How to become an arts volunteer: simply show willing

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

In it for love rather than money, volunteering in the world of arts and culture gets you behind the scenes, and up close and personal with the art that’s closest to your heart.

Working for nothing? What’s in it for me?

People volunteer for all sorts of reasons: for some it’s a way to meet new people, for others it’s a chance to dip your toe in the cultural waters to see if you like what you find. At one end of your career it’s a good way to upskill, while at the other it’s a nice wind-down, with less stress and commitment than an actual full-on job. Love theatre? Volunteer ushers get to see shows as often as they like. Ditto classical music. Can’t decide? Ireland’s summer arts festivals all have active volunteer programmes, and advertise for the roles a couple of months in advance.

Can I volunteer with no skills?

If you think about it, the only people with no skills are newborn babes. If you’re able to walk and talk you have “people skills”. Can you answer the phone? That’s “communication skills” taken care of. Are you adept at smiling and showing people to seats? Looks like you’re all over “audience management”. One thing to note, however, is that wherever you do end up volunteering, the most important skill is being able to demonstrate reliability. Turn up on time and you’re halfway there. At the National Gallery of Ireland, volunteers typically give four hours a week, and according to Kate Jameson of the gallery’s visitor experience team, they are “among the gallery’s most important ambassadors”.

Ambassadorial material? Pass me the Ferrero Rocher ...

Not so fast. First you need to apply. “Keep an eye on the website for the next recruitment campaign, or get in touch,” advises Jameson. Then, send in a CV and cover letter saying why you’d like to take part. There will be interviews, an induction, training and mentoring to make sure you’re not thrown completely in at the deep end. While the National Gallery gives you a chance to discover more about the national art collection, you’ll find your local arts centre or gallery will have similar opportunities relating to their own programme, so give them a call to see when they’re next taking on new people.


I’d still like to know more about the perks

Nicola Carroll is a volunteer with the gallery, who says she enjoys every single moment of her time there. “My weekly afternoons at the gallery keep me in touch with what is going on in art in Ireland and the world. All the volunteers love to talk about art,” she says. You’ll find a strong community spirit among the volunteers, and the inside track on upcoming shows, plus the occasional away day and even the odd party or two. “There are talks by curators of new exhibitions and a monthly newsletter. There have been opportunities to do online art history courses, and attend talks as well as invitations to the openings of new exhibitions, which is always exciting.”

And don’t forget about the feel-good factor

“As a volunteer at the gallery, I’m aware of being somewhere special,” says Carroll. “Even by simply providing directions within the gallery, it is helping others to access the joy of art. I’m grateful to have access to a national collection that is free to visit, and it feels good to be able to give something back to the place that has given me so much joy, since I was a child.”

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture