The arts world relies on volunteers – we need them now more than ever
When we think of volunteers, we tend to think of charity – but it’s easy to forget that they are also the backbone for many industries, such as the arts.
The world of theatre, art, dance, music (and more) very much relies on the time and effort from volunteers – as organisations depend on them for so many different aspects of daily life.
Whether it’s coordinating creative festivals, running drama clubs or researching exhibitions, many places wouldn’t be able to function without the hours their dedicated volunteers put in.
Chickenshed, an inclusive theatre company in north London, is one such organisation. It offers both adult and children’s theatre productions, education courses, outreach projects and more.
Jenny Kettleton, the volunteers coordinator at Chickenshed, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Volunteering at Chickenshed is completely part of the ethos, it always has been since the founders started it – they were a bunch of artists who set up Chickenshed in their spare time and for years ran it as volunteers, until it became a professional organisation.
‘It’s always been at the heart of Chickenshed and volunteers are part of the fabric. We sometimes talk about them being the foundation stones.’
Jenny looks after the 250+ volunteers who support the organisation in numerous ways, including working as front of house at events, carrying out box office admin and data input, painting stage sets and assisting in the wardrobe department.
‘Our volunteers are so generous. They want to give something back to society and they choose Chickenshed because it fits with who they are, what they want to do and their skills,’ adds Jenny.
‘So we have dressmakers who volunteer from time to time – they don’t come in every week necessarily. People who come and help paint the sets for the Christmas show, because they want to be in that environment – that fun, buzzy place that Chickenshed is, and want to be a part of that.’
Jenny explains that life at the theatre company wouldn’t be the same without their dedicated army of volunteers.
She adds: ‘In fact, we couldn’t function without them.
‘Generally, our volunteers give us 18,000 hours of their time in a year. So if you put a value on that financially, that’s a huge contribution to Chickenshed. It’s a resource we couldn’t otherwise find – so from that point of view they are crucial for the life of Chickenshed.’
This year, more than 20 of the volunteers will have been with the organisation for 25 years – and, for one individual, 2021 will be their 40-year-anniversary.
Jenny thinks the reason so many stay volunteering for so long, is their passion for the arts and the feeling of giving back to the local community.
People of all ages get involved, too.
Jenny adds: ‘I think for many they come because they are socialsing with people who are like-minded and share a love of the arts. Some of our older volunteers perhaps who are retired because they still have lots of energy and want to do something worthwhile with their time and want to meet new people.
‘And we have younger people who perhaps are starting out on their career, so it’s good for them to get some experience that they can then put on their CV. Some of them stay with us because they like it, or they might only be with us for a short time and then they move on.’
Many community arts programmes rely on volunteers to keep them afloat, too.
Trinity Community Arts, in Bristol, does what it says on the tin – aims to empower communities with a diverse programme of arts, heritage and cultural projects, activities and events.
‘Volunteers have been part of Trinity’s fabric from the peak of its life as a church, to the beginnings of its life as a cultural hub – when it was acquired by the community in 1976,’ explains programme director Rhiannon Jones.
With the support of volunteers, Trinity Community Arts is able to offer an eclectic programme of arts and culture to meet the needs of local residents.
Individuals help out in a number of ways. Some work as garden volunteers, maintaining the up-keep of the community grounds and deliver sessions with local families and schools. While front of house volunteers support live events and the board of trustees provide strategic oversight to support and help navigate the charity.
Since 2004 Trinity has also taken part in a ‘Through The Gate’ scheme, to provide volunteer work placements for offenders due for release from prison, as well as employment for individuals upon their release.
Rhainnon says; ‘Volunteers on this placement scheme provide valuable support for the facilities team, helping them to maintain the building and grounds maintenance. Trinity Community Arts supports findings that when people leave prison, they are much less likely to reoffend if they have a home and a job.’
Volunteers have been especially important in the arts world over the past year.
Rhiannon adds: ‘Without volunteers, we would not have been able to adapt our programme and reach local communities during the lockdown.
‘For example, volunteers helped us create over 900 activity packs and distribute them to local families. As restrictions eased, volunteers supported the garden team tidying up the community garden ready to welcome communities back.’
Let’s not forget about galleries and museums, too.
Penlee Gallery and Museum, in Cornwall, has over 100 volunteers who support with various kinds of work.
Director Anna Renton explains: ‘We have volunteers who steward in our galleries, welcoming visitors and answering queries. We also have some volunteers who help us to research our collections and help catalogue collections items too.
‘Then we have a team of volunteers who help with our family activities, baby sessions and toddler sessions. We also have a group of volunteer photographic researchers, who help us to identify people and places in our vast photographic collection.’
Anna explains that Penlee Gallery and Museum has achieved so much because of its volunteers.
She adds: ‘Volunteers have always been of vital importance to museums
‘A visit to Penlee House would be far less enjoyable without them. They bring so much experience, enthusiasm and joy to the gallery and make it feel like such a warm and welcoming space.’
Anna adds: ‘We missed being able to meet our volunteers during the lockdowns and tried hard to keep in touch with them all whilst we were away. But nothing beats being able to see them all again in real life and welcome our visitors back.’
Now restrictions have lifted, the arts world needs volunteers more than ever before, to help it get back on its feet.
Jenny, from Chickenshed, adds: ‘There’s always a way people can volunteer and support an organisation, in the arts particularly. I think all our [arts] organisations will be happy to have more volunteering support.’
Not only that but there’s never been a better time to help out – not only for arts organisations themselves, but for the personal reward.
Jenny says: ‘Volunteering only works, if it’s rewarding both ways, you have to get something out of it as well as the organisation – otherwise it doesn’t work.
‘I think sport and the art, because it’s about the emotion and you as a person and you invest yourself in these things – that’s why it works so well.
‘And then, you’re also doing something really crucial to make things happen and allow it to happen.
‘It’s a total win win and we, as people, thrive on that – we need that reward in our lives.’
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Volunteers’ Week takes place 1-7 June and highlights the amazing ways people can give back and help others. To get involved click here.
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