The other day I met with Tommaso, one of the organizers at TPO, with a couple of friends. We had a lengthy discussion about the economics of social centers in Italy. However I was struck most by our discussion of volunteers. As usual in social centers, no one is paid, except for certain exceptions. For small non-profit arts spaces, this is a similar situation. Interns or volunteers help keep the place going, while the place is managed by a couple of full time individuals.
TPO is managed by a consensus based and public assembly, which is closed for the summer since most people are out of town. I asked Tommaso why people volunteered and engaged the organization. The answer was simple, politics.
Indeed, the book Centri Sociali: Geografie del Desiderio had similar results. They surveyed about 1,400 people in 1995 who attended the social centers Leoncavallo and Cox 18, both in Milan. They found that the top 3 motivations for participating in both places were politics, being together and cultural events. While the importance of politics and culture differed for both places (politics were more important for people who went to Leoncavllo) it confirms this central role of Social Centers as places where politics, culture and social life combine. Tommaso suggested, though, that without politics no one would come.
As we gear up for a summer of surveys, I wonder if that is true. What is the relationships between politics and culture? Would participants in the social centers not show up without a political motivation?
And then I think about traditional arts organizations.
In our classes, we have generally focused on the economic impact of the arts non-profit sector, which contributes $166.2 billion to the US GDP, and how the arts can stir urban revitalization, like Bilbao. Then we might turn to the educational importance of the arts. I will need to find numbers for Europe.
Yet, why do we go? Only about 35% of US adults attended at least one benchmark arts activity in the last year, according to the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts by the NEA. While this tremendous survey does a great job analyzing demographics within the arts sector, the elusive question of why we go remains. Let alone why one would volunteer.
What do you think?