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Volunteers make it happen at major art exhibitions

Ellen Gully directs an army of volunteers with a sweet smile and a charismatic personality. As a result, since the Palaces of St. Petersburg in 1996, volunteers for the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange (MCICE) international exhibitions have driven from near and far on a routine basis to help man phones, mail mounds of catalogs, greet more than one million visitors, check countless coats and umbrellas and assist tour groups numbering up to 20 at a time.

“Ellen has done a superb job spearheading our volunteer program, and has enticed Mississippians other than Jacksonians to support this project,” said MCICE director Jack Kyle.

As of July 7, some 733 volunteers had worked 46,700 hours, averaging 63.7 hours per person for The Glory of Baroque Dresden exhibition. Of the 1,320 volunteers listed in the MCICE database, approximately 800 are active, having completed extensive training sessions in January and February. For the first three months of the Dresden exhibit, Gully distributed 440 medallions to volunteers, which they receive after 52 hours of services.

“Many volunteers have worked all four exhibitions,” said Gully. “They are so faithful to come on a regular basis. We calculated that, during the last exhibition, if we had to pay volunteers, it would have cost us roughly $15.43 an hour, or $1.4 million total, to cover all factors associated with payroll. There’s just no way we could have afforded it.”

For every international exhibition since 1996, retired educators Ovid and Carol Vickers of Decatur have made the 150-mile round trip every Wednesday to Mississippi Hall to greet visitors. He gallantly opens the gallery doors for folks exiting the theater; she graciously greets schoolchildren and other tour bus guests.

“We certainly don’t win the prize,” said Carol Vickers with a laugh. “We work with a lady who drives from Meadville every week, and that’s about 90 miles away. Several people in the group drive even greater distances.”

Gully, a retired homemaker from Madison who initially volunteered through BellSouth Pioneers to assist with school groups at the inaugural exhibit in 1996, quickly proved herself a natural choice as director of volunteers.

“Coordinating four shifts daily, six days a week and three shifts on Sunday is the most challenging part of the job, especially because it takes a minimum of 60 people per shift,” confided Gully.

The world-class exhibitions have attracted a diverse group of volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 93.

“I’d say the typical volunteer is a female around age 62,” said Gully. “But we have such a range of ages and occupations. It’s really fascinating to see this common thread — this love of art — that binds us together.”

Many volunteers are educators and elected officials, such as retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Lee, who volunteered for the first two exhibitions. The group also includes doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, dentists and other healthcare providers. Wendy Bartley, a registered nurse from Jackson, volunteered more than 450 hours during the first two exhibitions. College students and others on summer vacation, including a docent from the New Orleans Museum of Art, can be found manning exhibition halls. Among the more unusual volunteers: farmers and beekeepers.

“During the last exhibition, we would get so tickled at one of our dearest volunteers, Ann Henley, who is in her 80s. She would faithfully work a first shift in the gallery, come back into our office and take a 30-minute nap in a wingback recliner, and return to the gift shop for a second shift,” said Gully with a laugh.

Despite surgery after breaking a leg, Henley consistently volunteers two or three days a week, from six to eight hours a day.

“She has her own schedule, and that’s OK with us,” said Gully, adding that Henley is “a salesman’s dream.”
“Miss Ann can sell anything, even if you don’t want to buy it,” she said. “She’s quite a lady.”

Approximately 200 new applications crossed Gully’s desk to volunteer for the Dresden exhibition, and she continues to add new volunteers.

“Words cannot describe how important these people are to our exhibition,” said Gully. “They’re like my family. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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