Arts Volunteers in Canada: Museums & Galleries


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.

Arts Volunteers in Canada: Festivals


Festivals are big business in Toronto: for film only, there are at least 70 annual festivals, represented by their own dedicated association; TIFF and NXNE rival Cannes and SXSW; Toronto Fringe draws over 90,000 people a year to watch over 150 un-juried theatre productions; Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival presents around 350 gigs at 40 locations (and has “been blessed with over 60,000 hours contributed by volunteers” since 1987); and the 10-day Pride celebrations are organised and run by over 2,000 volunteers, who even get their own dedicated website.

I’m looking here at 3 long-running, well-developed and well-documented Toronto-based volunteer programmes: a large arts centre that produces multiple summer festivals, a world-famous film festival and a civic-minded multidisciplinary arts festival.

This is part 3 of a series of 4 posts on arts volunteers in Canada.

Harbourfront Centre

Harbourfront Centre is a multi-venue arts centre that present over 4,000 events each year, many of them as part of festivals. It also runs the Power Plant, a contemporary art gallery, World Stage, an annual season of contemporary performance, and the International Festivals of Authors. Approximately 2,000 volunteers contribute their time and efforts. They are involved in many ways, from greeting visitors to filming events, helping with workshops and preparing materials for arts and crafts activities. Due to the size of the team, some volunteers also provide support to other volunteers, especially at busy periods, from on-site registration and schedule information to coordination and management.

Volunteers receive benefits according to their level of commitment: Volunteer Contributor, below 60 hours a year; Volunteer Enthusiast, over 60 hours a year; and Volunteer Leader, over 60  hours a year in a position of responsibility such as committee member, trainer or team leader. Shared benefits include free return on public transport for each shift, a volunteer recognition party, a regular newsletter and a reference letter. Additional benefits for different volunteer levels range from complimentary tickets to staff discounts on the Centre’s shop, invitation to official receptions and access to reciprocal attractions. Volunteers who contribute over 60 hours a year also receive a photo ID access pass.

Harbourfront Centre is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2014 and the volunteer programme itself has been running for 30 years. The latest Volunteer e-Newsletter available (produced by a volunteer sub-committee) gives a few figures about Harbourfront’s volunteer programme: in 2013, volunteers completed 7,346 volunteer shifts and contributed 31,122 hours, which translates to approximately $540,900 in-kind contribution. Ages range from 16 to 80+, and the top-contributing volunteer clocked over 900 hours last year.

Another kind of volunteers: Harbourfront Centre auditions for Dachschund UN, presented in 2013

Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)

TIFF is the “leading public film festival in the world, screening more than 300 films from 60+ countries every September”. In 2012, it “featured 147 world premieres (and attracted) over 300 attending filmmakers, 4,280 industry delegates, 1,200 accredited media and over 400,000 public attendees”. Since 2010, it also operates its own venue and present a year-round programme of films, talks, exhibitions and industry services.

About 2,500 people volunteered for TIFF in 2013, a number that grows each year and include many returning volunteers, who have access to positions of higher responsibility. The programme is fiercely competitive and selection is based on a lengthy application – including 3 references – but the rewards are appealing: for each shift completed, volunteers get a voucher that they can exchange for a screening ticket. Roles range from red carpet coordinator to Q&A assistant, venue manager and plenty of behind-the-scene opportunities. In 2010, the estimated economic impact of the value of labour of volunteer hours was over $1 million.

To show its commitment to volunteers, TIFF has created a series of “Volunteer Stories” videos highlighting the diversity of motivations.

Cineplex, the Volunteer Programme Sponsor, also produces an annual trailer screened before each fim to publicly thank all festival volunteers.

Video: 2011 TIFF Volunteer Trailer by Cineplex, Volunteer Program Sponsor. Many more (excellent) trailers are available on Cineplex’s website.

It is worth noting that TIFF also recruits a surge of paid seasonal workers at festival time, selected through an annual Job Fair.

