Volunteering & lots of tea are a perfect combination!

Photo courtesy of 'Dyanna' on Flickr

People volunteer for lots of different reasons from wanting to gain experience to making new friends, but walking into any new situation can be scary. Putting on the kettle is a simple way to put new volunteers at ease.

As an arts management student I volunteered in loads of arts organisations from festivals to galleries and theaters. The places I stuck with where the ones that made me a cup of tea when I walked in the door. Its important that you get to know your volunteers, after all if you don’t have time to invest in them, they will quickly lose their desire to invest their precious time in you. Volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds you might have a retired teacher, or trainee doctor helping out at your festival but you’ll never know this if you simply ask volunteers for their contact details and a reference.

Just last week I got a lovely new ‘recruiting and managing volunteers’ OCN qualification in the post. The 2 day training course which I attended earlier in the year made me realise that managing volunteers requires more than simply policy, reference checking and progress reviews. The training course covered all the ‘official’ stuff but equally important is simply being nice, friendly, interested and approachable. From my experience the being nice part of managing volunteers is all to often over looked.

Volunteers don’t want to spend all day in a cupboard stuffing envelopes, but get a couple of volunteers together, put the radio on and provide some cupcakes and a mundane task suddenly becomes a sociable one.

I guess the recipe to creating a successful volunteer programme is simple: Think before you ask, would I do this for free? Would I enjoy doing this? What would I get out of this task if I was volunteering? These might seem like simple questions but in the heat of the moment, in the madness of a festival they are often over looked.

If you take the time to make volunteers feel welcome they will quickly become loyal advocates, if you don’t they will quickly tell their friends and family about their negative experience. Your volunteers are important, they are loyal and motivated members of the community, don’t underestimate their value!

Lessons from Venice

I was lucky enough to work for the British Council and Arts Council of Northern Ireland at the 2009 Venice Biennale. My time in Venice was professionally priceless; it gave me the opportunity to engage with art and artists from around the world. I came away from Venice feeling inspired and challenged in equal portions.


The Venice Biennale presented the perfect opportunity to experiment, network and produce events and exhibitions.  Myself and a group of staff from other galleries decided to put our heads together and start a collective through which we could curate and show work during out time in Venice. Over a few bottles of Prosecco we decided on ‘Parallax’ as the name of our collective. Within the space of a few days we planned our first event a ‘see + talk’ session which we held in the court yard of the Northern Ireland pavilion (and the former home to Vivaldi!)This event was attended by over 30 people from more than 10 different countries, it took the form of a Pecha Kucha style event, with each artist discussing and answering questions about their work. Over the following weeks we curated performance art ‘crawls’, these consisted of site specific performances that engaged with the architecture of venice, we held exhibitions in apartments and palaces, we held making sessions from origami to drawing nights.

Parallax challenged the idea that the Venice Biennale is a place for established artists, it threw the floor open to a new generation or artists, curators and arts managers. Parallax provided us with the opportunity to examine our own practice, to grow professionally and to work in a peer supported environment. Parallax was unique in that it was not a funded project instead it was a collective of like minded people who pooled resources and expertise from printers to projectors, from web design to graphic design from courtyards to bedroom walls. Quite simply we had an idea, and we put it into practice.

Parallax in a Power Point

Parallax After Venice

Since the last Biennale Parallax has remained an active group of like minded individuals. Earlier this year we were contacted by galleries asking about how they could become involved in Parallax at the 2011 Venice Biennale.  It’s exciting to know that a small idea dreamed up over a bottle of Prosecco has made such an impact. 2 years after it was first conceived it has become a source of inspiration and mentoring for those working at this year’s Venice Biennale. Due to funding problems Northern Ireland won’t be at Venice this year, however Parallax will. The Fruit Market gallery are keen to breathe life into Parallax and I can’t wait to see how their invigilators creatively respond to living and working in Venice.

My advice to anyone working at this year’s Venice Biennale?

  • Bring business cards- they will get you free entry and exhibition catalogues
  • Bring Berocca- you won’t get a lot of sleep!
  • Bring lots and lots of Mosquito repellent (Irish art critic Aidan Dunne was so concerned by the size of my mosquito bites that he and his wife delivered repellent to my galley- sweet, but also terribly embarrassing)
  • No matter who you meet in Venice be it a ‘big’ artist, curator or critic, talk to them exchange emails, ask for advice. The sun makes people so much more approachable than at other big commercial events like Frieze
  • Get hold of a free British Council map, they are the best! The official Biennale map is really confusing