Monday, 21 September 2009

Being a steward has opened up my world

The value of the Gallery Steward has been under debate at New Brewery Arts (NBA). What role does the good old-fashioned gallery steward serve? He or she sits quietly in the corner, trying to look open to questions and discussion without imposing on the visitors’ private contemplation of art. He or she must be more than a security guard, more than a visitor counter, yet both these practicalities are necessary. But the exact definition of how much more he or she must be, and what this ‘more’ consists of can be a grey area.

Volunteer stewards at New Brewery Arts have been asked about their stewarding experiences, what volunteering means to them and the role they feel they serve for the visiting public.

The role of the volunteer can be looked at as one of giving and receiving, a role that is ‘interesting, refreshing and stimulating’ (Anne). For the time and enthusiasm he or she gives the volunteer is not financially rewarded, but the position offers rewards beyond the material.

Though the volunteer is ‘not quite an employee and not quite a visitor’ (as Rachael writes), he or she can still feel very much part of New Brewery Arts and offer a welcome to any visitor to the gallery. For visitors it is pleasant to be greeted by a human face rather than just an introductory panel on a wall. Pauline writes that ‘a smile helps to engage in conversation with folks from all nationalities and walks of life’.

Not only does the volunteer contribute a friendly and helpful face as a gallery steward, but he or she also has so much to offer throughout Brewery Arts. Barbara writes: ‘Doing a rough calculation I have matched the 90 hours stewarding so far this year with 90 hours doing other things at NBA such as painting (walls not pictures), cleaning, doorman and bar in the theatre, hanging and striking exhibitions, organising NBA’s participation in the Plant Fair etc. I hope that this additional work frees up NBA staff to do work more appropriate to their skills’.

In terms of reward, volunteering at NBA offers a rich yield. Terry has found great fulfilment in ‘making a contribution to something both professional and really worthwhile’. Stewarding offers the chance to expand one’s knowledge of contemporary art and craft and to enjoy the exhibitions on display in the gallery, which is a wonderful light and airy environment to work in. ‘It can be anything from a time for quiet contemplation to engaging conversation with like-minded people, but most of all it makes me look at the work in an entirely different way – through other people’s eyes’ (Rachael).

Gaining an understanding of the exhibitions on display in order to communicate this to the public can be one of the most intellectually stimulating parts of the job. Fielding awkward questions about the meaning and value of contemporary arts can be a challenge, but a thought provoking one. Laura writes ‘I enjoy the disciplined sharing of knowledge and learning from visitors and colleagues and thrive on the variety of interactions’.

Above all there is a great community spirit among the volunteers, who find that to take part in the running of their local arts centre means to own it and be fully ‘connected with a wonderful community based centre’.

With a last word from Sheila: ‘Being a steward has opened up my world’.

Ruth Burgon

Image 1 the New Brewery Arts Gallery
Image 2 visitor contemplating an exhibit in the gallery
Image 3 setting out an exhibition
Image 4 anything can happen in the gallery - including spinning!
Image 5 socializing in the café

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