Volunteering in the Arts

We talk to festival directors and former volunteers about the reciprocal benefits of proffering time and skills

A recent call for volunteers by the Belfast Film Festival asked a number of questions. Previous volunteer experience? Customer service related skills? Audio visual and computer knowhow?

Festival volunteers, it seems, bear a certain level of technical and public-facing responsibility, their continued involvement being central to this event, and others, succeeding each year.

That is how Belfast Film Festival manager Vittoria Cafolla characterises her own volunteer requirements at least. Relying on a group of around 50 unpaid assistants, the Belfast Film Festival, which runs from March 27 to April 5, sets them to work dealing with guests and press, in the festival box office and at the head office. They even have the opportunity to help out on the screenings of their preferred films or in their favoured venues.

In a showcase exhibiting anywhere in the region of 130 films, the presence of volunteers is crucial. ‘They are really important to us,’ explains Cafolla, adding that this year's recruitment drive closed on March 12. ‘We’re not the biggest festival in the world, but we couldn’t actually run without them. It’s about getting the balance between what they want to do and what we would like them to do.’



These sentiments are echoed by Sean Kelly, director of both the Out to Lunch Festival and the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, which this year runs from May 1 – 11. Kelly's volunteers are largely used to greet customers, check tickets and deal with cash. The roles require good people skills and obvious trustworthiness.

‘They are the first point of contact for our patrons,’ says Kelly. ‘We think it’s very important that they are always professional and friendly. We very much aim to exude a friendly professionalism with what we do and we try to communicate that to our volunteers.’

In a sector where resources can be sparse, suggests Kelly, capable people are extremely important. ‘When it comes to our staffing needs, the volunteers are vitally important in complementing the work that the core team does by providing this service, particularly a front of house service. It would be hard to conceive of the festival surviving this long, and thriving, without their contributions.’

According to Kelly, assisting on the likes of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival also sits nicely on a résumé. ‘It shows a certain degree of initiative and an interest in the arts. If they’ve done it for a few years, it shows that we value their work.’

For Ciara Teggart, who interned at Culture Night Belfast for four to five months in 2012, the stint, while unpaid, represented valuable experience for future work in the arts. Her tasks included working on the logistical and operational side of that festival, as well as on its programming. This included co-ordinating with over 250 companies seeking to stage their own pieces on the night itself.

‘I was involved in every step of preparation for the event and the evaluation in the months after it,’ recalls Teggart. ‘It was a great way to get to the see the arts scene in Belfast, a great way to meet people and to get a sense of how to build a festival from the outset.’

Teggart has only positive things to say about interning with Culture Night: ‘I loved it. It allowed me to learn exactly what I wanted to learn. I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy any of it.’

Thrown in at the proverbial deep end, she was immediately exposed to the moving parts of large-scale planning. Teggart’s time there proved priceless, she believes, in helping secure her present position with Young at Art, Northern Ireland's leading arts charity for young people and creators of the Belfast Children's Festival.

‘I think that getting the experience is vital to applying and having the confidence to apply for roles like this,' adds Teggart.

Master’s student Lauren Arthur was happy with her time volunteering for the John Hewitt International Summer School, which this year again takes place in Armagh from July 28 to August 1, noting the benefits of its structure and set schedule, along with the manner in which volunteers were properly utilised and directed.

That said, with respect to the industry more generally, Arthur urges caution. Not every organisation in need of help can offer as helpful an environment as the John Hewitt Society or the Belfast Film Festival, for whom she also volunteered last year.

Arthur points out that other organisations may get much more out of those offering their time free of charge than is granted in return. Her advice is to be discerning. ‘Before you go to do volunteer work I think you have to really decide what it is that you actually want to get out of it and how that work is going to enhance your CV. I would also recommend only doing things for a set amount of time.’

Arthur emphasises the need for volunteers and interns to be able to participate in the running of whatever they are involved in. She is now working for the Belfast Film Festival and attributes that situation to her involvement last year. ‘It did prove advantageous because I had the confidence. I knew what I was capable of, I had evidence that I could repeat things that I’d done before.’

Indeed, the Belfast Film Festival takes its pastoral care seriously enough to have hired a coordinator dedicated to helping volunteers get as much from their participation as possible. ‘We appreciate the fact that these people are giving up their time for free,’ says Cafolla. 'They are really important to the smooth running of the festival.’

For those interested in learning more about volunteering in the arts, organisations such as Voluntary Arts are in place to provide information on volunteering opportunities, funding streams, jobs, training and events. It's also worth keeping an eye on the many and various arts festival website and social network accounts for call outs, and subscribing to the likes of the Creativity NI website for regular updates on creative industries participatory events and more. Also available is a Arts & Volunteering Toolkit from Voluntary Arts Ireland and Volunteer Now, which you can out more about and download here.