One of the motives behind the current “Occupy Wall Street” phenomenon is the encouragement of co-ops. In one iteration, you need to move your cash and loans from a “big greedy over-extended, over-bonused bank” to your local, friendly, member-owned credit union. A few artists, rather than giving their work to “greedy, overpaid galleries,” have been using a similar system for years.
Co-ops of all sorts are increasing in popularity. “Co-ops are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility,” says UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Co-op galleries, in my experience, have had a spotty history so far. While there are many varieties, the typical system is where a group of artists get together and open some sort of brick and mortar gallery. Rather than hiring help, they agree to take turns manning the place and selling each other’s work. Many co-ops start out as hunky dory love-ins and end in enmity and dissolution. Some flourish with long-term friendships, while in others the artists seem to check in and check out. Petty jealousy and perceived favouritism trumps garden-variety greed.
In the commercial gallery system, a modified form of greed drives the hive, and some artists get the idea that they are the expendable bees.
Michael Douglas, as the unpleasant Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, said, “Greed is good.” Fact is, greed has authority. Everybody understands it. Also, people who are motivated by money will spend a great deal of time studying their special interests. Some art dealers become celebrated experts on aesthetics. Such is the wisdom of the capitalist system.
One of the problems with co-ops is authority. Many clients of regular commercial galleries appreciate getting what they think is informed advice from a dealer who is perceived to be distanced from the vagaries of unbusinesslike artists. Further, when collectors encounter artists who appear to be “too smart” in the ways of value, investment, and even aesthetics, they may catch the Noon Balloon for Rangoon.
For those artists who might be thinking of starting or taking part in a co-op gallery, consider including a pinch of greed. Give volunteer salespersons a commission on all sales other than their own work. Make it possible for people to profit from the hard work of others. It’s what makes the world go ’round.
PS: “The future you see is the future you get.” (Robert G. Allen)
Esoterica: The democratic, co-op gallery may be a template for the future. One of the reasons is the lower commissions that co-ops usually take from artists. When commissions are lower there’s a shorter time the collector has to wait for resale prices to rise to what was originally paid. And if you’re one of those who think that people buy serious art without thought of resale, you’re smoking the wrong stuff. Just like nasty old Wall Street, people jump out of buildings when there’s no return on investment.
Artist-run gallery juries in members
by Geri VanHeuverswyn, San Antonio, TX, USA
I am a member of the River Art Group in San Antonio, Texas. It has been in existence since 1947 and operates possibly the oldest artist-run gallery in Texas. The gallery is located in the historic Florian House in La Villita in beautiful downtown San Antonio. I believe the membership (all juried in) numbers around 300 or more. I think the success of this gallery is due to the fact that all members contribute their time and talents, and to the wonderful tourists that visit San Antonio. What a thrill to see that your work has sold, not only locally, but to various countries around the world.
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Commercial art galleries doing valuable work
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
The idea of comparing a gallery to a megabank seems quite a stretch to me. The monster banks and disreputable investors not only misrepresented the value of investments, mortgages, etc., but were covertly betting that they would fail. While their investors lost everything, these particular bankers did very well for themselves by playing the odds in both directions. “It’s dethpicable,” as Daffy Duck would say. On the other hand, galleries (and who knows this better than you?) provide a real service. They have to keep the doors open and the lights on, sell off the floor, hold parties and art soirées, provide refreshments, keep books, pay taxes, know the market, keep in touch with customers, and they take a nice piece of the action as their only compensation. How can you compare the two? Sorry. There’s a big difference between providing an honest service to earn an honest living, and manipulating the monetary system to screw everyone and prosper yourself. Besides, most gallery owners I know aren’t getting multi-million dollar bonuses as a consequence of their nefarious work.
Expert managers are necessary
by Kris Parins, FL, USA
Your point about the lack of an “expert” overseeing things at a co-op gallery is a good one. I’ve resisted becoming involved in that type of arrangement because I have often heard participants use the term “sitting the gallery” when they describe their work shift; some co-ops even allow spouses or friends to “sit” in place of the member artist. That indicates a complete lack of understanding of what it takes to run a successful retail business. Those co-ops who hire a gallery manager seem to do better over time. Your suggestion of offering an incentive for making a sale would put things on the right track.
Internet is the third rail
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
I participated in a co-op many years ago when I was making ceramic sculptures. It was kind of unpleasant, as I seemed to be one of the few people who had a full time job. Also, since I was a male, they expected I would do all the heavy lifting. When I transitioned to painting in 1985 I never entertained the idea of anything but a commercial gallery. None of the people in that business ever struck me as greedy. They were looking for a decent living at most.
