In the Trenches, Arts Commandos Perform Valiantly for Local Nonprofits

By Lisette Dennis - Photo courtesy of the Regional Arts Commission

Styling: Lisette Dennis - Photo courtesy of the Regional Arts Commission

Photography: Lisette Dennis - Photo courtesy of the Regional Arts Commission

June 29, 2005

At noon Tia Adkins dashed into the Regional Arts Commission offices to dial Len Bull, the director of the Saint Louis Symphony Volunteer Association, for the third time. She needed to confirm that parking instructions and passes had been sent. Seated at her favorite computer, Adkins printed out the latest schedule of the 15 volunteers for the Gypsy Caravan, the Memorial Day fund-raising event. She then quickly wrapped up a couple of phone calls and e-mails before jumping into her car and rushing back to work.

Adkins volunteers for the Regional Arts Commission and works with the Saint Louis Symphony, the Saint Louis Artists’ Guild, Venus Envy and about 25 other arts organizations. Adkins is an Arts Commando.

In 1990, the Regional Arts Commission instituted a special project, The Arts Commandos, as a corps of individuals who step up to complete specific projects. Professionals and retirees, men and women, today’s Commandos number over 250 and man approximately 30 missions for nonprofits per year. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Commandos.

RAC’s executive director, Jill McGuire, recently reminisced about how she and the former grants manager, Christine Ivcich, learned about and adopted the volunteer program. “At the time the Regional Arts Commission realized that there were certain needs of the arts groups that went beyond pure monetary support – and [the primary] need was volunteers,” explained McGuire.

“Most of the staffs of the arts organizations were lean and board members were doing everything, too much. So when they – the arts groups – had special events or a big fundraiser or whatever they were going to do, even their shows, often their boards had to usher. They even had to bartend,” said McGuire.

That year RAC funded 191 arts programs and groups – Alexander Ballet Company, Center of Contemporary Art, Young Audiences – to name-drop only a few. Many of these current shining stars were only young starlets with small budgets and staffs. Growing pains had most groups desperate for manpower, but meager budgets had them abstaining from extraneous employment.

During an arts conference McGuire took notice of a group called the Arts Commandos. They attacked in small squads for specific missions – painting a gallery, serving refreshments, staffing a performance – for a variety of disciplines and organizations. McGuire approached the “commander” Jackie Jones, also the executive director of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, about borrowing the concept and the name. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Jones agreed.

“We had an excellent blueprint to follow from Oklahoma City. They were wonderful. They explained how they approached their arts organizations, and we used that same approach,”
said McGuire.

In the spring of 1990 Peter Dolese, the director of the Arts Commandos at the Oklahoma Arts Council, advised Ivcich on Commando tactics and maneuvers. Projects were sparked from discussion on needs with arts agencies and presented individually by the agencies at parties. The Commando rank-and-file was culled from the business community.

Community involvement is important to corporations. LBG Associates published research on 50 major U.S. companies showing that executives overwhelmingly supported volunteerism. The benefits most often cited were: improvements to the company’s image, better employee retention and strengthening of employees’ skills.

Ivcich willingly appealed to the local corporations – Boeing, Pet, Inc. and Monsanto – for infantry. The response was immediate and positive. Just 24 hours after being solicited McDonell Douglas faxed a list of 75 enlistees.

Ivcich then approached her good friend, local artist Dale Dufer. In an interview one sunny Sunday afternoon, Dufer remembered how he was first drafted. “Christine called me up and said, ‘I’m starting up this volunteer group to work with arts organizations. I want you to join.’ Then Christine twisted my arm,” said Dufer.

Dufer accepted and, aided by Southwestern Bell employee Bernetta Baidy, hashed out the bylaws and hierarchy for the group and selected the initial projects, which included an equal mix of the physical and the routine.

“In the early days, they painted. They caulked windows. They scrubbed bathrooms,” remembered Dufer.

Mindful that they were dealing with busy professionals, Dufer and Baidy planned all projects with concrete goals and within specific time frames. “It was nice that it was very simple,” said Dufer. “You showed up. You helped an organization.”

People volunteer for various reasons. Volunteers most often donate time to connect values with actions. Sometimes they want to acquire new experiences, skills or network professionally. But many simply volunteer to meet new people. Ivcich recognized that latter motivation in many of the Commandos, and at events she constantly introduced one volunteer to another.

Dufer confirmed that joining the Commandos’ ranks was a great way of meeting new people, especially when painting gallery walls or moving sets for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He added that thanks to Ivcich the Commandos also earned the reputation of being “cheerful, pleasant, delightful people. Christine really set the tone by the enthusiasm that she would bring to everything,” said Dufer.

Ivcich re-created the sign-up parties held in Oklahoma City, but she added her own touches with recognition gifts and thank-you ceremonies for the volunteers. “Volunteers don’t need big perks, but they need little pats on the back,” explained Dufer. “It should be a feel-good scenario all around.”

Adkins joined the Arts Commandos 10 years ago, has been project manager on at least two projects each of the past eight years and has served as co-chair for two terms. Last August Adkins joined the Circus Day Foundation board of directors, and in November she signed up for the board of directors of Venus Envy. Adkins volunteered previously for both groups as an Arts Commando.

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