Recently, after a nearly two-hour drive to see an exhibit that was scheduled to hang for just a few weeks, I chatted with a volunteer docent in a small-town museum in New York’s southern Catskills.
The conversation was not the reason for my trip – but it’s what has stayed with me most from the outing.
I’ve worked in or with the non-profit sector for decades – since graduate school really, and I’m constantly struck by how so many are still attempting to reinvent the wheel in areas that may not be necessary.
To understand some of the challenges this particular not-for-profit faces, it helps if one has a handle on the geography.
The Liberty Museum & Arts Center on Main Street in the village of Liberty – within the town of the same name. The village boasts a population of around 4,100 down from a high of only 4,700 in 1960, according to the U.S. Census.
Far from a ‘boomtown,” Main Street is dotted with empty storefronts. An estimated 15.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. That’s a percent higher than the National Average in 2014 or nearly two points higher than the 2015 estimate.
The Museum’s website is incomplete at best – not uncommon among small, underfunded enterprises. Even the hours of operation and applicable admission rates are hard to find and inconsistent from page to page. Undeterred – I drove the nearly two hours to take a look. (It’s free to enter, by the way, though naturally donations are welcome.)
So what did we talk about? Staffing and hours.
Understandably, the museum can only be open when there’s someone to supervise the space – on the afternoon I visited, the docent – and she was keen to supervise me, I might add. While a family was running amuck, with an adolescent banging on an out-of-place piano in the corner, the docent was working to ensure I was fully informed about the arrangement of the work I’d come to see within the museum’s three galleries.
I was presented with a binder itemizing the exhibit frame-by-frame. She was, at least in my case, very ‘hands-on.’
We would, during our short time together, even collaborate on rearranging five works so that their numbers corresponded to the list posted among them of what the five images were. Interactive art!
But I digress, par-the-course. Back to staffing and hours.
The conversation began, due to my mention of uncertainty concerning hours.
Her more-than-reasonable explanation was that they were open more hours than anticipated (and different hours than any of the conflicting web pages) because they’d found someone to supervise the space on Sundays.
“Of course, we have to pay them,” she was quick to add. Further, the exhibit had been extended a month – lessoning the urgency of my trip.
I suggested the extension be mentioned on the website. (She wrote it down, and it’s been added. That was the easy part, I suppose.) Now on to staffing.
I don’t object to paying personnel. In fact I like to get paid myself, from time-to-time, but I’ve long been aware of a staffing model that applies to non-profit galleries and salon-type art exhibits, where many artists are sharing the space for an exhibit’s run.
I asked whether the artists participating in the show had been approached to sign up for shifts as ‘gallery sitters.’
She was intrigued.
“I believe it’s fairly common practice,” I said. ‘Artists volunteer to watch the gallery in shifts, so that their work can be enjoyed – and possibly sold.”
The docent agreed it was a marvelous idea, and wrote it down as well to refer to the director. (I don’t know whether it’s goner further, but there’s hope.)
These volunteer positions sometimes transition into paid opportunities, as the extended hours contributed to the vitality and viability of the spaces.
Art is a business, and I’ve written about efforts geared toward getting artists to value their work and time (and keep business records). Heck, Sotheby’s Institute of Art offers Master’s degrees.
Helping to keep the doors open and lights on in a gallery where they’re blessed to be shown, so their work can be seen, is not in conflict with this notion of art as business. For artists, the connection should be obvious. For those interested in art from the promotions side, there plenty of opportunity to learn. Again, it’s an investment.
Anther model for gallery sitters is the simple volunteer route – finding those who want to give a little something back and support their community or favorite cause.
Certainly, I’m happy for the lucky soul who is picking up a few extra dollars as a gallery attendant.
In long term the small museum and those like it might be better served through the development of a volunteer program – and they probably don’t have re invent the wheel – just size it to fit their needs.
Most galleries that utilize this ‘staffing’ approach advertise their needs on the ‘opportunities’ page.
A bit of screening, a brief orientation and eternal gratitude of the institution await those to volunteer a little bit of their time – and this doesn’t apply solely to art small town museums?
Want to get involved? Contact organizations in your area directly to see what you can offer one another. Need more ideas? Try volunteermatch.org to search by subject and geographical need. It’s one of several sites in the field that seems to be well managed.
Thanks for reading. Please say hello and share your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you.