Volunteers give –
and receive in turn

Globe and Mail
10 November 2019

Anyone in the theatre community will tell you about the importance of volunteers, many of whom step up to help any way they can, just for the love of it.

There is no better feeling of community than what comes with being a volunteer, establishing longlasting emotional connections with other people who have that same level of interest and passion for local theatre, the arts and the not-for-profit community.

When Rose Theatre in Brampton, Ont., asked its volunteers why they get involved, the top three responses were: to give back to the community; to stay active; and to be a part of theatre and arts culture. Volunteering in the arts is particularly important to seniors and retirees. At the Rose, these are the lobby greeters, theatre ushers, ticket takers, coat-check people and event hosts.

“Their contribution to theatre and arts and culture in Brampton is something that cannot be measured in hours or shifts worked, but in exceptional service and connections created,” says Cristina Rizzuto, co-ordinator for performing arts marketing at the Rose. “Our volunteers welcome our patrons to the theatre as though they are welcoming them home.”

The McMichael Canadian Art Collection has a core of 150 volunteers who serve on the board of trustees, the McMichael Youth Team, the McMichael Volunteer Committee and with staff members on the Moonlight Gala, the McMichael’s signature annual fundraiser.

Those volunteers assist visitors, participate in community outreach and provide crucial event support throughout the year. Their gallery docents are trained volunteers who lead visitors on interactive tours of the gallery’s ground and exhibitions.

Roberta Smith, vice-president and chief of staff for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, says volunteers are “vital to the success of the TSO.”

The Toronto Symphony Volunteer Committee, with 150 members and which has been in existence almost as long as the TSO itself, is credited with bolstering the financial health of the TSO and with helping to expand awareness of its musical and education programs. That includes hosting fundraising events such as wine auctions and marathons.

“They are not only ambassadors for the orchestra, but they are very much like family,” she says.

Stacey Arppe, volunteer manager at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., actually keeps a tally of the number of hours booked in by museum’s 180 volunteers: 19,648 hours were logged in 2018 by the people who support every department and program at the museum.

“A large contingent of our volunteers are paddlers themselves with a passion for canoeing, camping and outdoor pursuits,” says Arppe.

“We consciously strive to foster a strong sense of community among our volunteers, so some join us to network, meet new people and connect with like-minded individuals.”

One of those volunteers, Dale Standen, says he is a historian and canoeist, with a connection to the museum going back to its roots. Again, the payoff for volunteers like Standen is the emotional connection to the topic and what the museum or gallery represents both personally and to the community.

“The museum’s collection is unparalleled in its richness, and its preservation is an important project,” he says.

“Working with people who share the same sense of the value of the museum to the community is personally rewarding. It is also fun.”

Walter Emrich, a collections and exhibition volunteer at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, at Queen’s University in Kingston, was a practising doctor who retired four years ago. His aim was to volunteer in an area different from his professional life. This is popular thinking among retirees who volunteer.

After becoming a member at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre just before retiring, he soon found that the gallery’s collection numbered more than 17,000 items, and that there were collection managers and curators who all needed help. That’s how he jumped in.

His job is to do collections condition reporting – doing a walk around the gallery on a weekly basis, looking for any changes in all the exhibited artwork. That could be aging factors such as paint flaking off an oil painting, or paintings warping. It could be contact of the works with gallery visitors or attendants, such as fingerprints or dust on frames.

“After reviewing the various pieces for several weeks I feel like I have a personal relationship and attachment with that work,” Emrich says.

“I’m allowed to be in an environment of creativity and am able to give my time to help in a small way to maintain and preserve that creativity, so that others may benefit from it.”

It is certainly the notion of giving back that appeals to many volunteers.

“At this point in my life I feel an obligation to give something back, to share the knowledge I have accumulated and to mentor others. Volunteering at Agnes provides me with an opportunity to do that,” says Christina MacLachlan, community docent at Agnes.

Young and old, volunteers are crucial to the arts community. Opera Atelier’s crew of volunteers, called on to help out in the office, on larger projects and mailings, especially for the annual gala, are a core group of friendly, dedicated opera lovers.

“From mailings to helping staff our gala and our education/outreach programs, volunteers are the reason it all works,” says Rebekah Lobosco Gilli, development manager for Opera Atelier.

Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre calls on 100 to 120 volunteers each season to cover off duties such as front-of-house usher, as well as to provide gala and administration assistance.

“We do offer the opportunity to see the performances when they’ve assisted us, so that’s certainly a motivator,” says Cameron Johnston, director of marketing for Tarragon Theatre.

“Beyond that, Tarragon volunteers are genuinely passionate about the work we’re doing. They’re our best, most honest audience.”

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