Interns and Volunteers - They’re for life, not just for the coffee run.
Let’s face it - Being a volunteer is rubbish unless you feel valued, appreciated and nurtured. As a serial volunteer in many arts organisations, and as a developing curator that is using volunteers for the first time, I’ve come to realise how important it is to really consider these individuals in our development of galleries and arts institutions.
The relationship between gallery/arts organisation and volunteer should be reciprocal, because as prestigious as you may be, using essentially free labour should not be rewarded with the ‘privelege’ of being a representative of that gallery. Volunteers expect you to teach them something, engage with them and nurture them, which is where a really good Volunteer program comes in. Experience in an establishment is invaluable in the arts, however adding training and education to that goes even further. By helping your volunteers to uncover opportunities that furthers their development you are giving them something back. By teaching them how to install exhibitions, write press releases, and basic admin skills, you are giving something back. Volunteer programs should not be an afterthought, they should be considered at the very beginning.
We have to consider that these bright young things, rosy cheeked and filled to the brim with enthusiasm, are the future! They will be the ones who are responsible for sustaining and encouraging our culture, and if they end up twisted and embittered by that horrible Operations Assistant who barely talked to them and made them do jobs they couldn’t be bothered to do, they will either quit, or go on to do the same when they are an Operations Assistant. Which isn’t very nice. Something as simple as a conversation goes a long way. If you haven’t got the time and resources to develop a volunteer program fully, sit down and have a coffee with them, ask them where they want to go and give them advice, because at some point you were there. Something as simple as direction will help them feel involved with something and ultimately motivated, and this is from personal experience.
This goes for Interns too, I have heard unbelievable stories from friends who have worked for free, for a whole working week, who can recite the walk to the rubbish bins by memory but don’t feel they’ve learnt a thing. They look utterly beaten.
Let’s be realistic, apart from terrible treatment of those we should be encouraging, we’re not exactly displaying a great commitment to diversity if we expect Interns to work full-time (even part time) hours, unpaid, and often with a considerable commute. The only people I know (and that’s not many) that can afford to take on this mammoth financial sting are those from higher income backgrounds, who can afford the time and effort you need to get all you can from an internship. If you are unpaid and have a lower income you should get used to working a second job in the evening which ensures you only get about 4 hours sleep a night.
We shouldn’t expect our young people to develop in this way, because there’s nothing like working a 70 hour week and eating Sainsbury’s economy noodles for every meal to really grind your love for a subject into an unrecognisable pulp. We want culture to represent society as it is, and by further widening the gap in socio-economic backgrounds, we are not doing this. We want our understanding of culture to be an open dialogue between EVERYONE not just the privileged few. If you can’t afford to take on an Intern with decent pay, then don’t have one. They aren’t free labour, funnily enough. Your intern or volunteer should come out of their experiences feeling happy, encouraged and ridiculously motivated, and you should be the one who made that happen. I’m not naive; I’m fair, and what’s wrong with being fair?