Luminato Festival

Created in 2007 to foster civic pride, spur economic growth and support artistic excellence, Luminato Festival is a 10-day annual multidisciplinary festival that has, to date, commissioned over 66 new works of art and featured 7,500 artists from 40 countries. About 500 volunteers fulfill a variety of roles each year, from Ambassadors to Team Leaders, Arts Marketing and Administrative Volunteers.

The festival has developed two teams that fit particularly well with its principles of “Collaboration, Accessibility, Diversity and Transformation”: the CultureLink Team and the Youth Volunteer Photography Team.

CultureLink is a settlement agency that helps newcomers to find employment, understand the local culture and “link the new with the old”. They have partnered with Luminato since 2010 to offer a mentored volunteering experience to new Canadians. 15 mentors and over 50 newcomers were matched in 2013, as detailed in a CultureLink post-festival newsletter that features enthusiastic participants’ testimonies. Organised in mentoring circles, they complete a total of 30 volunteer hours together, before and during the festival, to develop language and cultural competency skills as well as provide information to festival-goers.

The Youth Volunteer Photography Team is open to budding photographers aged 14-18 who are supervised and mentored by professional or pro-am photographers. The festival provides digital cameras if required and arranged an exhibition of the youth photographers’ work at the Toronto Lomography gallery.

The video below was produced during the 2013 Luminato Festival by the Volunteer Programme partner, Manulife Financial. Their contribution to their “signature cause” is detailed in a previous post on Funding for the Arts in Canada.

Arts Volunteers in Canada: Performing Arts


A 2013 Canadian Arts Presenting Association (CAPACOA) study showed that “for each paid staff member, there are 17 volunteers giving their time to performing arts presenting organizations”. Whilst ushering is a typical role on performance night, especially in smaller companies, volunteers can also play a strategic role in fundraising and outreach.

I have picked three examples below of major Toronto institutions that have developed long-running relationships with their volunteers and engage them fully in the life of the company.

This is part 2 of a series of 4 posts on arts volunteers in Canada.

National Ballet of Canada

In 1951, a group of Toronto ballet enthusiasts raised funds to bring British-born ballerina Celia Franca to Canada and support the first performance of her newly formed company, the National Ballet. The National Ballet’s Volunteer Committee was formally established in 1972 to continue this fundraising work; it has contributed $6 million to date to create new productions through the Build-A-Ballet™ Fund, started in 1977 with a $150,000 gift for La Fille Mal Gardée.

To feed this fund, the Volunteer Committee operates Paper Things, a stationery and gift store in the fashionable Yorkville area ($2 million contribution since 1963), as well as the Ballet Boutique during National Ballet performances ($600,000 over the past 6 years). In previous years, the Volunteer Committee held an annual Gala event and quarterly art shows.

The National Ballet is “the only Canadian ballet company to present a full range of traditional full-length classics”. It also presents and creates new contemporary ballets, especially by Canadian choreographers. A Virtual Museum retraces the history of the company since 1975.

Video: Extract from Pur ti Miro, the 46th ballet sponsored through the Volunteer Committee’s Build-a-Ballet Fund™.

Canadian Opera Company

The Canadian Opera Company was established in 1950; it pioneered the use of surtitles, provides training to emergent artists and commissions new opera through a Composer-in-Residence programme. About 150 volunteers a year support the COC’s office operations and outreach and education efforts.

Volunteers provide assistance in the office and in the archives, act as Front of House for the Free Concert Series, welcome members at the Friends’ Lounge, operate the Opera Shop, work with the Education Programs team and offer guided tours of the performance venue and of the Opera Centre, including the music library, COC archives, wigs, costume and props departments and rehearsal spaces.

The COC also operates a Volunteer Speakers Bureau, whose members “act as ambassadors for the COC and the art form by writing and giving talks on opera at various public speaking engagements throughout the season”. After School Opera Program volunteers help the Education and Outreach team to “introduc(e) 300 children (a year) ages 7 to 12 to opera as a collective celebration of vocal music, drama and visual arts”. This opportunity is open to people looking for community arts experience and high school students who need to fulfill their community service requirements.

