Grow Your Own City

Programming

Gardening is my graffiti: I grow my art.

– Ron Finley

Ron Finley urban famer

Ron Finley, graffiti-gardener

Urban farming has its new hero: Ron Finley, artist-gardener, on a mission to make kale sexy in South Central Los Angeles, one of America’s food deserts. Since he planted a vegetable garden on a city-owned strip of land outside his house in 2010, then got fined for it and successfully led a campaign to make curbside gardening legal, he’s received a lot of media attention, including a TED Talk in 2013 (from which the quotes above and below are taken).

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries.”

“If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes.”

“We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is — if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta.”

The video below, featuring Ron pre-TED fame, encapsulates the multiple benefits of urban gardening: healthy eating, communal activity, cultural heritage, sensory stimulation…

From producing fresh food in a brownfield and at the same time beautifying an area to providing a physical activity to local people while creating community links, urban farming is a multi-layered activity that keeps on giving. I’ve looked below at 3 other initiatives with deep roots – transforming a school’s rooftop, re-inventing the city as a public orchard and blowing the seeds of change from a West Yorkshire village to the rest of the world.

The Teachers: School Grown

If there is one constant with urban farming, it’s that it can happen anywhere and everywhere: on the side of the road in LA, 33 metres below the busy streets of Clapham, or at the back of a truck, anywhere. By comparison, a rooftop farm is perhaps quite banal, but the one transformed by Food Share in Toronto – that can be seen from scratch to end in the timelapse video above – is rather special, because it doubles up as a “food literacy education centre, large market garden and vibrant event space all wrapped into one”.

The 16,000 square foot rooftop currently includes over 450 garden planters, 100 shiitake mushroom logs, a dwarf fruiting orchard, seating for over 200 people, a covered area and an indoor classroom – and has plans to add a rooftop teaching kitchen, a small greenhouse, a composting area and an open air cafe.

Students sell their ‘school grown’ produce at three local farmers’ markets and also supply several Toronto restaurants.

foodshare.net/schoolgrown

@FoodShareTO

The Gleaners: Not Far From The Tree

Founder and director Laura Reinsborough got the idea for Not Far From The Tree when she was working as a Community Arts Facilitator for the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) and was asked to pick apples from an urban orchard and put them to good use.

From this first experience was born Not Far From the Tree, an initiative that picks unwanted or surplus fruit from residential properties, sharing the harvest 3 ways: ⅓ to the fruit owner, ⅓ to the the volunteers and ⅓ to social agencies. In 2008, their first full season, 150 volunteers picked a total of 3,003 pounds of fruit, and the concept has now grown into a fully-fledged, city-wide, award-winning charitably constituted organisation with permanent staff.

In 5 years, they have:

  • harvested over 70,000 pounds of fruit;
  • donated more than 22,000 pounds to social service agencies;
  • registered over 1,500 trees to be picked in our operating area;
  • registered more than 1,600 volunteer pickers.

They have also produced a pretty 5-year annual report available to view online, listing these achievements and more, and also regularly commission artists – such as the one below – for their event and campaign visuals.

Apple-by-Zeesy-Powers-Oct-2012-e1393605838297

Apple by Zeesy Powers (2012)

notfarfromthetree.org

@NFFTT

The Planters: Incredible Edible

This is the extraordinary journey of a small market town in the North of England, now a hotspot of the local food revolution. With just a handful of people and seeds to start with, Todmorden has transformed itself into a place where fruit and vegetables are grown everywhere – outside the police station, in the cemetery, along the canal – and for everyone. Pam Warhurst, one of the instigators, calls it “propaganda gardening”: a way of ensuring resilience by creating deep links between community, learning and business. It’s even created a brand new genre of tourism, with “vegetable tourists” coming to the 15,000-strong town to visit the Incredible Edible Green Route.

The Todmorden experiment has inspired over 200 local groups in several countries that form the Incredible Edible Network and are typically involved in “setting up community growing plots, reaching out to schools and children, and backing local food suppliers”.

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Incredible Edibles, outside Todmorden Police Station

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Food to Share – Incredible Edibles Todmorden

incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk

incredibleediblenetwork.org.uk

@incredibledible

 

No There There?

