions and loans; Docents, who receive intensive training on new exhibitions; Educators, who animate the Fiberspace education gallery and deliver school programs and tours under the supervision of the Education Program Co-ordinator, interacting with visitors and using their own skills in weaving, spinning, embroidery, knitting and crochet. Volunteers also man the Reception desk and the Shop, provide assistance in the Library and during Special Events (opening receptions, lectures, seminars, workshop and fundraising events) and help out with Mailings.

Volunteers are instrumental in fundraising: they run several sales events a year, pricing and organising items donated by hobbyists, collectors and businesses, such as beads, equipment, fabric, notions, quilting or yarn. More Than Just a Yardage Sale has been running for over 20 years, and volunteers also sell the products of their own group projects such a quilts.

 

Art Gallery of Ontario

First founded in 1900, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) undertook a major transformation in 2004, both physically, with a $276m redevelopment plan by Toronto-born Frank Gehry, and artistically, benefitting from a major donation of Canadian and European art by Kenneth Thompson. The AGO runs an extensive education programme and has recently launched a monthly after-hours themed event, First Thursdays, with full access to galleries, food, drinks and performance and live music ranging from First Nations DJ collective A Tribe Called Red to Patti Smith.

Video: First ‘First Thursdays’ event at the AGO, 2012

The AGO currently counts 800 active volunteers, acting as docents and tour guides to welcome over 800,000 annual gallery visitors and supporting an extensive education programme of workshops for all ages. The Volunteers of the Art Gallery of Ontario also sponsor one major exhibition per year ($38K in 2013 towards Joseph Sudek, $32 in 2012 towards General Idea) through a Volunteer Endowment Fund.

Youth aged 14 to 24 can get involved in the AGO Youth Council, a one-year elected board that “works collectively to initiate programming by youth for youth, including exhibitions, public art projects, large-scale events, field trips and much more”.

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As National Volunteer Week is closing in Canada (6-12 April 2014) and opening soon in the UK (1-7 June 2014) – just like Mother’s Day, it seems that it can’t be on the same dates in all countries – I hope that this series of posts on arts volunteers in another country can contribute to a reflection on the future of volunteering.

In my experience of working with volunteers, what comes back time and time again as their main motivation is a desire to give back, be closer to the arts, and socialise with new, different people. Direct entry to employment is, and should be, low on the scale of reasons to volunteer: as Gillian Smith points out, volunteering is about caring for the collective.

Volunteers are not (or shouldn’t be) frustrated professionals trying to score experience points: instead, they should be (very well) treated as the organisation’s inner circle audience

Replacing paid jobs with volunteers won’t get anyone very far, whereas providing structured and enriching opportunities to live one’s life more fully, including having a stake in the future of a cherished organisation, through a regular consultation process, a suggestion box system or any other mean to get the conversation going, is mutually beneficial for the individuals and the institution. Big Society can only work if it allows for Big People.

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