Video: ‘Inside Opera’ – Rehearsal of Hercules directed by Peter Sellars, COC Season 2013/2014

Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Started in 1923 and merging fundraising and outreach support, the Toronto Symphony Volunteer Committee “is an organization committed to the financial support of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and to expanding awareness of its musical and education programs.” Fundraising activities range from a Annual Bridge Fundraiser – a full morning of cards followed by a silent auction and lunch reception – to a Team TSO at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon / Semi-Marathon and a Fine Wine Auction. Over the years, the TSVC has contributed to funding several Chairs (Concertmaster, Principal Flute, Principal Trumpet), bought several Steinways and a harp and commissioned more than 15 compositions. It also supported the TSO’s general operations, the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra and the TSO’s Education Programmes.

Volunteers also contribute to the orchestra’s youth & education programming: they support financially the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, enrich the experience of teachers and students attending open rehearsals and provide assistance during the Young People’s Concerts, a series of afternoon performances for children aged 5 to 12.

On concert nights, volunteers also help ticket logistics and other event duties to run the TSOundcheck scheme – discounted tickets for under 35.

Video: TSO’s Young People’s Concert – audience reaction 

Arts Volunteers in Canada: Overview


The spirit of volunteering has been a vital part of the social fabric for as long as there has been, well, a social fabric.

That’s the premise behind, a volunteer matching service that connects people and opportunities in Canada.

Video: Catherine, volunteer with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra for over 40 years.

However, just like the issue of unpaid internships, the relation between volunteer and paid work can be a bit of a grey area: a UK cultural institution was recently branded “unethical” for replacing paid Front of House staff with unpaid volunteers (a recurring issue that TUC and Volunteering England already addressed in 2009 in their Charter for Strengthening Relations Between Paid Staff and Volunteers). The Museum Association’s Cuts Survey 2013 reports this development across the sector as a growing and rather worrying trend, with Mark Taylor, the MA’s director, commenting:

Unpaid work can be exploitative and, even worse, it reduces the diversity of people who can enter the museum workforce: only wealthier young people can afford to work for nothing, especially in expensive cities like London.

In the three years I spent in Canada, I noticed that volunteering in the arts – and in the community at large – was a widespread and often well defined practice. The organisations I worked with fully acknowledged the diversity of volunteers’ motivations and depth of commitment and clearly recognised their rights and responsibilities. In this series of posts about Arts Volunteers in Canada, I am featuring some interesting resources and examples that are not quite addressing the paid/unpaid work polemic, but instead highlighting the positive role of volunteers in successful initiatives and programmes that complement employees’ efforts and further organisational missions.

This is part 1 of a series of 4 posts on arts volunteers in Canada.

Note: just as my previous posts on Funding for the Arts in Canada and Shared Spaces & Cultural Hubs, this is rather Toronto-biased than truly pan-Canadian.

Volunteering in Canada

Volunteering is considered as a civic responsibility in Canada: it’s a way to build skills, strengthen community links and improve well-being.

Volunteering is encouraged at all ages and levels:

National Resources

There are plenty of resources available, for example through Volunteer Canada, the national advocacy organisation for volunteerism and civic participation. They have developed a Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement, conduct research (for example on volunteering & healthy ageing) and influences public policy.

Specifically for the art sector, Hill Strategies regularly publishes a statistical report on volunteers & donors in Canada, summarised elsewhere on this blog.

Other national initiatives of interest include ArtsScene, a “network of leading young business professionals who support the arts through volunteerism and patronage”, and Timeraiser, a silent art auction at which participants bid volunteer hours instead of money.

Arts Volunteers in Toronto

The City of Toronto is managing an extensive volunteer programme, especially for all its city-wide events and festivals (such as Doors Open Toronto and Nuit Blanche). Around 1,500 volunteers are currently registered with the Special Events Office.

Toronto Arts Foundation – the fundraising arm of the Toronto Arts Council – runs the Toronto Arts Volunteer Network. They promote volunteering opportunities in a bi-monthly newsletter and feature a selection of volunteer stories on their website.

In the next 3 posts, I’ve selected examples from a range of large Toronto arts institutions who have developed their own dedicated volunteer scheme, looking first at the performing arts (part 2), then multi-arts venues and festivals (part 3) and finally museums & galleries (part 4).