Spotlight

There is no there there.
— 
Gertrude Stein

This non-there is Oakland, California, where author and art collector Gertrude Stein grew up at the end of the 19th century – and there now is a there where there once was no there: since 2005, an eight-foot high powder-coated steel plate twin sculpture spelling out “HERE” and “THERE”, by artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, marks the border between Berkeley and Oakland.

HERE-THERE_2-900 Steve Gillman 2011

HERETHERE by Steve Gillman (Berkeley/Oakland, CA )

According to the commissioning agency, the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, “the sculptured letters form a poetic message of hello and goodbye and provide a sense of place”.

Maybe not enough for some residents: the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2010 that “renegade knitters … sewed a multi-colored tea cozy onto the letter T”.  The knitters were asked by Berkeley’s civic arts coordinator “to remove their handiwork because modifying public art is against state and federal law”, but instead “resisted and … held a knit-in at the sculpture”.

There yarn

Knit-in at the HERETHERE sculpture – Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

One of the artists expressed his support for the knitters, applauding them for “start(ing) a dialogue where possibly only a monologue had existed before”. Unfortunately his views were not echoed by the civic arts coordinator, who pointed out that “he has a right to his opinion (…). But he doesn’t own (the artwork) anymore.”

While this is almost as gripping as the Tilted Arc controversy, and raises many questions of context, appropriation, ownership and authorship, it also provides an opportunity to revisit the Gertrude Stein statement. Here’s a longer quote to give context to this famous ‘no there there’ (punctuation is sic):

She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

…but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …

It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.

And that is what makes (good) (public) art important: it (can) create strong, lasting, shared memories. Created for permanence, it’s a link to a place and an anchor in time; a landmark, a there that’s always here. If temporary and diffuse, it’s an experience that becomes a reference, a living memory which meaning expands – or fades – with time. Whether or not the first life of the THERE sculpture did provide that sense of place, of ‘there’, the art hackers gesture – tangible sign of a collective spirit – has contributed to creating a futher memory-to-be.

But what if there is really no there there? In an article for Public Art Review entitled Strategies for Defining the Non-Place with Public Art and Urban Design, Ronald Lee Fleming writes:

Stein’s remark has come to be associated with suburban and fringe development since World War II, which has disfigured, with a banal sameness, the edge of almost every city and town in the country. How can public art and enlightened urban policy transform the non-places that one moves through on the way to the airport?

This claim – which takes Stein’s quote out of its eminently personal context and conveniently distorts its meaning to forsake anything outside the centre – is supported by some rather strange statements throughout the article (“Banal places are often full of very average people”, “People in modest neighborhoods are often fascinated by craft”). The underlying assumption is that the North American sprawling suburbs are nothing more that a ‘non-place’ (defined by ethnologist Marc Augé as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”, generally the by-product of ‘supermodernity’ and acceleration, places where people don’t meet and where they can’t build collective references) – and that public art can inject meaning in these semiotic deserts – in Fleming’s words, “artists can help redefine the meaning of a site no matter how boring it may appear”.

Here again, ‘non-place’ is taken a little too literally: Augé emphasises, throughout his essay, the many ways people ‘invent’ the everyday and create trails of memories and stories in the most unlikely and clinical places, from airports to budget hotel chains and supermarkets.

Fleming continues with further invoking the need for enlightenment for average people in these boring places:

What is needed is an enlightened artist constituency who can move beyond signature works of ego to serve a restive public that wants more meaning embedded in the infrastructure of the banal sites where they live. People want to experience well-crafted elements that often require a team of artisans as well as the conceptualizing artist. This is not the coterie of city sophisticates who value abstraction and the shock of the new.

So average people deserve average public art, something simple, “well-crafted”, that helps them to feel just that little bit less bored. One wonders if they deserve art at all, given the challenge that their abject banality presents for artists:

Working with these contours of meaning can be a challenge for an artist with a big ego—and let’s face it, a big ego is often necessary just to prevail as an artist and to justify the amount of energy that it takes to do public work.

At a time when placemaking is hailed as a remedy to urban ills – be them new and shiny developments or old and crumbly neighbourhoods, places with not enough or too much ‘identity’  -, is there a consensus about the practice at large, its methods and especially its ethos? The term is now widely used by public commissioners, artists and arts organisations, community interest companies, property developers and commercial agencies alike, and as a result seem to range from condescending opinions such as Fleming’s to thinly disguised PR campaigns for property developers (via a whole host of interesting long-term, artist- and community-led projects).

