Feature

Volunteers are the secret to the smooth running of day-to-day operations at many of Melbourne’s art galleries. We decided to find out more about this group of art devotees and spoke with six individuals who shared their views on life as a volunteer at an art gallery.

Photography by Jesse Marlow for Art Guide Australia.
Interviews conducted by Kim Butterworth and Minna Gilligan.

Harriet Maher
Volunteer
C3 Contemporary Art Space

Harriet Maher, Volunteer, C3 Contemporary Art Space.

Does your volunteering give you a greater understanding of the exhibition/artwork on display?

Absolutely. As volunteers we are given the opportunity to walk through each show before it opens, and have access to information from c3 administrators and the artists themselves about the work, which helps inform my understanding when I’m communicating these ideas to visitors and stakeholders.

What skills/techniques do you employ to help visitors engage with the art?

I use my knowledge that I’ve gained from studying art history for six years, my prior experience volunteering in galleries, and the support from c3 staff who make sure we are well informed about the shows, and give us access to further information like artist websites and statements. It’s also important to be approachable and friendly, and to be engaged with the art on a personal level.

Tom Greenaway
Volunteer
Heide Museum of Modern Art

Tom Greenaway, Volunteer, Heide Museum of Modern Art.

What do you enjoy the most about being a volunteer?

It’s always fun to talk to visitors and I think that’s probably the most appealing thing about working at an art gallery. You get to engage with people about art and people will come up to you and ask you all kinds of questions. Once you get people engaged and start a discussion, they begin to open up about the work and relate it to themselves on a personal level. Once you know they’ve connected with it on a personal level they begin to make sense of it. Volunteering is an enriching and worthwhile thing to do, and if you have a passion for it you just walk in the door and start learning straight away.

Have you ever been asked an unusual or difficult question by a visitor?

My favourite question of all time was from a woman who came up to me in the gallery and said, ‘What’s the name of the artist who paints rabbits?’ and I said ok… I’m looking at the other staff member and we’re looking at each other saying ‘rabbits?’. We’re scratching our heads and thinking hard before we realised that she meant Charles Blackman. The rabbit was the thing she took away and that was what stuck with her.

Rachael Paintin
Intern
Blindside Artist Run Space

Rachael Paintin, Intern, Blindside Artist Run Space.

Have you ever been asked any unusual or difficult questions by a visitor?

I would say no, just because I don’t think that there are any difficult questions. I think that art is so subjective; you can kind of take from it what you wish. As a volunteer you’re not expected to know everything, you’re not expected to be able to answer all of the questions. It’s more than okay to say, ‘I don’t know’ but subsequently generate a discussion with the visitor around the work and around the specific question. It becomes a bit more of a conversation than you answering a question, and telling them what to think about the work.

What tasks does your volunteer position involve?

I think that one of the most valuable things about the Blindside Internship Program is the opportunity to develop an independent project. The project I am developing is titled: Space Walk. It’s a walking tour in the CBD that I design, map out and host. I lead participants to lesserknown venuesgalleries, artist run initiatives, and even public spaces — to encounter art. The one that I have coming up is going to start at Kings ARI, and then it’s going to move onto the Guildford Lane Precinct. What I’m hoping to do is uncover some of the histories of the artist run spaces that existed there for a short period of time, and are no longer there. I want to emphasize the value of those  ephemeral spaces, and what they’ve contributed to the arts landscape.

Ian Bunyi
Volunteer
Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP)

Ian Bunyi, Volunteer, Centre for Contemporary, Photography (CCP).

Have you made friendships or professional relationships throughout your time volunteering?

There is a great sense of camaraderie with my fellow volunteers at CCP, who always bring a positive attitude towards their field of work. They are very inclusive in regards to getting someone like me who doesn’t have much experience involved in the gallery. Over the time spent here I have seen volunteers offer invitations to upcoming exhibitions or share work opportunities with the rest of our community. Most importantly, there is a willingness to share their personal experiences with others who may want to explore a new creative avenue. I have also found the CCP staff to be very welcoming and supportive towards us in regards to opportunities that come in, and their opinions on how we should approach particular tasks.

What was your initial motivation for volunteering?

The main reason I begun volunteering was because I had been on a bit of a ‘journey’ with my anxiety, which had shied me away from many opportunities. But thankfully, I’ve become a bit better at managing it and started coming out of my shell more and more through doing work that I used say was out of my comfort zone. A volunteer requires confidence and very good communication skills. I also felt like I hadn’t experienced much in my life so wanted to explore more of me!

Dorothy Bennett
President, NGV Volunteers
National Gallery of Victoria

Dorothy Bennett, President, NGV Volunteers, National Gallery of Victoria.

What skills does a volunteer require?

People skills are important – the ability and confidence to speak to groups who may vary markedly, and the skill to be knowledgeable and interesting without being boring! Being sensitive to your audience so that you can tailor your tour to their interests and level of understanding. To be a ‘warm and welcoming’ face to the public. Research skills are also important in preparing for tours and exhibitions.

Have you made friendships or professional relationships throughout your time volunteering?

I have made many good friends in my 18 years as a voluntary guide at the NGV – some of these are lifelong friendships, as we share so many interests. I have also made a number of professional relationships with personnel within the gallery and they have been extremely valuable. There are 123 guides, so it isn’t possible to get to know everyone very well, but over time I have met and enjoyed getting to know most of them. They are an incredibly gifted group of people, with a vast range of professional and artistic backgrounds.

Cathryn Ross
Volunteer
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA)

Cathryn Ross, Volunteer, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA).

What do you enjoy most about being a volunteer?

I definitely enjoy those moments where you have a conversation with a visitor as they come through the exhibition, and they excitedly share something they’ve discovered about the work with you. It might only be 30 seconds of conversation, but you feel like you made a little connection to someone via the art. It’s definitely those little bits that keep me going when there can be lots of other stressful things happening.

Does volunteering at an art institution give you a different insight into how galleries function?

Having previously worked at John Curtin Gallery in my hometown Perth, I already had a lot of experience working in galleries. However, I didn’t have ‘ACCA experience’! So even though I knew a lot of stuff, I had to put that aside and remind myself that I’m learning this as an entirely new role, and learning the nuances of the way that the individual institution works. Volunteering at ACCA has allowed me to see that there are always big things that galleries do that are the same, but the way they work on a smaller more intimate level can be quite different

This article originally appeared in THEN, NOW & NEXT, our newspaper publication which coincided with Melbourne Art Week, August 2018.

Our thanks to all the volunteers who gave more of their valuable time to speak to us about their work.

Jesse Marlow