Wednesday, 22 December 1999
Volunteerism in the Arts - Dec 22 1999
Writer: Kate Herbert
Melbourne is a city full of voluntary workers - and they are not only on tuck shop duty. The arts industry is riddled with volunteers. The vast majority is women who range from highly skilled artists or administrators to bored housewives or retirees, seconded students or young artists trying to build an industry network
What was once community-mindedness, is now a major pathway into employment. The arts have always relied on artists working for little or no financial remuneration. Artists are expected to live on the ecstasy of creative inspiration or the occasional opening night when they can rub shoulders with the great and the beautiful.
I'm telling you, eventually you've gotta make a buck or starve.
Managers at the MTC, Playbox, Melbourne Fringe Festival, Big West Festival and La Mama, list three main reasons people volunteer: for on the job training, industry networking or to fill in time when the kids leave the nest.
From February to December 1999, I spent two days per week working voluntarily for the Big West Festival. Why? To rediscover a sense of community which was eroded by government policy over these last years, and to create a network in the festival industry. Even there, employment relies on "who you know."
It became clear that festivals (the exception being Melbourne Festival) could not survive without volunteers. Alice Nash, General Manager of Big West, lists 130 volunteers. At least seven worked the entire year unpaid and 85 worked on the festival day in November. Two volunteer theatre graduates, Assimina Simmons and Andrew Casey, stage managed The Great Outdoors community project independently.
Ironicaaly, even the co-ordinator of volunteers, Kate Williams, was a volunteer. She took two weeks leave from her regular job to do the festival.
Melbourne Fringe Festival, according to artistic director, Virginia Hyam, (OK) has only three ongoing paid staff. In the lead up to the festival in September, there were 25 paid part-time co-ordinators plus 100 volunteers. "To pay them would be an enormous cost", says Hyam.
So the government allows the community to subsidise its arts and training sectors. Consider a festival which has a conservative estimate of 6000 volunteer hours over 6 months. A volunteer is officially worth $14 per hour. That equals $104,000 that the government does not choose provide.
Liz Jones, Artistic Director of La Mama Theatre in Carlton, says,
"Actors and technicians come to meet other people in the industry." They paint signs, carry heavy objects and form alliances after which they might get a paid gig . "It is a pathway into the industry."
La Mama has a history of loner term volunteers moving into paid positions. One student came on work placement and stayed for seven years as House Manager. La Mama now also has 'work for the dole' volunteers.
Volunteerism is not restricted to small theatres or community events. Major theatre companies, such as Melbourne Theatre Company and Playbox, use volunteer labour. Playbox has 120 people on its Playmates list. Playbox volunteer, John Wise, has worked one day per week for ten years on the payroll.
Others help with occasional mail-outs as do members of the MTC Centrestage Club which comprises members and subscribers of the MTC
Says Sioban Tuke at MTC, "They already have a connection with the company and want to get behind scenes." Most do office work or help at functions and are repaid with theatre tickets or invitations to functions.
Both Playbox and MTC attach voluntary assistant directors to many productions as well as students or graduates of publicity, stage management or design. Jessica Wong is a stage manager seconded to the production of Company which opens in the New Year.
It is unlikely that any other industry subsidises itself to such an extent. It is unreasonable for the arts industry and its already over-worked and underpaid personnel, to train its own workers and for workers to volunteer such an inordinate number of hours. Why does the government not formalise or at least acknowledge this hidden layer of the industry?
We are fortunate that the people in these organisations are competent, responsible and careful with their volunteers. They should be compensated for their input. The government should be providing training or jobs for these volunteers if there is actually a market for them in the workplace.