Arts Volunteering, is it FREE giving?

This was written as part of the TAFE media course assignment. All the people we surveyed are mentioned under assumed names but the stories are true to the best of our knowledge. With special thanks to Frances Robinson, the brilliant Volunteer Coordinator of the 18th Sydney Biennale and a sincere gratitude to all those who talked to us.

Volunteering is a common scene in the arts sector. The act of generosity has been cherished throughout the Australian society. But why people are giving for free? Who are these people and what are their individual stories? How do they connect with the institutions, government and the society at large? This investigative feature sets out to find out.

Linda is 55 years old, who migrated from Taiwai with her husband and son over ten years ago. Since then, she has been working part time and taking care of the family part time over the years. But a few years ago when her only son went to study in the university and her husband doing a successful business in Taiwan and Hong Kong for the most part of the year, she often found herself left alone with a lot of time on her hands. “In my circle, there are quite a few people like me. Some spend their leisure time visiting fellow housewives for afternoon tea, gossip or indoor karaoke, but I have never quite enjoyed that! ” Instead, she became one of the Chinese Community Ambassadors five years ago and has been working as one of the voluntary art guide in Chinese language at the Art Gallery of NSW. Now apart from indulging herself in high-class art and culture, she is also enjoying socialising with fellow Community Ambassadors who formed her “art circle” of friends. And Linda’s case is not alone.

According to the result of the General Social Survey (GSS) by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “In 2006, 1.4 per cent of the Australian population, or 207,000 people, volunteered with cultural organisations. These cultural volunteers worked a total of 30.6 million hours in art galleries, museums, libraries, performing arts groups and festivals. Cultural volunteers are more likely to donate their money on top of their time when compared with the total volunteer population, with 75 per cent of cultural volunteers incurring expenses associated with their unpaid work.”

The 18th Sydney Biennale Volunteer Party

Why do people volunteer?

“As for volunteers, they just come for three months and they ask for a reference,” said one of the Brett Whitely Studio staff.

“Around three-fifths of cultural volunteers reported personal satisfaction (60%) and the desire to help others and the community (61%) as the main reasons for undertaking voluntary work,” according to the ABS’s 2006 survey.

Why do people volunteer? Is their motivation intrinsic or extrinsic? Where is the balance? To find out, we surveyed a number of cultural volunteers from all age groups and backgrounds as well as insiders including Frances Robinson, the Volunteer Coordinator of the 18th Sydney Biennale (18BOS), Community Ambassadors of the Art Gallery of NSW before a bigger picture emerged.

During the 18th Sydney Biennale, which concluded in this September, over 500 people had volunteered across all areas of the exhibition including installation and deinstallation periods. On the question of why people volunteer, Robinson highlighted the career development prospects as the single most important reason for young people who volunteered for 18BOS. She said, “The most common age group (of 18BOS volunteers) was within the 21-29 age bracket…Many art students now see volunteering as a great addition to a CV and a good way to get a ‘foot in the door’ to a career in the arts…I think it is also an important meeting oint – a great place to network with artists, Biennale of Sydney staff and fellow volunteers.” Robinson’s statement is echoed in the response of a number of volunteers we talked to.

Lily is a twenty something fine art student at Sydney College of Art. Cheerful, optimistic and brisk are her first impressions on people. She volunteered at 18BOS four days a week on average apart from working as a waitress. She said she already had some volunteering at a gallery and after the Biennale, she would seek to volunteer at the Museum of Contemporary Art to get more experience. After graduation, she planned to look for a proper job in arts, probably as an art administrator and practitioner at the same time.

Akash is a thirty something immigrant from Bangladesh. He is now working as a part-time community worker while also studying photography at TAFE. As a busy working father with a family to support, Akash often finds difficult to split time and energy between all responsibilities, yet nevertheless managed to volunteer for 18BOS a few times. He said he wanted to build up a portfolio to open up more opportunities in arts and hopefully this would lead up to a professional career in photography. Akash also eluded that he had always been socialising with artists at home and now in Australia.

Volunteer is also a job category. It became a common scene at a job search website or job network that there is a category called “volunteer jobs”. This reflects the social and cultural perception that volunteering is something that you have to do for free before you can get your hand on a real job. (Recently I read about someone wrote about her experience of being ripped off as an intern at a well-known media, but I was thinking if she ever thought about there is an army of volunteers who are willingly doing the work without getting paid or even credited?)

