Our last conversation will be about the Retail Volunteer position. Every year ArtPrize creates a variety of merchandise designed specifically for the event. Retail volunteers are the people who help ArtPrize visitors leave the event with good, long-lasting memories. Today we talk with Dee Tokarski, who has returned for many years as a volunteer. She volunteered last year as a Lead in both Retail and HUB positions.

Dee Tokarski has volunteered with ArtPrize since 2010. She grew up in Lansing and later lived in the Detroit area, but over the last 17 years she's made Grand Rapids her home. Dee served as an unemployment claims examiner for the State Unemployment Agency. After retirement, Dee still continued to work as an airport Ambassador, welcoming people after flights and providing them with information.

Dee’s hobbies are very diverse, from knitting and crocheting to riding a motorcycle, which she bought and learned to ride only a few of months ago. As her first volunteer experience, Dee remembers being a Girl Scout Brownie, and how they went to a nursing home and talked to the residents there.

“While growing up, my mom encouraged us to volunteer. I was a girl scout and our troop did a lot of different things. Also I don’t want to just sit at home. I have to get out and help people. I just enjoy it! I volunteer at the GRAM, at Laugh Fest, and with the Star Program at Experience GR. I want to give back to the community, because I love this area and I love the people here. I give, but I get so much back!”

Dee on her motorcycle. Photo: Dee Tokarski.

Let’s find out more details from Dee’s volunteer experience with ArtPrize!

AP: How did you first hear about Artprize?

Dee: I worked downtown and saw all the crowds around art everywhere. So I asked one of the Wayfinder volunteers how to join them. For my husband it was really funny, because he knows I have no sense of direction—I get lost so easily. But as I’d been working downtown, I knew the area and it wasn't a problem to volunteer as a Wayfinder.

AP: What piqued your interest in the event?

Dee: I like art, but more than that I like what ArtPrize does for the city. When I talk to people in the airport, for example, I tell them that downtown—three square miles—turns into a giant art gallery with art everywhere. I love that, because it takes art out of the galleries and out of the traditional spaces. Art becomes accessible to everybody.

And it brings so many people to the city. They come from all over the world. They get to experience [the city of Grand Rapids] at our best. Definitely, it brings Grand Rapidians together as well.

AP: What area did you work in for your first volunteer experience?

Dee: I did Wayfinding for at least three years.

AP: What other volunteer positions have you tried?

Dee: Last year it was the first year I was a Retail Lead. It wasn’t hard for me, because I’ve worked in retail previously and it was a really easy job to fall into.

Also I was a HUB Lead, Docent, and helped with special events. The last one was really cool, because I volunteered at the final Awards Ceremony, and right before the show started, one of the staff members handed me a ticket and said, “Go, have a seat and enjoy the show!” It was wonderful and I felt so appreciated. That was a big thing.

ArtPrize 2014 Merchandise. Photo: ArtPrize.

AP: Did you have any expectations going into your first shift?

Dee: I can only say that the scheduling system was new for me and it took some time to get used to it. But it wasn’t hard, just something new.

AP: Did your experience confirm or differ from your expectations?

Dee: I remember one time I decided to do Wayfinding near the Gerald R. Ford Museum. I thought it’d be a cool place to be, but this is a long walk from the HUB [where the Wayfinding Lounge was that year] to the Ford Museum. So I didn’t expect that it would take so much—to walk all the way there, then walk around, and go back to the volunteer lounge. I was quite tired by the end of that shift.

That’s why during the following year most of my shifts were at the UICA, which I loved, because of that corner on Fulton and Division. There you get tons of people and you get all kinds of questions. I liked that location the best.

AP: What did you appreciate about this experience?

Dee: I’ve volunteered many places and there always seemed to be a clear delineation between staff and volunteers. But with ArtPrize, you really do work together. We’re all on the same team and we’re a community. It’s not "us and them." It is the only place I’ve volunteered where that happened. And it’s not only about appreciation—it’s everywhere. The absence of line between us ... it’s hard to explain, but you feel it. Even at yesterday’s Kick-Off Party, when I said “Hello!” to Christian [ArtPrize Executive Director], he answered and said my name! He knows me! I'm greeted by name, I am acknowledged as a person, people were excited to see me, and I was excited to see all of them, too. So there is a special connection that I have with ArtPrize.

Another thing that I really appreciated in retail—this is really weird, but I’ll say it—is that they trusted me as a volunteer to run the cash register. At a lot of other places, only staff do that. So, as a Retail Lead I did that. I just appreciate that they trusted me, or expressed their respect to me in this way.

ArtPrize 2014 Retail Team. Photo: Shelly Arnold / ArtPrize Volunteer Street Media Team.

AP: What's your most memorable moment—the first image or scene that pops into your head—when you think about the times you've volunteered with us?

Dee: Oh, a fun thing happened when I got to see my old friends from the Detroit area, who I hadn’t seen for almost fifteen years. They just stopped by the HUB and I was a Retail Lead at that time. I met a lot of people from all over the place. Putting faces to the numbers, when you can see there are real people behind all that analytical data about ArtPrize—that’s fascinating.

AP: Do you remember any fun stories that happened to you during your time volunteering?

Dee: When I was a Docent, I had a class with special needs kids from out of town. They're mostly developmentally disabled, but wonderful kids. The teacher had given each of them a disposable camera to take pictures of the art. Well, as soon as they got off of the bus, and some of them probably have never been in Grand Rapids, they saw all of these big buildings and they started to ask “Is that art?” How do you tell them “Yes, it is, but it’s not the art that your teacher was referring to”? You don’t say to them that the architecture isn’t art. So I explained to them, that they need to take pictures of the ArtPrize art. And it was so funny, because they were so excited. They were like little kids at Christmas. Just to see all of that art—it was such a new experience for them, and it was so fun to be with them.

ArtPrize 2014 Merchandise. Photo: ArtPrize.

AP: Do you have any troubleshooting stories?

Dee: Well, what happens with Docents a lot of times is that we always have to deal with teachers who have their own idea of where to go. So you have to change something on a route, while staying within the frame of what had been planned for the children to see.

In retail the biggest problem might be being out of a popular T-shirt or any other item. In this case you always can call the UICA store or others and ask them if they have it. But in general I just enjoyed the process, especially having the chance to share some additional information about a product. For example, there were magnets displaying the artwork of artists from Grand Rapids and people were buying these more often, because of the story behind them.  

AP: What was your favorite part about Retail Volunteer position?

Dee: My favorite part about Retail was working here, at the HUB, and getting to know all of the staff team in person.

AP: What was the hardest part about volunteering in Retail?

Dee: Sometimes it’s hard to find something that a person really wants—the right color or size. In general everything was great! All of the volunteers, even not in retail, were super helpful.

ArtPrize 2014 Retail Store. Photo: Shelly Arnold / ArtPrize Volunteer Street Media Team.

AP: What type of people do you think should sign up for Retail?

Dee: It would be good if this person has some similar previous experience. When it is super busy, you have to be able to work under pressure. The weekends, in this case, were the hardest days. If you’re new, have your first shift Monday through Thursday. But after a couple of shifts you’re good.

AP: Do you have any other comments or thoughts that you'd like to share with us?

Dee: I think everybody should volunteer with ArtPrize, even if it’s only a few shifts, because you become a part of ArtPrize. You become a part of an awesome community of people. Even when I worked full time and volunteered minimally, I felt that. It is very special—to not be an outsider, but to be involved in the organization and to be sure that other people are able to see the art and enjoy it.

By Iryna Bilan on