Illustration of Maya Kotlarenko by Arzu Haider @pakgaystani.
This week is National Volunteer Week, an important moment to share our heartfelt thanks for the contributions of our AGO Volunteers. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Maya Kotlarenko, who has volunteered at the AGO for the past 14 years. Maya currently serves as Volunteer President—a surprising position for someone who “hated being in museums” when she was young. She has developed a true love of art over her lifetime, citing Kent Monkman’s The Academy (2008) as one of her favourites in the AGO Collection.
Maya shared her thoughts with us on life as an AGO Volunteer, supporting Virtual School Programs and the importance of making art accessible.
AGOinsider: Why did you start volunteering at the AGO?
Maya: I started in 2008 as part of Transformation AGO. There was such a buzz around the reopening of the Gallery because it was a newly designed building by Frank Gehry, his first in Canada. There was a lot of positive messaging around the new AGO being accessible and inclusive, and that anyone could come and experience art and architecture without the intimidation people sometimes feel at other art institutions. I wanted to be part of that community.
AGOinsider: What is most meaningful for you about being an AGO Volunteer?
Maya: Connecting with people and using art as a conduit for conversations. I love learning what people are drawn to and why they like or dislike certain artworks. I have also learned so much during my time at the AGO—and not just about art and artists. Like many people, I didn’t learn about colonization or residential schools growing up. When I came to the AGO, it was my first time being exposed to Indigenous artists, and through their storytelling I learned a more comprehensive history than the one I had been taught. Now I can pass on that knowledge while I continue on my own learning journey.
AGOinsider: How has the AGO evolved over your time as a Volunteer?
Maya: I definitely noticed a shift after we launched the Annual Pass, our reduced pricing model that also includes free admission for people 25 and under. After that was introduced, I noticed more locals and a younger demographic coming by the Gallery, even just to spend time in the space. I think the Annual Pass has helped people discover and rediscover the AGO and the city they live in.
AGOinsider: What made you want to take on your role as President of the Volunteers of the AGO?
Maya: I was looking for ways to get more involved with the Gallery, and I was also excited to work with the new Volunteer Council. I wanted all Volunteers to feel valued and appreciated whether they had been there for 30 years or 30 days, because we all have the potential to create meaningful experiences for our visitors.
AGOinsider: What has it been like to lead the Volunteers through this pandemic period?
Maya: It has been a pleasure to serve as Volunteer President. Most of my term has been during COVID, and when we were no longer able to meet in-person we had to shift how we communicated, leaning heavily on virtual platforms. Without a doubt, we miss the in-person experiences, but engaging online reduced barriers that some of us had previously faced, particularly those of us who worked full-time or commuted from outside the city.
AGOinsider: One of the important tasks for the Volunteers of the AGO is the selection of a project to receive annual funding from the Volunteer Endowment Trust, which was established through the fundraising efforts of AGO volunteers. What goes into this process?
Maya: It is important for us to make a collective decision that reflects the interests of everyone in our group, with full transparency. Some of the things we consider are programs that need ongoing funding and may not always attract the same donors as a blockbuster exhibition. Every volunteer has the opportunity to vote on the annual project. It is amazing to see the group come together in support of a key initiative of the Gallery.
AGOinsider: This year, the Volunteers of the AGO are supporting Virtual School Programs. What was appealing about this initiative?
Maya: We know how important it is to remove barriers to accessing the AGO and the knowledge that the AGO team has to share. In the case of Virtual School Programs, they have been so successful in reaching more than one million people from all over Ontario, Canada and the world, and we really connected with the idea of spreading information and excitement about art as far as it could go.
AGOinsider: How would you describe the impact that the Volunteers of the AGO have made, and continue to make, at the Gallery?
Maya: It really can’t be overstated how important volunteers are to the AGO. We’ve been with the Gallery through its entire existence, donating thousands of hours of our time to create engaging experiences for visitors. Volunteers have also helped the Gallery acquire some of the most iconic works in the AGO Collection. But the impact is very much reciprocal. I’m so grateful for the people I’ve met through volunteering, and many of us have made lifelong connections. I was even able to reunite with my elementary school art teacher, who also volunteers at the AGO! We are all part of a legacy that we do not take for granted.
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