When President Reagan first let it be known that he favored private giving over government support for the arts, many interested people turned their attention to the subject of raising money.
Museum officials have done their share of fund raising, but they have also looked at ways of getting more from the people who work for them. Bringing in more volunteers and giving them more responsibility, putting greater reliance on less costly part-time and temporary help, and reassigning the jobs of full-time staff who quit or retire - a kind of creative attrition - have given new meaning to the concept of private giving.
Museum workers, whether they are volunteers or paid employees, have come to subsidize the institutions they work for. Directors of museums refer to this as ''stretching the staff,'' a means of dealing with a challenging situation.
''We're moving toward using more 'temps' and part-time people as a way to economize,'' says Marianne Alt, personnel director of the Chicago Art Institute. ''You don't have to pay unemployment compensation to temps, and you're not required to offer benefit packages to people working just part time.''
The savings of fringe benefits for part-time and temporary workers has been 48 percent a year, she says, and the institution's 400 volunteers have been moved into all 32 departments of the museum.
''We couldn't get by without volunteers,'' says Barbara Mengel, the museum's volunteer coordinator. ''The whole thing would collapse.''
Volunteers will not take a job away from an employee, but ''if someone leaves , we might take on some of the functions,'' she says.
No law is broken, because the National Labor Relations Act covers only full-time unionized employees or workers in the process of forming a union whose positions may be usurped by volunteers. Most museum employees, except guards and some custodial positions, are not unionized.
''Let's face it, the Smithsonian Institution is a magnet,'' says Sally Covel, volunteer coordinator for the Washington, D.C., cluster of arts and science museums. ''To be able to say that you work for the Smithsonian, no matter what you're doing, is a feather in your cap.''
Over 2,100 volunteers work at the Smithsonian, putting in an annual total of 250,000 hours at a savings of almost $3 million to the institution. The jobs they do are varied, depending upon their skills and education. Most are involved in clerical work, staffing reception and information desks, and serving as guides for tour groups, though some work in research - preparing catalogs or identifying objects - and other curatorial functions.
As modest rewards to its volunteers, the Smithsonian offers certificates and pins, as well as discounts in museum shops, cafeterias, and courses. It is a small price to pay for the services of volunteers who, Atlas-like, prop up the museum world. A 1981 Gallup survey found that 5 percent of the adult population in the United States volunteer their time and services in the area of arts and culture, working an average of four hours a week at a total GNP annual value of than 10 years ago.
Recruiting volunteers, therefore, can be as important as fund raising, and it is increasingly the practice of museum officials to attempt to lure potential volunteers with the incentive of benefits and possible tax deductions.
Legislators on both the state and federal levels are also trying to increase the stakes. Maryland congresswoman Barbara Milulski has introduced two bills, the first to increase the standard mileage deduction for volunteers from 9 cents to 21 cents a mile (making it equal to the amount allowed for business-related travel) and the second to permit volunteers to take a tax credit equal to the minimum wage, up to $750 a year for their work.
Rep. James H. Quillen (R) of Tennessee has offered a bill that would allow volunteers to deduct the costs of home care (baby sitting or nursing care of the elderly) while they are working. While there is little hope given for the passage of these measures in the current Congress, there has been progress on the state level. Iowa has increased the mileage deduction for volunteers on the state income tax to 21 cents, and Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Nebraska, and North Carolina have brought the volunteer- and business-related deductions closer together.
The Internal Revenue Service has regularly disallowed home-care deductions when volunteers have claimed them. One decision was reversed in tax court in 1981, though that probably should not be seen as setting a precedent. Fighting the IRS may be much more costly than the value of the deduction. With the cost of running an automobile increasing, on the other hand, there has been wider support for an increase in the travel-expense deduction.
In addition, volunteer service-related deductions may be legitimately claimed for books, course work, entertainment expenses, long-distance telephone calls, trips, and uniforms.
Many different types of people will volunteer, and for a variety of reasons - students needing some work experience on their resumes, retirees wanting something to do, and a growing group of people with time on their hands: the unemployed. Many younger volunteers see their work as leading to a full-time paid position within the museum, although the chances of this happening are generally remote.
''The foot-in-the-door approach is not a good one,'' says Steve Logan, personnel director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The very few who do move from volunteer to paid positions usually are not hired for curatorial posts, he adds. ''I'm always telling people: 'There's plenty to do if you're good at maintenance and plumbing.' Other than that, though. . . .''