I, Volunteer

Invisible Work in the Arts

In rural Canadian towns like Peterborough, the arts perennially teeter on a financial tightrope. Cultural organizations turn themselves into pretzels year after year ad nauseum to secure grants, with or without success.

Failure to secure stable funding can result in an immediate loss of opportunities and facilities for artists, downsizing and/or burnout of staff and boards, depletion of institutional knowledge and coherence, and a brain drain in the larger community – as well as a whole lot of well-meaning individuals stepping up to stop the bleeding. This funding roller coaster creates an addiction to volunteers in the arts.

According to Stats Canada, “arts and culture organizations receive much lower funding from government (28% for arts and culture vs. 49% for all nonprofits)”; meanwhile “only 37% of incorporated arts and culture organizations reported having paid staff, much lower than the 46% of all incorporated nonprofit organizations.”

So what fills the labour vacuum in these small feisty organizations? A posse of earnest, art-lovin’, over-educated, cat-herded volunteers. They provide not just occasional labour, but essential and highly skilled work within the arts sector – what the Canada Council for the Arts estimates to be the equivalent of 51,000 full time jobs.

Liz Fennell Photo by Paul Oldham

Elizabeth Fennell

To many, a beat down on volunteerism is akin to sacrilege. Arts consultant Su Ditta points out that for some organizations, securing a hardy roster of volunteers is considered a badge of honour. We decry the exploitation of unpaid internships. Is volunteerism really that different?

Maintaining an effective volunteer base involves recruiting, training, scheduling, skills assessment, data keeping, managing inevitable turnover, and last but not least, thanking – suddenly free labour doesn’t look so free.

One of our most industrious arts workers is Elizabeth Fennell. Trent alumna and graduate of Fleming College’s Museum Management & Curatorship program, she founded Gallery in the Attic, a member-supported gallery and arts hub, along with the Darkroom Project, a resurrection of the longest-running analog photography studio in Canada on the historic site of the Roy Studios.

She began her curatorial career by staging pop-up galleries in private homes, as well as freelancing for Public Energy’s 2014 multi media festival, Erring on the Mount, for city-funded Artsweek, and for the ReFrame Film Festival. Oh yes – and plenty of volunteering.

After operating the privately owned Gallery in the Attic for three years, Fennell rolled it into the non-profit Darkroom Project, leaving both in the hands of the existing board and member base, in order to pursue career opportunities that will actually pay her a living wage.
Liz Fennell Photo by Paul Oldham

Gallery in the Attic has over 70 active members, providing affordable and essential exhibition space for emerging and established artists, craftspeople and musicians. Moreover, it has filled the void left by the closing of the Peterborough Arts Umbrella almost five years earlier. But the question lingers: can or should a non-profit gallery or arts venue survive on volunteer labour alone?

Both Ditta and Fennell point out that volunteerism often falls on the shoulders of women. Ditta adds that the volunteer model grew out of a postwar economy in which a single person could support a family. Many homemakers had time and skills to spare for the greater social good. Today most artists already maintain a day job, so “when artists volunteer they’re taking time away from their practice. But they do it because the institutions they love will die without it,” says Ditta.

An easy target for austerity and defunding, the value of arts organizations to the community as a whole is too complex to quantify. In rural communities they perform manifold roles, from physical space and tools, to education and advocacy. They can be the difference between a healthy interdependent art community and a collection of individual artists struggling to survive. When they are forced to “do less with less,” as FUSE Magazine calls it, that fabric begins to unravel.

Why should this matter? Because the cohesion of a whole community is threatened when it’s everyone for themselves.


Photos by Paul Oldham

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Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger


Ann Jaeger writes Trout in Plaid, a journal of arts and culture in the Peterborough area.