Connecting people with art


Christchurch Art Gallery volunteer guide Allanah James joined the team in 2020. She talks about her passion for art and how there’s always so much more to learn about an artwork.

When did you get involved with the Gallery and what prompted you to become a volunteer?

I applied to be a Volunteer Tour Guide in 2020 and was fortunate to be one of an intake of ten selected for training. The training was outstanding. We were given an overview of the history of the Gallery and its art collection, as well as learning about many significant New Zealand and international artists, printmaking, sculpture, painting and drawing. For three months we received a half day of training each week, finishing in October last year. I then joined the roster to lead visitor tours in the Gallery. There are 50 Volunteer Guides altogether.

I applied to become a Volunteer Guide because I believe art really matters. The Guides connect people with art, ideas about art and with artists. I want to support that connection – to increase the satisfaction and enjoyment visitors experience while in the Gallery. The tours help visitors to get so much more out of the art they view.

What do your duties involve?

As a Volunteer Guide I provide a free 45 minute tour of some of the art in the exhibitions to Gallery visitors. These tours are provided daily at 11am and 2pm and Wednesday nights at 7.15am. I provide two or three tours a month, usually the 11am Saturday Morning tour.

I also assist with the Gallery’s school programme for primary and high school students. 11,000 youngsters a year are given a tour of the Gallery followed by the opportunity to make their own art in the Gallery’s Education Centre. The Gallery’s Art Educator splits each class in half – she takes half the class and a Volunteer Guide takes the other half on a tour of selected art works. The Guide then assists students with the art making activities organised by the Educator. This service is provided Monday to Friday every morning and afternoon. Each session lasts an hour and a half. I have enjoyed assisting with a few of these sessions since starting Guiding.

The Gallery regularly changes the art on display and it’s vital that we Guides have a good knowledge of what’s in the exhibitions. We have a two-hour briefing before each new exhibition opens and are encouraged to also attend the Gallery curators’ floor talks which provide further in-depth information. It’s a journey of ongoing learning and development which I thoroughly enjoy.

I was fortunate to recently be asked to provide an Art Bite talk. Most weeks at Friday lunch time a Gallery Guide or Curator will provide a half hour talk on one particular art work – an Art Bite.

Last year I researched Evelyn Page’s painting Summer Morn for an essay I wrote as part of my studies towards a post-graduate Diploma in Art History at Canterbury University. It was a wonderful experience to be able to share my research with Gallery Visitors and have their feedback.

How much time do you estimate you put into the Gallery each month?

I provide two or three tours a month but it’s important to spend time refreshing the information to be provided before these. As well, many months there’s a briefing about a new exhibition and a curator floor talk. There are also the Art Bite talks each Friday which are not compulsory but which enormously improve knowledge about the Gallery’s collection. All up, about 12 to fifteen hours a month.

What do you get out of volunteering?

I get enormous personal satisfaction from seeing people really engaging with an art work. For example, there is currently a Ralph Hotere exhibition on in the Gallery. In one room many of his paintings feature numbers and some have the word ‘Sangro’ included.

Some visitors to the Gallery, who have little background on Hotere and his art, meander past these paintings without appearing to significantly connect with them.

But people on the tours connect.

They are told how Hotere was twelve when his brother Jack was killed in World War II at the Sangro River in Italy. It was not until Hotere was in his thirties that he managed to visit the grave of his brother in the military cemetery at the Sangro. Hotere walked up and down the rows of headstones of the young men in the Maori Battalion who had died at the Sangro and looked at their ages – many had been just 19, 20, 21, 22. So young.

He took their ages and they became the numbers in his Sangro series of paintings. In one work he forms the ages into a cross and palaces a bold circle round the number 21 – his brother’s age when he was killed. Beneath the cross of numbers he places his own cross –  an ‘X’. It is a symbol of negation – saying ‘no’ to the deaths of these young men. Saying ‘no’ to war.

Many people on my tours have been riveted looking at these paintings while hearing this information. You can see them connecting with the art work. They have empathy with Hotere’s grief, pain and loss.

After a tour, they often leave comments in the Gallery Visitor’s Book saying how their tour let them get so much more out of the art.

Seeing the expression of deep satisfaction on a visitor’s face when they ‘get’ Hotere, or another artist, is uplifting and inspiring. For me, it’s one of the best parts of the role.

What message would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a Volunteer Guide at the Gallery?

If you enjoy engaging with people, love art and learning about it, and want to share your passion –  it’s a wonderful experience. It’s a two-way street. Some visitors share their knowledge about an art work or an artist who may have been their close friend. So, we Guides are learning all the time from the visitors we meet. I am very grateful to be a Volunteer with a role which provides such satisfying experiences.