Leisure Letters

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Leisure galleries: volunteerism

(Added 18 October 2007)

Left: Labour Minister Charles Daley opens the the flower show at Rodman Hall Arts Centre, Staff photo, St. Catharines Standard, 1961. Right: President of the St. Catharines and District Arts Council Women’s Committee at annual flower show, Staff photo, St. Catharines Standard, 1964.

While perusing a scrapbook that chronicles the evolution of Niagara’s local theatres and galleries from community initiatives to state funded institutions, I was surprised to find the histories of staid institutions populated by surrealist floral displays, crepe paper costumes and amateur can-can girls- participants in a spirit of volunteerism and the enjoyment of cultural activity. Regional museums and galleries in Canada were built on a foundation of community participation. This participation ranged from the cooperative use of space by amateur theatre groups, artists and musicians to participation in volunteer groups and committees.

Historically, many committees dedicated to fund-raising and developing civic participation in the arts were run by women. Arts council womens committees helped to build institutions through special events volunteer tea rooms and art circulation initiatives, bridging the important gap between the life of institutions and day to day experience. However, our generation of ‘career oriented ladies’ has contributed to a dramatic shift in middle-class leisure time and participation in volunteer work. With increased professionalisation in both the private and public lives of Canadians, initiatives once headed up by community members are now the domain of professionals in arts administration, education and communications. Exuberant committee events, theme parties and potluck dinners are to some extent a thing of the past, replaced by specialized colloquia and gala dinners coordinated by development planners.

Within Canada’s artist-run culture, where the last bastions of volunteerism might lurk, we find also a disconnect between enthusiastic community volunteers and professional artist driven programming. Even within this haven of art dissemination by and for the artistic community we find spontaneous action coming up against the pressure of professionalism.

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