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The Art of Giving: Volunteering in ArtPrize

Amelea Pegman, ArtPrize's Volunteer/Community Director, talks about the importance of volunteering for ArtPrize.
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Volunteer for ArtPrize

Visit the ArtPrize website to sign up as a volunteer.

Amelea Pegman poses with ArtPrize 2012 sign, available to purchase for 5 dollars.

Amelea Pegman poses with ArtPrize 2012 sign, available to purchase for 5 dollars. /Steven Edelman

It’s that time of year again. The days are still hot, but the nights are getting cooler. Back to school sales echo across the airwaves. People speak of winter’s approaching cruelty with little to no dread. And - what’s that other thing? Oh, yes. ArtPrize

In only its fourth year, ArtPrize has become as Grand Rapidian as the Grand River. ArtPrize is a hugely successful community event. An event fueled not only by creativity and Grand Rapid’s appreciation of creativity, but also by giving. Without volunteers, there is no ArtPrize. 

I recently popped in to the ArtPrize offices to talk with Amelea Pegman, ArtPrize’s Volunteer/Community Director, about the role of volunteers in the event. Amelea has been a part of ArtPrize from its beginning. She signed up to volunteer for the event the year of its conception, and shortly afterwards became the volunteer program intern. She rose to her current position ArtPrize’s second year. I asked her a series of questions about her experience organizing volunteers for this lively community event.

Steven Edelman: How did volunteering become a part of ArtPrize?

Amelea Pegman: Nobody really knew what to expect. I started working 6 weeks before the event - it was just starting to get all the press. The staff was just starting to understand the magnitude of the event. We were like, ‘What are we going to do? What do we need help doing?’ and that’s when the volunteer coordinator was brought on, myself and a couple others were brought on to support the program.

SE: How important do you think volunteering is to ArtPrize’s success as a huge community event?

AP: I feel like it's everything to the event. It really belongs to the people that participate in it. You think about the artists and venues and visitors - without those three key players the event doesn’t happen. The fourth piece of that puzzle is the volunteer and community support. The volunteers really come in. We have 3,000 names of people who have over the last four years expressed interest in volunteering. We end up working with about a 1,000 every year to cover - this year its going to be just over 3,000 shifts and over 10,000 hours of service. Think about the magnitude of that! What I love about this volunteer program is that it really is an open call to anyone in the city to come and help. I don’t think it's fundamentally different than other volunteer opportunities, I just feel like it's really open. It reflects ArtPrize’s platform in that way. 

SE: As Volunteer/Community Director, how do you approach your responsibilities? How do you take in and direct the wide range of abilities and interests of your volunteers?

AP: I ask, “What do you have to bring to ArtPrize?” We have volunteers who come with new ideas all the time about things they can do and how they can contribute. I just try to keep it as simple and open for people to participate as they can. Most of what our volunteers do is spend time out in the neighborhood during official ArtPrize hours. Talking with visitors, making sure that people who have any questions about voting, about the city, directing them to we really see them as playing this essential role for us. They are our voice, our face. We are such a small staff, we couldn’t even begin to get that message out or support people in understanding without our volunteers doing it for us.

SE: What I think is interesting about ArtPrize is how it turns both the perceived and actual exclusiveness of the gallery inside out by installing art throughout the city, by its general vote, and, finally, with what you call ArtPrize’s face and voice, its volunteers.

AP: Anybody can have a conversation about art and what it means to them. Anybody can have a conversation about creativity, and their own expression of creativity. There’s different conversations to be had about art. We want to make sure that every person feels like there’s a place for them to have that. Wherever they’re at, whatever vernacular they feel comfortable with, there’s a place for that conversation here. Obviously, it is our volunteers who make those conversations happen. I think that’s the most essential role that they play. Certainly we have these shifts and they need to be filled but the actual work that they do in spreading that message and being that face is everything to us.

SE: There seems to be certain understood avenues of volunteering. But I think art and creativity are fundamentally important to a healthy and vibrant community. It is wonderful that ArtPrize provides another way to volunteer and add to the vitality of Grand Rapids. Who do you find is taking advantage of this opportunity?

AP: It's not art teachers, or art students who are necessarily the ones showing up to volunteer. It's just people who want to be a part of something where they feel a lot of energy and see how it's changing people and how it's changing this community specifically and they want to be a part of that. It’s intoxicating. It really is. As soon as it starts it draws people like a magnet, people are so curious and they are instrumental to it being a success.
I think this has changed how people think about Grand Rapids. Especially people who live here, who have lived here and left, all the sudden its this reason to come back...One of the reasons I love this job is that I think it's changing the landscape enough in Grand Rapids that people are feeling their sense of belonging here in a new way.

SE: How do you recruit volunteers?

AP: Really just through word of mouth. We do surveys at the end of the year, 98% of volunteers say they want to come back and would recommend it to a friend. It’s so fantastic. They end up getting groups involved and they end up volunteering with their friends and family. Once people  get a feel for it, they come back with the people they love to volunteer with.

SE: How do you sign up to volunteer?

AP: It’s really simple. Just go to our website, click on “Getting Involved” at the top. Pick “Volunteer” and you sign up for a volunteer account.  Once you have an account, you pick all your shifts. When we first engaged with this system it was a little bit scary because we let go of control of the scheduling. We just kind of flipped it. It seems like ArtPrize to do it this way. We don’t prescribe, we just give an open invite. We always want artists, we always need venues, we always need volunteers. With the sense of ownership belonging to the people involved, it really felt like I didn’t need to hold the reigns too tight on this. 

We work with the most fantastic people. Its impossible not to be excited about ArtPrize when they are around....people are really excited to spend their time, during the event, with us, which is a gift. It is fantastic.

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