I was once pulled kicking and screaming from my sleep into a telesales interview in which they verbally accosted me with the words “previous paid position?” It is true that the financial benefits are minimal, but this goes further than that. Since I started voluntary work, it has become a rewarding path I would recommend to anyone. I’ve had some fairly damning experiences that I’ll share, but in the semi-educational way where I hope you won’t encounter similar difficulties.
Cupola Contemporary Art in Hillsborough was my first experience of volunteering in a commercial gallery. Their encouragement helped me cope with the anxiety I felt, and I slowly grew more confident. I was once given the daunting responsibility of making phone calls to a list of forty artists, which I hid in the attic to make. One phone call started with me gushing “Hi! Is this [name]? I really love your work!” met by her bewildered “thank you!”. After a few months of personal development, liaising with artists and visitors became a highlight of my work at Cupola, as they shared creative tips and expanded my knowledge of the local art scene.
Offering whatever spare time you have will always be appreciated. A variety of roles exist within a gallery, and making it your job to tackle them all at least once is great for mining experience points. I’m personally wary of hosting opening nights – the last tram home with a head full of red wine and art speak makes navigating the underpass near the O2 Academy Sheffield anything but jaunty.
The biggest problem for me was my commuting costs, particularly as Cupola’s volunteers were usually local. After a simple discussion, half my costs were covered. Checking for offers to cover travel and lunch costs is super useful when unwaged – just remember to keep your receipts.
During my time at Cupola, the owner Karen Sherwood became a huge inspiration for me, cementing my aspirations of gallery ownership. She’s now got a blog documenting her journey karencupola.wordpress.com, which is an important insight into the practical necessity of dedicated volunteers.
At Bank Street Arts in Sheffield I learnt a pretty big lesson; you need to research how long the commitment is for, otherwise you could not get a lot out of it. BSA offers “stages” within their volunteering scheme, stage one for me was front of house duties, and it’s a shame that’s all I ever really saw of BSA before leaving. BSA is essentially a volunteer run organisation, so it gives the place an interesting dynamic. The only downside being that the fresh “stage one” front of house volunteers often have a slightly disorientated approach to visitor’s questions (and I still can’t remember where the toilets are).
In spite of this, I still made the most of it. Networking is one of the best reasons for volunteering, as you should have hopefully built a sound relationship with someone by the end of your time there. I kept in contact via LinkedIn/email with one of the exhibition organisers where all the paintings were reproductions. Six months later, I was writing a coincidentally inspired essay about reproduction art, and I contacted them for useful resources.
Invigilating events across London allowed me to scope out really unique and interesting venues – especially when doing short term volunteering. Artsjobs is a fantastic place to find voluntary roles, and it can give you a route into many organisations. Being available to help friends who already work in the arts is a bonus and makes you feel (a.) a good friend and (b.) an integral part of the event. But always remember that your input is valid and useful so don’t be nervous to offer your opinion.
A West London gallery that will remain unnamed was the first long-term voluntary role I took on in London. One of their opening gambits was Stella McCartney is just round the corner, and I absolutely loathe Stella McCartney. So that set the tone nicely. I appreciate the fact that many Sheffield galleries and London events can’t afford staff costs. However this was a sponsored West London gallery that just wanted some free desk monkeys to serve champagne and canapés on opening nights. They used volunteers to open the gallery on Saturdays, yet all we ever did was sit there and get maybe one or two visitors through the door. Boring and exploitative unpaid work. Definitely not what volunteering should be.
One of the final emails I received before quitting showed their desperation for volunteers, “we’ll cover your travel costs!” They said. Ah, the penny finally dropped. They finally realised that a gallery sponsored by a paint company giant could at least cover travel costs. Cue round of applause. I didn’t care by that point anyway. Breeding apathy in your volunteers through fruitless work doesn’t make a reliable staffing.
Your time is valuable. You should value it, and where you are working should value it. They shouldn’t just be valuing free labour. And you shouldn’t just value the fact that it’ll look good on a cv. What I found most disheartening about that place was how many graduates were there as something to do. There was nothing to do there, little to be gained unless you’re one of the artists… leave, call the gallery bitter names, move on and hope they get called out eventually for unpaid labour.
Ad hoc volunteering with Museums Sheffield means I can stay connected to a city I love whilst studying in London. Delivering art workshops to families is one of my favourite roles because I get to share skills and learn things from the children. It’s a good feeling letting children take home what you’ve made – and living in the knowledge that I’m helping fill their parent’s houses with that they would normally deem as “rubbish”. But where would their child be without their cardboard box rendering of Park Hill Flats?
But you can’t always please children whilst invigilating events and you can’t clear parents of blame either. I have witnessed nervous prods at sculptures followed by encouragement to their offspring to follow suit. Or father-daughter iPhone photo shoots of them wearing an exhibit. Don’t touch is a rule young-and-old have a flagrant disregard for and you have become the sharp-eyed and peremptory figure in this game of cat and mouse.
Ignite Imaginations in Sheffield is the most recent voluntary role I’ve taken on, again on an ad hoc basis like Museums Sheffield. I got this role from emailing Karen at Cupola Gallery, asking if she knew of any summer jobs. She suggested that Art in the Park were looking for volunteers to help with their rebranding as Ignite Imaginations. My oldest connection helped make my newest connection and many more in-between. Utilise your contacts – utilise everything you learn from volunteering, you never know when you’ll need it.