However, we found there are also quite a few volunteers who came from other than art background and/or who were at a different stage of their life or career development. As Robinson pointed out, “Mostly, people that want to be involved with the Biennale have some former knowledge of the festival, and are interested in art.”

Karl came from Germany. The twenty something architectural designer is stylish and full of ideas. He said he became interested in the Sydney Biennale two years ago during the previous edition. He said art and architecture are related and volunteering gave him the opportunity to have an in-depth experience with all the works on show.

Among a group of youthful faces of 18BOS volunteers, Lola blended in with her ever-shining smiles and youthful energy. After having been working in finance industry all her life, Lola decided to do something different. “When you have been working in the profession all your life, you find yourself always going out with the same kind of people.” She admitted that although it’s possible to change the job, it’s hard to change the profession. So she sought for alternatives and art volunteering just came along. Lola said she has also volunteered at the Outpost (Art) Festival before the Biennale.

At 18BOS volunteers’ party night, we found Rachel and Luk chatting happily with each other. Both of them seem to be in the late 30s – early 40s bracket. Rachel is a seasonal worker in the animation industry. She said when there was no work to do, she enjoyed being an art volunteer just to indulge her passion and 18BOS happened to come to her way. Luk said he was actually in the art industry as a gallery owners a few years ago. Though the business didn’t work out and he had to sell it in the end, he remained passionate about arts. Now working as a driving instructor with flexible working hours, Luk found himself closer to art through working as an 18BOS volunteer.

Volunteering in form of free giving as an artist

A separate post on artists’ contribution in form of free giving with fantastic performance and interview videos is to be found at Emmajean Murphy’s blog.

The act of volunteering by an artist is often invisible to the general public. They do indeed contribute through bringing inspirations to larger communities and breaking apart the boundaries in our everyday lives, with a lot of those times for free because of the often intangible nature of what they produce.

We came across an Aboriginal musician who plays didgeridoo at the Sydney Circular Quay the other day. His demonstration of skills and devotion was obviously an instant attraction for local passers-by and international tourists who came from afar. He said his main purpose was to connect people to the importance of the environment and share the message of healing throughout society with music. He also wanted to bring positive messages to the community and create awareness of the aboriginal culture.

Sara Rowan Dahl practices live art, which is about making improvised art under influence of live music. The mother of two young kids came from an academic art training background, but then decided to create art in front of a live audience instead of being “confined in an artist studio”. She said her act of volunteering was to bring inspiration to the community especially other young artists and little children. Apart from that, she often took part in fundraisers and donated proceeds of as high as 50% from selling her works to charities that bring awareness to human trafficking and domestic violence. Further on, she hopes to travel the globe and break apart the barriers of communication with live art and “the music of holy spirit”.

What art institutions offer and can they meet the expectations?

“It is most vital that we have volunteers throughout the exhibition period, to ensure the safety and integrity of the artworks by ‘manning’ various artworks daily, because without volunteers these exhibition spaces simply could not be open to the public,” Frances Robinson, the 18BOS Volunteer Coordinator.

The Art Gallery of NSW has been operating an extensive volunteer program over years including the Community Ambassadors. According to the Gallery, “the Community Ambassadors provide voluntary guided tours in community languages and promoting the Gallery through community organisations and publications.” The tour is conducted “once a week in Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean languages, as well as planning and hosting special events.”

Most of these volunteers are mature aged housewives and/or retired professionals, so are economically well-off and have a lot of leisure time. According to the Ambassadors, to become a Community Ambassador, one must pass a competitive selection process and then go though half year training before becoming qualified as an art guide. Each Ambassador must join the Gallery’s membership and thus is entitled to all membership benefits. Currently each Chinese Community Ambassador conducts the roster-based art tour once every month on average. The service is not paid, though they are offered occasional free tickets to non-major ticketed shows from time to time. They also have a monthly training and networking event.