Quality frameworks are currently being developed for participatory arts – such as this paper by Toby Lowe from Helix Arts – and art & health – such as this contribution by Creative Health CIC to the West Midlands commissioning practice. What would a framework for placemaking look like? Has a consensus been reached yet on the term itself? Can a variety of approaches be evaluated against the same standards? Here are three examples in three different countries that exemplify this range of methods and angles, but also a common aspiration for ethical guidelines and for sharing their process and experience.

– – –

The public space activists: PPS (USA)

Project for Public Spaces have been developing a conceptual and practical framework for placemaking since 1975, such as the 11 Principles of Placemaking (starting with “The community is the expert”) and the Power of 10 (“the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there”). They are firmly positioned as a civic militant organisation, quoting Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte as inspiration and mentors, and are currently sharing their approach with over 600 international practitioners through the newly-formed Placemaking Leadership Council, which, amongst other goals, aims to “clearly frame the value and “language” of Placemaking” and “develop a common set of standards and indicators”.

pps.org
@PPS_Placemaking

 

The cultural pioneers: Artscape (Canada)

Toronto-based Artscape have also developed a Creative Placemaking Toolbox, based on their experience of opening and running arts centres and artist studios. It’s a very practical resource, with video seminars (such as this conversation with PPS), tip sheets on how to conduct community consultations and work with an architect, an exhaustive series of guides – from funding sources to feasibility studies, planning charrettes and the role of the project manager – templates and examples. There’s also a glossary of urban planning, legal and property management terms, a series of case studies as well as the Artscape Archive documenting 25 years of creative placemaking.

torontoartscape.org
artscapediy.org
@Artscape

 

The community champions: Mend (UK)

Mend is a social enterprise specialising in responsible procurement, planning and placemaking. With an ethos of “Community as Client”, they are not just delivering consultation and strategic services, but also acting as a convenor of ideas by running networking events for different groups. As part of the “Lab”, they look after three networks, each with a different focus, that feed back into their own practice: Urbanistas, “a network for women who love cities, crowdsourcing support for their project or idea” – Planning in the Pub (“the agenda is simple, let’s talk about planning and cities, whilst in the pub”) – and the soon-to-be-launched Source RP, “Responsible Procurement network for the built environment, with a focus on building social value”.

Roman-Road-Mend

Roman Road Vacant Units Project

mendlondon.org.uk
@lianemendsacity
@urbanistasuk
@planninginpubs
@source_rp

Art at all costs?

The Long Read

… the charismatic ideology of ‘creation’… undoubtedly constitutes the principal obstacle to a rigorous science of the production of the value of cultural goods. It is this charismatic ideology, in effect, which directs the gaze towards the apparent producer – painter, composer, writer – and prevents us from asking who has created this ‘creator’ and the magic power of transubstantiation with which the ‘creator’ is endowed. It also steers the gaze towards the most visible aspect of the process of production, that is, the material fabrication of the product, transfigured into ‘creation’, thereby avoiding any enquiry beyond the artist and the artist’s own activity into the conditions of this demiurgic capability.

– Pierre Bourdieu, in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field

So if we follow Bourdieu, what is the – old and tired – myth of the artist-as-demiurge hiding? Where would it be steering our gaze away from?

There’s a big clue in this quote:

I don’t care where the money comes from. It could be rolled by the mafia. If it goes to the arts it becomes good money.
– Lord Goodman, Chair of the Arts Council England (1965 and 1972)

And in this other one too:

All money’s dirty money. Not that I’m saying BP’s money is dirty.
– Alex Beard, Deputy Director of Tate

The value of art – symbolic, social, financial – is the result of a complex chain of transactions, just like any other human production. Sponsorship is one of these transactions: an exchange between a corporation providing financial support and a cause-driven institution – championing something worthy and with a wide appeal, such as the arts, health, education or social justice – providing grateful recognition.

When art is created or presented using public funds, we expect that it should reflect this origin and therefore be accessible to all and contribute to the social good: well-being, social inclusion, education. Investing in the arts comes with the condition that they should be aligned with the principles of a democratic government and contribute to its mission.

