In Trump Times, Arts Volunteers Find a Brave New World

A screenshot from information on the volunteer program at the AfroPunk Fest.

Last month, I wrote about arts volunteers and the perils of believing that you get what you pay for. I suggested that the way forward was to re-frame the relationship as an exchange of value, and proposed that by doing so we could increase the role and impact of volunteers in the arts.

Now let’s look specifically at how that might happen, referring to some great volunteer programs that are pointing the way. Before I do that, a quick side-note on what comes next for America.

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Donald Trump will be our next President because too many people feel angry and frustrated at their position and prospects. That anger and frustration is directed at immigrants and various others who they feel have gotten in the way of their pursuit of the American Dream. But the source of the anger is simpler than that.

As was brilliantly described in Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the middle class grew and grew prosperous after World War II, with the top 10% of the population earning a high but stable 32% of national income. And this continued for almost 40 years. Then in 1981, as President Ronald Reagan introduced trickle-down economics and altered the tax code, that percentage of national income earned by the top 10% started to grow and grow, and has kept on growing ever since. By 2010, the share of the top decile in national income had reached 47%, meaning that the rest of America had lost a third of its share of income. We know that loss is greater by 2016, and it’s even greater when measured in terms of accumulated wealth.

This is the simple reason for our current state of affairs. It is not rooted in racism, misogyny, nativism or ignorance. Simply that economic inequality has brought our society to the boiling point. And the people are revolting.

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Don’t look to this government to invest in arts and culture.

What this means for the arts is unclear. But it’s fair to assume it certainly isn’t good news — from advancing social justice and equality to teaching us to be moral, unselfish and tolerant. I don’t think those in government are going to be particularly sympathetic to, and supportive of, how we want the arts to develop, and I’m also doubtful that government will have any resources to invest after a few years of trade-busting, Tea Party economics.

So if we want the arts to save our world, we’ll have to make it happen with much less government, which means much more private-sector time and money. Which brings us back to the issue of volunteerism in the arts. Whereas volunteers used to be a good way to reduce costs and improve engagement, volunteers are about to become the life-blood of the sector.

So let’s look at a few examples of great programs.

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About Face Theatre’s Friends with Benefits Program | Chicago, IL

Chicago’s About Face Theatre was founded in 1995 as a response to the lack of LGBT representation in the American theater. In tandem with the company’s 20th anniversary, About Face launched Friends with Benefits, a program that allows volunteers to earn points in return of service. To participate in the program, potential volunteers fill out a basic form that asks about their area of interest as a volunteer, including backstage help, load-in and strike help, box office/ushering, office/clerical, flyer distribution, tabling at street festivals, special event setup, etc. Each volunteer area is assigned a points-per-hour value — for example, four points for distributing posters.

Points turned in for benefits.

About Face takes responsibility for tracking a participant’s points, which never expire, can accrue over time, and can be given as gifts. Points can then be turned in for a variety of benefits, including 10 points for one ticket to a preview performance or 50 points for an annual membership.

Additional rewards for regular participation include free admission to special events when you volunteer to help with setup or strike, an invitation to the annual holiday party and other events, and recognition on the AFT website and in playbills.

Afropunk Music Festival | Brooklyn, NY

Afropunk is an international music, film and skate festival founded in Brooklyn in 2005. For its first 10 years, the two-day festival operated as a free event. By 2015, however, it was so popular that producers moved to an affordable paid and earned ticket model. Established as the Afropunk Army, the earned ticket program invites festival attendees to volunteer at local organizations in exchange for tickets. Opportunities, which are arranged by the festival, include working with Habitat for Humanity, participating in park beautification days, helping with area summer camps, participating in anti-gun violence awareness day, etc. The ultimate aim is to “create awareness for organizations in need, provide access to an engaged pool of valuable resources, and help deliver a sustainable impact to communities.” In 2016, due to Afropunk Army’s success, Brooklyn Borough developed a partnership with the festival to expand the volunteer effort across the borough.

Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia | Charlottesville, VA

The University of Virginia’s Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection is the only museum dedicated to Australian Aboriginal Art in the US. Those interested in volunteering with the museum can apply (a CV and letter of interest are required) for positions as docents, educational guides or gallery attendants. It is required that each volunteer commit to at least one year of service, attend one event during artist residencies, and volunteer at one Night at the Museum event per summer. In return, volunteers receive a free copy of Art of the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, a 15% discount in the gift shop, and an invitation to eat dinner with each visiting artist.

So what do we learn from these examples?

  1. Be intentional and precise about exchange of value between the organization and the volunteer.
  2. Treat volunteers like employees in terms of training, supervision and evaluation.
  3. Good programs start with good communications — lots of content on multiple platforms that build and maintain great relationships and thus stronger organizations.

Now let’s all get to work.