A few days ago, I wrote a post about who does, could or should get paid for their time in participatory projects. It got a lot of interest, and it’s one of the most-read posts I’ve written this year. In some online discussion about it, the question of volunteering came up, which surprised me because I hadn’t thought of it in this context. I don’t regard the people involved in a participatory art project as volunteers: I think they’re artists. I was always unsure about the re-naming of amateur arts as voluntary arts in the 1990s, and I think now that it’s because it conflates two ideas that I’ve always seen as separate: giving your time and not being paid.
The essence of volunteering, for me, is the gift of time (and labour, knowledge, skill etc.) to benefit others. It is a form of altruism, a generous act that deserves respect. Vast areas of our social and cultural life depend on it. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, 11.9 million people formally volunteered at least monthly in 2016/17. Sports associations, environmental groups, co-operatives, youth clubs, health charities, disability groups, food banks, trade unions, animal shelters, heritage sites, religious groups—even political parties—all rely on volunteers. The best of them, like the National Trust, have treat volunteers professionally, with good conditions and entitlements, almost as unpaid staff. When it’s truly a free choice, volunteering is an admirable aspect of social solidarity.
It isn’t always a choice, of course. Working in Eastern Europe, I often met people who had been forced to do ‘voluntary’ work under communist regimes, including a violinist who’d spend his summer ‘holidays’ building the now-closed railway line between Librazhd and Pogradec in Albania. In a less oppressive context, spending cuts have made public services increasingly reliant on volunteers, for instance in libraries. Like the existence of food banks that is no part of a well-run and just society. Volunteering is never an acceptable replacement for jobs or public services. The Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society may help find ways of managing the pressures on volunteering today.
People do volunteer in participatory art, but mainly in support roles, for instance as trustees of a community art organisation. There are also people who want to help or feel part of the activity without doing creative work. They’re happy to drive, make sandwiches, carry stuff, build and so on. They are also volunteers and often, having got involved in familiar activities, they will take on roles within the artistic process.
But I do not see the non-professional artists (the ‘participants’) as volunteers because they are not giving their time to someone or something else. They are contributing to something that belongs to them collectively. They share ownership in, control over and responsibility for the art they are making. They’re not volunteers because you can’t volunteer for yourself, though you can make choices about what to do with your time. Not being paid doesn’t make you a volunteer. The relationship between professional and non-professional artists is different. Who is being paid can be an important aspect of that—as discussed in the previous post—but it is not the relationship between paid staff and volunteers that exists in most charities.
Of course, lots of people involved in participatory art do think of themselves as volunteers: it’s a familiar and valued role, for the reasons already mentioned. The photo above shows some of those who invest their time and creativity to make x-church in Gainsborough a local asset, and they do speak of volunteering. That’s fine—we’re entitled to define ourselves and our actions. But I think it’s disempowering for professional artists making art with non-professionals to think of the people they’re working with as volunteers. They’re equals involved in co-creation.
Interesting distinction. As a writer who has sometimes run community writing groups for free as a way of promoting the work and – in the longer term – securing a regular programme of paid work, I’d say that sometimes the ‘sprat to catch a mackerel’ approach is necessary. I feel passionately about the work so, while in no way devaluing it by doing it for free – I will on occasion offer my services as a volunteer in order to champion it and win support in a community for it to continue; a sort of ‘free sample’. It’s important to set limits to this approach though and I’m increasingly sparing in terms of who I offer it to.
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Thanks – you raise another important point (a third post on this issue?) about when and why professional artists are paid for their work. One difference, as you say, is choice: you sometimes choose do work unpaid in the hope of getting paid later. It’s not desirable (like unpaid internships) for several reasons, but if you’re freelance, you can make those choices.
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