The Artist Volunteer

I wasn’t sure whether to call this ‘The Artist Volunteer” or “Volunteering Within the Arts” because the world of art isn’t just about the artists, it embraces the audience to.  I chose the first though as it is more pertinent to my own experience.  What exactly is an artist volunteer?  Quite simply any artist, whether a student, emerging or returning artist, passionate about art and wanting to engage with their peers, learn from them, connect with them and in turn hopefully grow their own professional practice and networks.

I decided to volunteer at two events, Spon Spun Festival 17 and the inaugural Coventry Biennial.  Spon Spun Festival is an annual event in Coventry and this is its second year.  With events and workshops through July, August and September leading up to the

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festival weekend which includes an Arts Trail, events and picnic.  It is a festival which is very community orientated, focusing on the Spon End area of Coventry.  As a volunteer I have already received training in Safeguarding and also in Event Management.  Next week I will attend a full day’s First Aid training.  Three more skills to add to my CV which will be beneficial in the future for work and commission opportunities in art festivals and for work/commissions within the learning and engagement sector.  Within my role as a volunteer I am also documenting all the events throughout the festival alongside Andy Nelson who is providing the photo documentation.  This will be beneficial to me as I want writing to be a key part of my professional practice and although this is writing in the form of documenting and not reviewing it will still give me valuable experience and can also be added to my CV.  For Andy it is a valuable opportunity to gain experience in documentary photography which he to can add to his CV.  As if all this wasn’t fantastic enough I will also be meeting with commissioned artists which will broaden my network further.

As a volunteer with the Coventry Biennial I have already benefited, as it was through the recruitment process with them that I got the opportunity to learn about and volunteer with Spon Spun Festival.  As an inaugural event it is also a rare opportunity to learn how an event of this size emerges from the idea stage through to a fully realised event and the

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many components that go into launching a Biennial.  As a volunteer there is an opportunity to learn more about: preparation, installation and take down of art works; installation and set-up of AV equipment; invigilation of exhibitions – how do you talk about the art work to the public?; delivering workshops and engaging the local community and wider public.  All of these will enhance your knowledge and experience.

Add all of the above with the opportunity to work alongside fellow artists and who knows what future projects will present themselves from the conversations that will develop.

I shall continue to share my thoughts and experiences, not only to encourage other students, emerging artists but also so I have a written record to refer back to when writing my dissertation.

It would be great to hear the experiences of others who have trodden this path.  Was it a negative or a positive experience for you?  Did it help you progress your professional practice?  Or are you an established artist who has benefited from the help of volunteers? Comment below or if you prefer you can e-mail me at helennelsonart@gmail.com

Art isn’t just about …

…. making art.  There is a mistaken opinion that those of us within the art industry just sit around producing art day in and day out.  That scenario would indeed be a luxury and depending on what kind of artist you are it may well be a reality for some.  I have just come to the end of my second year as a BA (Hons) Fine Art & Contemporary Cultures student at Warwickshire School of Arts.  I openly admit that when I started I had absolutely no idea what being an artist really meant.  I had spent the previous two years isolated in my studio trying to work out who I was as an artist with zero knowledge of the arts and no connections within the art world.  I really did think that all I had to do was keep on producing art, share it online and I’d have a career.  I seriously cringe when I look back to my thought processes then!  Not only was I not looking at other artists work outside of those I met on Facebook.  I also wasn’t thinking about what I was creating, how I was creating it and why.

I don’t profess to have all the answers, I am still an artist with little experience.  My knowledge is growing as each day passes.  I am learning constantly from others, my tutors, my fellow students and from artists I come into contact with through networking. If anything is a priority in the quest to become an artist then networking is it.  In order to network you need to be able to give as well as take from the experience.  In the beginning it may be that you feel you don’t have much to give, however, making those steps to meet other artists, attend local and national (international if you have the funds) exhibitions and offering to help at these is your way of giving back.  Volunteering at art events is key to gaining valuable skills and experience.

When I was a first year student I didn’t really comprehend how important networking is. I was shy of meeting professional artists with so much more knowledge than myself.  I could kick myself for that lost time.  Since sticking my head above the parapet and seeking out artists, asking about their projects, asking advice and volunteering within their projects I discovered that the art community is one of the most supportive environments I have encountered in my four decades on this planet.  Far more supportive than any other industry I have worked in.

Equally important is research – oh how we all moan when we begin our art degrees about having to do theory.  Admittedly I have always enjoyed reading and writing, however this was a whole new level.  I had never been one for reading philosophy or factual papers or books.  I found it hard, really hard.  Texts where half the vocabulary was so alien to me I could not grasp what I was actually reading about.  I certainly never would have anticipated that by my second year I would be actively seeking out such texts. Forming links with my studio practice to allow for cohesive context and narrative which has enabled much deeper and meaningful art work.

I recently volunteered to help at a four day event held by Cathy Wade and Laurence Price of Repeator, artists in residence with Ryan Hughes of Office for Art Design & Technology.  Working behind the scenes allowed me to gain some valuable experience in how artists work within different spaces and how they overcome the challenges that this can raise.  Through this I have also been able to write a review on the event and I currently await the response from the artists themselves on this.

Research, if done properly, takes up a lot of time, as does networking but rather than bemoaning this fact it should be embraced if an artist wants to continue growing.  I personally feel that art is a way of life and not just a part of life.  I wake up thinking about it and I fall asleep thinking about it.  I spend many more hours researching my subject and engaging with other artists than I do spent on actually producing my work and this makes me think of the phrase “quality over quantity”.  I don’t want to be an artist who churns out an art work a day.  I want to be an artist who spends time on the process and the context of the art.

The summer break has just begun and apart from a couple of weeks of rest and relaxation I shall be busy volunteering at the inaugural Coventry Biennial curated by Ryan Hughes and the Spon Spun Festival with Artspace Coventry.  I hope to gain experience and knowledge in curating as well as working alongside other volunteer artists and forming connections, having conversations.  I will also be continuing with the artists collective, The Shared Collective, which I co-founded with fellow artist Jess Ferry, with summer activities and a lot of discussion and action plans for development of the group into the community and public spaces.  Not only that, but working with professional artists and tutors to bring about a summer school which focuses on the introduction of contemporary art.

I also have my dissertation to think about, at the present I am still planning on continuing with my research into human psychology and behaviour in relation to social media and its impact on the individual and on society as a whole, how that links with consumerism and capitalism.  I doubt I shall get much done in the way of art work over the coming 12 weeks but this does not fill me with disappointment because I can’t wait to see what I gain from everything else I will be doing.


Ryan Hughes https://art-design-tech.org/

Cathy Wade http://cathywade.co.uk/

Laurence Price http://laurenceprice.com/

Artspace Coventry http://www.coventry-artspace.co.uk/

Helen Nelson http://www.hmnelson.com/