I must confess that I am avoiding the news and the usual NPR sound track to my life because, well, I am striving to resist the growing tide of 9/11 remembrance stories. It is not that I do not want to remember, in fact I can’t help but remember….I just want to maintain some illusion of control over when I take time to remember and therefore when I give in to the emotions that come with those memories.
But maybe because I have been thinking about the topics like art and sin, yesterday I was thinking about just what I was doing ten years ago — not in the minute when the attacks occurred, but before and after. In September 2011, I was just beginning my education at the Peabody Conservatory, the beginning of a big, life-changing adventure…and I was working as a free-lance editor and writer at the Hill Rag, a publication of Capital Community News. And apparently, even then, I was thinking about the meaning of art in human life. And, I was talking about one of my other favorite topics — the importance of volunteerism, to institutions (institutions of all kinds, including churchs and arts organizations and other nonprofits), and to individuals who serve as volunteers.
Since I’m looking back just a little today, I thought that I would share with you all the text of the article that I wrote in response to the events of 9/11…while the quotes may be a bit outdated, the sentiment remains true. And it was interesting for me to see the beginning struggles of so much of my belief system from the distant vantage of 10 years later.
A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever: Cultural Volunteerism in a Time of Uncertainty
(originally published in The Hill Rag, November 2001)
“Beauty awakens the soul to act” – Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
I was originally scheduled to write this article on my favorite topic, the importance of cultural volunteerism, for the October
edition of the Hill Rag, but time and space constraints caused us to delay it for inclusion in this edition, and I must confess, I was quite grateful. Given the events of September 11, which have challenged the thinking and world view of so many of us, how could I not only justify but recommend spending time working with arts organizations when the need in so many other areas seemed so great? The question of the arts in general troubled me for days, as I drove back and forth to Baltimore for my classes at the Peabody Conservatory. And then, while flipping through a book of quotations, I encountered the above quote from the Italian poet, Dante, and my own life as an artist was suddenly back in focus. Without art, without beauty, we lose the very soul of our humanity. And without volunteers, the organizations in our community that makes the arts accessible would cease to exist. Now, more than ever, working to express beauty and humanity is crucial.
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” – Pablo Picasso
When asked what would happen to the Capitol Hill Chorale without the services of their volunteers, Courtney Deines-Jones (their VOLUNTEER public relations person) said simply, “We would be out of business.” To her, the economics involved are clear: “I estimate that total volunteer effort for the Chorale probably comes out to about one full-time employee. Even if we didn’t pay a person benefits, we would be looking at a minimum of $25,000 a year for an organization with an overall annual budget under $50K.”
Michael Pemberton of St. Mark’s Player’s definitely agrees. “Volunteers are the MOST important thing about our organization! Without volunteers, nothing would happen with the Players, and we’d fold in a second. ”
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, 11.8 million Americans volunteered with arts organizations in 1995, and that number has been on the increase for the past 5 years. Based on the information in their report, the dollar value of the volunteer effort was $25.6 billion.
Volunteers Needed: All Sizes, Shapes
When you ask representatives of any arts organizations the question “In what positions do you use volunteers?” the answers are endless. “Everything!,” responded Julia Robey, Program Coordinator of the Capitol hill Arts Workshop (CHAW). “When there performances, we always employ volunteers to run the box office, usher people to seats, sell concessions, etc. The Capitol Hill Arts League, which holds eight monthly juried shows per year, is dependent on volunteers for nearly all of its operations: people to help with receiving art works being entered into shows, people to assist the monthly jurors with the judging process, people to help prepare for gallery talks, etc. …” And the list goes on and on. CHAW probably uses 300 volunteers throughout the year, for everything from office work to managing and presenting large scale events, such as their annual Winter Revelry. Michael Pemberton of St. Mark’s Players estimates their organization uses 150 to 250 volunteers each year.