What is at the other end of the transaction between corporations and arts institutions? To quote Wikipedia on “Theories of Sponsorship”:

A range of psychological and communications theories have been used to explain how commercial sponsorship works to impact consumer audiences. Most use the notion that a brand (sponsor) and event (sponsoree) become linked in memory through the sponsorship and as a result, thinking of the brand can trigger event-linked associations, while thinking of the event can come to trigger brand-linked associations.

Sponsorship is a two-way endorsement: the arts institution is sharing the symbolic value of its cultural products, the corporate sponsor is imparting its brand image on the audience experience. The view that money get cleansed of its origin – and its symbolic ties – when it contributes to making art happen is a convenient celebration of the “magic power of transubstantiation” of the artist-creator that leaves in the dark the implications of the legitimacy gained by the sponsor through this transaction.

To delve deeper into the ethics of arts sponsorship, arts activists Platform have put together a study guide titled Take the Money and Run?, a selection of 9 key texts available for free consultation in the Live Art Development Agency study room (in East London) (as well as most likely in large libraries). It aims at providing readers with a set of critical tools, case studies and references to help arts organisations and artists take an informed position on their financial model. Texts include an edited collection of documents on public arts funding, State ideology and social engineering, an Arts & Business publication titled Using Art to Render Authenticity in Business (available online), or else a conversation between artist Hans Haacke and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on the impact of sponsorship and censorship on the arts.

Activists are getting increasingly vocal – and creative – to highlight the cooptation of art by corporate interests. Platform is a member of the Art Not Oil coalition, alongside Liberate Tate, Reclaim Shakespeare Company / BP or Not BP?, RisingTide, Shell Out Sounds and the UK Tar Sands Network, who are creating imaginative and high-impact campaigns to highlight to the public the associations of large arts institutions with oil-related companies.

I took a look at some critical enquiries from other countries using diverse methods – citizen journalism, visual essay and crowdfunding, video games – to question the links between art and power. If art provides a good ROI for political and commercial interests – and why would they invest otherwise? – at what cost to the art, the artists and the public does this come?

1. The citizen whistleblower: Louvre pour Tous (France) – 2004-present

Created in 2004 by designer Bernard Hasquenop to react against the change of concessionary regime at the Louvre (first revoking free admissions for teachers, then for artists), Louvre pour tous is “an observatory of public museums dedicated, through articles and in-depth investigations, to monitoring the rise of commercial interests: the ever-increasing weight of philanthropy, for better or worst, sponsorship masquerading as philanthropy, privatisation of the public space, dubious merchandising, high prices, blurring of borders between advertising and exhibition, exaggerated attendance figures, deliberate lies…”

The website – all in French and mostly about French museums and cultural policy – is a goldmine of information unveiling the tangled relations between art and power and probing the gaps between the ideal and practice of cultural democracy . There are too many interesting features to mention them all, so I’ll just choose a few:

www.louvrepourtous.fr
@louvrepourtous

2. The epic fight for freedom of speech: Banned on the Hill (Canada) – 2011-2014

What would you do if you discovered you were blacklisted by your own government for speaking up on climate change and the tar sands?

When Canadian artist Franke James’ European tour of her climate change-related artwork was suddenly cancelled, she started an investigation into her government’s practices, documented through a visual essay turned into an animated video (above). She also crowdfunded a public art campaign to put up posters on outdoor ad sites across Canada and in Washington.

20130515083903-FrankeJamesDoNotTalk_500

If the press coverage on James’ story is anything to go by, the government’s attempt at censorship has rather backfired – not only contributing to spreading the message far and wide, but also confirming that even governments and businesses take art very seriously indeed.

Franke James has been awarded a Gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2014 for the book version of Banned on the Hill – available here.

www.frankejames.com
@frankejames

3. The satirical business simulation: Oiligarchy (Italy) – 2008

Capture d’écran 2014-07-12 à 13.03.43

MolleIndustria create social simulations that lay bare the mechanisms of war, politics and business – in their own words, “homeopathic remedies to the idiocy of mainstream entertainment in the form of free, short-form, online games”.

Oiligarchy is a playable commentary on the oil industry in which the player takes the role of an “oiligarch” managing the extraction business in the homeland and overseas and lobbies the government to keep the carbon-fossil based economy as profitable as possible. A post-mortem available online explains the choices made and references used by the game designers.

Oiligarchy

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www.molleindustria.org
@molleindustria

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.

– – –

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”.

– – –

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

Spotlight

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.