What happens if a major foundation decides to give up all its volunteers at once?

What would happen if a major foundation suddenly decided to give up all its volunteers? It happened in the United Kingdom and is one of the main topics of debate across the Channel.

The news has escaped Italy’s notice, but it has been causing discussion in the United Kingdom for at least three months: theArt Fund, a major cultural heritage organization (its main mission is to raise funds to donate to public museums for the purchase of works), announced at the beginning of this year that it will dispense with all of its volunteers for 2020. At present, there are nearly five hundred Art Fund volunteers, divided into about fifty local committees: their role is toorganize events aimed at raising funds. The Art Fund has justified the choice on the basis that, in relation to the economic effort to keep the whole apparatus of volunteers up and running, the results in economic terms are modest: the committees would guarantee just one hundred thousand pounds, out of the total of about seven million that the Art Fund raises each year (and the forecast is to reach ten by 2020). There are, however, strong arguments even about the figure, since the last available report, dating back to 2017, stated that the volunteer committees had raised in one year the sum of 354 thousand pounds (it is likely that the misunderstanding lies in some confusion between net and gross figures). In any case, the Art Fund’s intention is to invest in the training of young professionals, to be allocated to museums, the sums that were hitherto used to maintain the vast apparatus of volunteers, active throughout the nation.

On the surface it might seem like a choice that rewards hard work at the expense of improvisation, since no special or in-depth skills or knowledge are required to become a volunteer. But the decision drew mostly negative reactions, and not only because it came out of the blue and without detailed explanations from the Art Fund (moreover, much to the regret of the volunteers, who felt displaced and expressed strong disappointment at being dumped overnight, without having been involved in the decision, and without, it seems, any alternative plans being made), but also because the dropping of all volunteers, from one day to the next, and in a non-gradual manner, could have heavy repercussions, as many analysts in the specialized newspapers point out. And it is therefore interesting to analyze in more depth the implications of this choice, because the relationship between cultural heritage and volunteering is one of the main topics of debate in Italy as well, although the nature of this link, in our country, is profoundly different (in England, for example, volunteering is very much felt, moves decidedly important figures and is better balanced than in Italy: consider, by way of example, that while in Italy FAI employs about one employee for every thirty volunteers, in England the National Trust, i.e., the Foundation from which FAI takes its inspiration, has a ratio of about one employee for every ten volunteers).

Valerio Castello, Tobia guarisce il padre ciedo (1645-1659 circa; olio su tela; Kingston upon Hull, Ferens Art Gallery). L'opera è stata acquistata dalla galleria dello Yorkshire grazie ai fondi di Art Fund
Valerius Castello, Tobias Heals His Father Cyed (c. 1645-1659; oil on canvas; Kingston upon Hull, Ferens Art Gallery). The work was purchased by the Yorkshire gallery with funds from Art Fund

In The Art Newspaper, journalist Bendor Grosvenor estimates that the decision could cause enormous damage: divesting all of a sudden from a network of volunteers means (in addition to losing potential members and donors who might have found the presence of volunteers to be of added value) demoralizing several groups of enthusiasts who support English museums because they firmly believe in what they do, because they feel that their contribution is essential to the local area (Art Fund volunteers animate important local communities around outlying museums), and because doing so has closed a cultural channel of some significance (there is a very strong desire in England to make a contribution to museums, especially if that contribution is through the acquisition of artworks). There are many who observe that suddenly closing such a channel may also entail the elimination of an important glue between museums and society: it is therefore not only a question of labor relations, but it is also a question of how volunteers can be used “to make a difference to those around you,” to use the words of Piotr Bienkowski, professor emeritus of museology at the University of Manchester, who spoke on the subject.

It is, in essence, a matter of placing volunteerism in the place it should occupy. On these pages we have often denounced borderline situations in which the noble institution of volunteerism has been used to cover up flaws in the system. And it goes without saying that this is not the solution: not least because volunteers, by the very nature of their activity and availability, are difficult to train and organize. However, it cannot be denied, as Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins has pointed out (who has framed the problem well), that despite its eventual distortions, volunteering manages to situate itself in a territory, vague but fruitful, that lies between institutions and the public. “The Art Fund committees,” Jenkins wrote in Apollo Magazine, “may well have had little monetary return for the organization. But they have formed a network of active groups, involved not only in fund-raising activities, but also in organizing tours, lectures, and cultural activities” (one of the specifics of Art Fund committees is, in fact, their ability to organize frequent, participatory meetings with subject matter experts held across the nation). As if they were miniature Art Funds.

The case, in the end, should raise several points for reflection on the role of volunteering in the field of cultural heritage: one should question, in other words, how to harmoniously coexist the needs of professionals in the field with those who simply want to lend a hand and contribute to the cause, without thereby encroaching on the field of those who have chosen cultural heritage as their profession. In the United Kingdom, the question is being asked whether there is still room for volunteers in our field: the answer can only be affirmative (not least because, right now, in both England and Italy, if suddenly all the volunteers in the two countries stopped lending their services, many museums, libraries and archives would have to close down), but a discussion is needed on how best to channel the passion of those who want to put themselves at the service of culture without forcing it.

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