If you have a skill, some arts organization needs it. People who can hang paintings are needed by the Art League. Sewing your strong suit? Call a theater company. Let’s not even try to speculate just how popular you would be if fund-raising is your highest skill. But there is more of a need for envelope stuffers, set painters, cookie-bakers and people just to take tickets than you
can possibly imagine. “When it comes time for the concert, it always seems the one thing that we have not found is someone to sit in the lobby and sell tickets,” commented Mary Ann Sluga, member of the board of the Congressional Chorus and long-time chorus member. “It’s the one thing that a chorus member just can’t double up and do, and we are always struggling to find someone!” Never think that what that what you have to offer is not worthwhile.
But What Does the Volunteer Get?
“The art of creation is older than the art of killing.” –Andrei Voznesensky
Volunteering for an organization such as CHAW or the Capitol Hill Chorale is not just a question of giving: there are plenty of chances for the volunteer to receive. Community-based arts organizations are just that – community-oriented. Volunteering gives you a chance to meet people with similar interests and to try skills you might want to expand. “People who work as box office volunteers learn the business of the theater – they potentially make good contacts as well,” said Julie Robey of CHAW. “Art League volunteers (professional artists) have the unusual chance of meeting and speaking with the judges (professionally accomplished artists/curators) and thereby potentially helping them to further their artistic careers. Volunteers who help out with workshops might learn new skills they can then teach to others. Opportunities for education and advancement abound, you just have to look for them! From ticket sales to concessions, to the person running the project…they all do it for reasons other than money.”
When asked the value of volunteering, Michael Pemberton said, “The sense of accomplishment and friendships have been things have gained through volunteering. While I don’t do much to save lives or anything like that, I believe that by helping to bring performing arts to Capitol Hill and the Washington Metro area, I’m enriching people’s lives.” If you get nothing else from the experience, the cultural volunteer gets the knowledge that they participated in the creation of something beautiful.
Everybody Has a Story
Each and every organization has a story about a time when the show would not have gone on but for the intervention of a special
volunteer. When asked to tell a story about the importance of volunteers, Michael Pemberton offered this one about the St. Mark Players: “This particular situation took place in November 1995. The volunteer in question was stage manager for our production ‘Quilters’. In that show, several pieces of quilts (blocks), as well as a full queen-sized quilt were made for us by the Falls Church chapter of Quilters Unlimited. The stage manager took these pieces home often to clean and protect the quilted pieces. Unfortunately, she and an assistant were robbed at gun-point and the robbers also took the cloth bag that had several of
the quilt blocks in it, so we didn’t have them for the rest of the performances. However, over the next week, the quilting
guild moved into high gear and replaced all of the missing blocks, and they were all ready for the second Friday night performance. We could not have provided as high-quality a show as we did, if those volunteers hadn’t jumped in and sewn their fingers down to the bone for us.”
Julie Robey remembers, “A few years back, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop lost its executive director and fell into a spell of financial instability. Judy Canning, member of the Board of Directors, volunteered more than a year of her time as the Executive
Director, while a search committee was formed to find a new director. Had Judy not stepped in at that moment, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop might not be open and enjoying the success it does today. Capitol hill would have lost its only multi-disciplinary arts organization.”
And, without one extraordinary volunteer, the Congressional Chorus would not exist. “For the first six years of our history, even our music director, Michael Patterson, was a volunteer, “confessed Mary Ann Sluga. “We were just so lucky to have someone who really believed in our mission, a professional of his caliber who would donate his valuable time.”
So What ARE You Waiting For?
“By cultivating the beautiful we scatter the seeds of heavenly flowers, as by doing good we cultivate those that belong to humanity.”– Vernon Howard
The next time you view a piece of art, hear a concert or watch a play and are moved in some way, take a moment and ask, “What can I do to help?” In addition to the organizations mentioned in this artle, there are hundreds of organizations city-wide that need your time and your help. There is no time like the present to focus on the cultivation of the beautiful. For as the poet Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”