Volunteer Voices: Engaging Volunteers with Contemporary Art and Heritage

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: School of Arts and Cultures

Abstract

Arising from the findings of the 'Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience: Creation, Consumption and Exchange' (MCAHE) research project (AH/N007557/1), Volunteer Voices will develop an innovative programme of heritage volunteer training on contemporary art interpretation, resulting in a resource that can be rolled out to the heritage sector nationally. MCAHE research revealed that while volunteers play a key role in engaging visitors with heritage sites, the volunteers often lack the knowledge and confidence to introduce this audience to the contemporary artworks that are increasingly a feature of heritage programming. Without interpretation, many visitors struggle to fully appreciate and enjoy the art they encounter.

Volunteer Voices is designed to address this gap through a co-developed training programme rooted in the MCAHE research. Volunteers will meet and work with creative artists, heritage staff and other stakeholders, gaining the knowledge, practical skills and confidence to introduce and interpret commissioned contemporary artworks to visitors at their heritage sites. The training programme will use methods of peer-to-peer learning, group social interaction and knowledge exchange which MCAHE findings showed to increase confidence and enable a reflective rather than 'reflexive' response to contemporary artworks.

This training need has been identified as an urgent priority within the heritage sector who are keen to implement change regarding volunteer training: 75% of heritage organisations identified volunteer development, training or experience enhancement as their top priority after recruitment (Heritage Volunteer Group survey 2019). Heritage organisations rely heavily on volunteers to enrich their visitors' experience: nearly half of all heritage volunteers work in front of house, education or engagement but only 3% work in exhibition-based roles. Working with new Project Partners and stakeholders, this Follow-On Funding for Impact and Engagement project places volunteers at the heart of its activities and seeks to create and promote 'best practice' training which will benefit both volunteer and audience experience, enabling the full value of heritage organisations' investment in commissioning contemporary art (in terms of time, money, HO resources and the creative energy of the artist) to be realised.

Planned Impact

The Volunteer Voices (VV) training programme will impact on communities of non-academic beneficiaries including heritage volunteers, heritage organisations (HOs), public visitors and visual artists. Our Project Partners will benefit directly through participation, while the broader heritage sector will benefit in the longer term through on-going dissemination activities. Through engaging with these communities throughout the project, we establish pathways to impact on volunteering in the heritage sector and public enjoyment and valuation of contemporary art within heritage properties, thus contributing to the further development of this important feature of the contemporary art ecology in the UK.

Heritage volunteers will benefit through the new knowledge, perspectives, skills and confidence gained in engaging heritage visitors with contemporary art, enriching their volunteering experience through encouraging interaction with the diverse range of visitors evidence shows contemporary art attracts. Peer-to-peer learning, articulating and sharing their new knowledge will enrich the volunteering environment. The Volunteers-in-Contemporary-Art Ambassador Network which will include members from different HOs, will support the exchange of best practice across the heritage sector (where, we learned from our MCAHE research, there is presently little interaction). The role, status and responsibilities of volunteers will be enhanced within the HO where they volunteer. Through their meetings with artists, volunteers will gain new in-depth knowledge of contemporary art. Those engaging in VV will form a scalable nexus of contemporary art literate volunteers who, via the network and peer to peer exchange, will contribute to a more confident and articulate volunteering body. The project will also contribute to embedding in the heritage sector the value of innovative and interactive training programmes, using this process as an effective method of volunteer development and encouraging VV participants to become ambassadors themselves to the next generation of aspiring heritage volunteers. Anticipated benefits will come on-stream in the post-funding period when Project Partner Arts&Heritage adopt and roll out VV.

Heritage organisations benefit from volunteers professionally trained and enthusiastic to interpret the artworks commissioned for their visitors and from a more confident, satisfied and empowered volunteer base (identified as key objectives in the HVG survey) who will be advocates for their contemporary art programmes. HOs benefit from increased certainty in the substantial investment they make in contemporary art, often using public money. This in turn can encourage further art commissioning, bringing new audiences and better experiences for existing visitors. The networking events and future symposia, part of the project legacy, will encourage on-going conversations amongst volunteers, and new opportunities for productive engagements between UK HOs. Volunteer recruitment may also benefit, increasing diversity and inclusion in the volunteering body and particularly amongst currently underrepresented under-35s, which HOs are keen to attract.

Heritage visitors will benefit through deeper engagement with contemporary art, gaining greater understanding and respect for the value and quality of contemporary art and artists, including as innovative communicators of important heritage narratives. Artists will benefit as their work will reach and be better appreciated by heritage audiences, gaining distinctive feedback on the way their work is perceived and understood through the volunteer studio visits. By increasing the level and quality of heritage visitors' engagement with contemporary art, VV can increase the value and priority HOs place on their contemporary art programmes, impacting on future commissioning opportunities and contributing towards a thriving culture of contemporary art commissioning in non-gallery spaces.

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