However, the program isn’t without controversies, the top two being budget and bureaucracy. According to Linda, one of the Ambassadors, the program must sustain on a very small budget or no budget at all in many instances. She remembered a few months ago when the young Chinese artists who showed at 18BOS came for a visit, she was requested by the Gallery to take them around for a whole day but without any budget and support. She ended up driving her own car and catered the visitors with her own money in consideration of good Chinese hospitality. “There is simply not budget for this (Community Ambassadors’ events). I thought about dividing expenses, but the circumstances were simply not appropriate to do so, given they were young Chinese visitors at the invitation of us!” She then admitted there was going to be another round of cut to the Community Ambassadors’ budget.

More over, the Ambassadors’ free service is often met with the Gallery’s rules and regulations. Catherine is a retired engineer and is also a long working Chinese Community Ambassador at the Gallery of NSW. She is constantly concerned about promoting the Gallery’s exhibitions and events without proper approval procedures. “Everything we do must go through the Gallery,” She said. It sometimes takes weeks for something as simple as putting out a tour notice or using a publicity image in the local Chinese newspaper to get approved by the gallery. Currently, there is little publicity channels for the Ambassadors’ weekly art tours, and with the existing rigid procedures in operation, there is little flexibility for the Ambassadors to get around.

(In fact, these frustrations have been echoed in our own experience dealing with the Gallery. Our request for permission to use a video taken in the Gallery “for the purpose of academic research” was met with long delays or no reply at all and eventually more requests for adequate proof of authority, saying “There is really not enough information to process your request…” And then after having provided every requested paperwork, we simply never heard from the Gallery again.)

Volunteering not only a virtue, but a government agenda

 “ In fact, most of this year’s budget will be dedicated to already established institutions such as the Sydney Opera House ($135.3 million), the State Library ($85.5 million), the Australian Museum ($26.5 million), the Art Gallery of NSW ($29.3 million) and the Powerhouse Museum ($33 million)…(comparing with last year,) the budgets are remarkably almost identical, affording the majority of funding to the Sydney Opera House, followed by other large cultural institutions, while a disproportionate amount is allocated to the AFP, which is supposed to support smaller institutions and individuals in the arts and culture sector all across the State,” according to an Artshub report on NSW arts budget 2012-13.

The government not only encourages arts volunteering, it actually established policies and institutions to encourage the act of free giving, either in the form of volunteering or philanthropy, the most noticeable being the Australia Business Arts Foundation (AbaF) and Artsupport, as well as Federal Government’s Taxation Incentives for the Arts scheme.

boardBank and adviceBank are two of AbaF’s initiatives for encouraging volunteering. The former provides “free service that introduces business people who are keen to offer their expertise and time to boards of arts organisations.” And the latter endeavours to match specialised business professionals with arts organisations and artists to work on specific challenges “in areas of business and strategic planning, risk management, marketing, human resource issues, occupational health and safety, information technology, environmental sustainability, law and finance.”

Artsupport was launched by the former Premier John Howard AC in 2003 as a joint pilot by the Australian Council for the Arts and ABAF. According to Artsupport, since its inception in 2003, “more than $77 million of new philanthropic income has been facilitated to around 20 Australian artists and 600 arts organisations.” And it presents a return of over 1,000 per cent with government investment of only $5.2 million.

An inconclusive conclusion

From an individual perspective, the motivation of art volunteering can be intrinsic and extrinsic. Young people interested in a career in arts and culture might try out volunteering as a stepping stone to launch their career. But if one’s life and career development allows for adequate financial security, culturally minded people tends to volunteer art to strike work and life balance.

That is why, as an institution, it must be mindful of the motivation of volunteering and be able to manage the different needs and expectations of volunteers. The quality of the volunteering program does not only depend on money available but is often affected or if not more importantly, by internal management and the coordinators’ devotion.

Every government is vocal about supporting arts and culture financially, though there is little change in the focus of the support over the years. However, the government may use non-financial leverage to make up for funding shortage and encourage free giving. A government framework might be necessary to regulate the art volunteering sector.

Is volunteering FREE giving? Volunteering is an act of generosity. Yet within Australian society, it is a complex picture with each participant pursuing a slightly different agenda. Perhaps volunteering is more than simply “free giving”, in a sense of the interplay of both intrinsic and extrinsic values, of organisational and individual expectations and of balance between professional and lifestyle choices. And the choice is yours.

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