Social work, volunteering and arts: The road to fulfilment

With a “Hola señorita guapa!” – and a big smile in his mouth. This is how “Arne” welcomes us into his office. He is the general manager at Viva con Agua ARTS, a daughter of the NGO Viva con Agua, whose aim is to improve drinking water supply in developing countries.

You are probably familiar with the Millerntor Gallery, which they organize every year at the St. Pauli Stadium bringing artists together under the motto “ART CREATES WATER”.   In this interview you will discover more behind the organization and how to volunteer at their projects but you will also learn about Arne’s brave decision of leaving a well paid job to start volunteering. Inspiring enough for many that are still thinking about making such an impactful change in their lives.

Text: Sabela Garcìa Cuesta / Photography: Teresa Enhiak Nanni

Hi Arne. Tell us a bit about yourself. Are you from Hamburg?

I was born near Cologne but I’ve lived in Hamburg for over 20 years now. 

How did you start to get involved into social projects?

I have always done social jobs, taking some volunteering gigs during holidays most of the time – I am not a big fan of flying so I would always enjoy staying and helping here or there. At one point I had to choose either to go to the army or do social work. You bet what I did for 20 months. Social work. 

And what did you study?

I did psychology and had a job in an international company for over 10 years at the HR department. At some point something clicked in my mind and I felt the urge to change it. 

What made you feel that a secure job in a multinational was not for you?

Back in 2008 I met someone while helping in an orphanage in Nairobi. That was my first time in Africa and I saw how tricky it is for the kids to grow up healthy and well-educated. That was the trigger for me. Then when I came back, together with friends and family, we founded our own charity. Actually, I got all the support at the company I was working back then.

Could you also take days off to go to support your charity project?

Oh yes, they even got me special holidays and financial support. The balance was there but it seems that it didn’t really fulfil me.  Now I earn a lot less but the emotional part pays back. I can’t stop talking about the projects we are supporting. It makes me feel alive!

How did you start at Viva con Agua ARTS?

I started at Viva Con Agua ARTS as an unpaid volunteer. I really wanted to join the team and I took it. After a couple of months, Michael, the founder of Viva con Agua, asked me if I wanted to take the position as managing director and, despite my background in a total different field, I took the opportunity.

 What exactly is Viva con Agua ARTS?
It is a social business born from the Viva con Agua NGO. Besides the Millerntor Gallery which is a big success every year, we also organize the St. Pauli Matchday Prints that are sold to the fans (one third goes to the charity straight away) and many other projects. 

What is the relationship between FC St. Pauli and Viva con Agua?

The founder of Viva con Agua is a former FC St. Pauli football player, didn’t you know that?

Oops, I missed that. On to other things: where does your interest in art come from?

My father really encouraged me to visit museums. When I was 8 years old, I went to the Louvre for the first time and I found it super boring. But nowadays I am really grateful that he introduced me to the art scene. Personally, I’m really into graffiti and street art. I like the hip hop subculture and lifestyle and I totally support it. 

Are you an artist yourself?

Not really, I can only paint unicorns and whales. But my wife is an artist.

Do you have a favourite artist? Besides your wife, of course!

I cant choose a favourite artist, I love all of them! Every artist at the Millerntor Gallery is part of our family. It doesn’t matter how much you know about art when you come visit, you will be always impressed. You see a lot of experience and talent there. I’ve seen very realistic stuff  being drawn sometimes and I get totally nuts. That is talent.

Is the Millerntor Gallery getting bigger and bigger each year?

After having a work by Gerhard Richter I think we reached the limit. This could be controversial. Many say – and I agree – that the Millerntor Gallery is about street art. So we need to keep it welcoming for everyone and maintain it as a neighbourhood festival with arts, music, sports… Last year we had 17,000 visitors and we can’t really  handle more. We want people to join, have fun, enjoy art and keep it real as it is now. 

Andrej or Arne? 

Anton, Axel, Andy… I’ve been called every name by my ex-girlfriend’s grandma. Once I kicked her dog (not so hard and by mistake) and she screamed from the other side of the hallway “Arne has kicked the dog!!!” – Some of my friends found it so hilarious that they even created the website: with a giphy of a guy kicking a dog. Yes, it is down now (to my luck). After that I started meeting people and they all started calling me Arne. Even my mum calls me Arne now. 

Which is your favourite spot in Hamburg? 

I like the charm of the old Elbe-Tunnel or hanging around the Gängeviertel. 

How can we volunteer at Viva con Agua ARTS?

We have a meeting every third Thursday of the month, you are invited to join our Millerntor Gallery – supporter group in Facebook and come around. Sometimes we are 100 sometimes we are 20. You are very welcome to contribute!

The Millerntor Gallery is a social art, music and culture festival for clean drinking water in Hamburg. In addition to art and music, they have also created space for a colorful selection of workshops, lectures, film presentations and discussions on various topics such as art, culture, water, sanitation, nutrition, sustainability and social interaction.