Having had my own business I understood the costs that occurred behind the scenes. Electricity, heat, AC, phone, advertising, staffing, and rent all came with a price tag. Many of my artist friends seem to resent the commissions charged, but I think they are naïve. If this was such a lucrative enterprise there wouldn’t be so much turnover. I, for one, respect and appreciate what it takes to make this work. But if you want to make truly cutting-edge, personal inventions you probably don’t have a choice. For those artists this is usually the only way to find an audience, as the for-profit galleries are rightly very concerned about sales.
I think the Internet is now offering a third rail for artists to be their own sales department. It takes a lot of time to make art, pack and ship, photograph, make proposals, and also sell your work. If you require sleep as I do, and actually have a life with friends and family, choices have to be made.
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Co-operating for excellence
by Jane Whittlesey, Louisville, CO, USA
I am currently an owner in a 25 member fine arts cooperative in Lafayette, Colorado. We were formed with the help of a local landlord, the city’s downtown development association, and a few forward thinking, local artists. We are doing well in this depressed economy, and are considered a big asset by our local residents. We are in our fourth year of business, and have made increasing profits every year.
Just like in the “real” business world, there are healthy businesses and unhealthy ones. We are one of the healthy ones. We are in the business of creating good art, enriching our community, and supporting one another. We are NOT in the business of commissions, greed, one-upmanship, and we do not have a hierarchy of “good” or “bad” sales people. We focus on making our gallery the best it can be, helping one another when we need it, and sharing our knowledge and skills with one another. In short, we cooperate for excellence.
Our arts cooperative works because of the examples we set with one another in our day-to-day interactions. It is our “cooperative corporate culture” to be respectful, open, and supportive, and most importantly, to not lose sight of our shared goals. I’m sure the cynics will say that “someday” we’ll “wake up” and realize that we are in the business of making money, not art and community. I completely disagree. If we lose sight of why we started in the first place, that’s when the money will stop. Businesses don’t have to be “greedy” in order to succeed. We can be both successful and ethical. And we are.
The alienation of art buyers
by Trish Sheff
In many ways galleries intimidate people, charge too much, and in the long run they end up hurting both consumers and artists in general. I know many of my neighbors would like to buy good paintings that cost $500-$1000, that are unique and attractive, with no thought to investment. But frankly, there is not much in that price range in local galleries, co-op or otherwise. Most of the work that would look nice over the fireplace starts at around $1500. Local art fairs with cheaper art are often filled with really cheesy paintings — think purple cats, nasty sunsets, etc. Sadly, these potential consumers with open pocket books, but not that open, end up buying reproductions, posters, prints — instead of original art. It seems to me investment type galleries are for a niche type consumer but the also end up alienating a lot (or most) potential art buyers.
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Secrets of a successful co-op art gallery
by Dikki Vanhelsland, Tucson, AZ, USA
I belong to Desert Artisans Gallery in Tucson, Arizona. This is my 5th year with them. The gallery is in its 24th year. One of the originating artists is still in the gallery. We have a wonderful, operating group. We all work one day a month or two half days. We have one members’ meeting a month. Roll is taken.
We have a set of functioning gallery policies that are strictly adhered to. If there is a problem, the Board handles it. Every member has a gallery job besides the one work day. We totally change gallery shows four times a year.
We do have consignment artists who are fine crafters and pay the 50% consignment fee. Our members pay only 25% to the gallery. We do have a buy-in fee and a dues fee each month. The walls are for our members of whom we have 30 or so. The members jury in potential new members.
I am a batik artist who has done very well in the gallery. I feel we are in a very exclusive group that care for each other and are thrilled when someone makes a great sale. We are staying viable through these times because we are ethical, work hard, do good work with cheerful attitudes. We are a rather charming group, I must say. We are at www.DesertArtisans.com I have heard some sad tales of some co-ops where a few members do all the work or there are personality problems. We, fortunately, are a successful co-op.
Co-op art gallery worth the compromise
by Diane Leifheit, Paul Smiths, NY, USA
Our artist co-op — Adirondack Arts Guild — has survived as a co-op going on 15 years. There are 14 of us. Asking artists to treat the gallery as their own business, get along with each other’s own particular personality quirks and survive in a mean economy is no small feat.
And yet here we are. It is possible. Our business is in the black. Our organization has grown from 5 originating members to fourteen, with one sole original still on board. Each artist has a strength committed to the organization: a left-sided accountant type, a couple of former designers, community activist for the arts, shopkeepers, gardeners, floor polishers. With exception of 3 non-sitting members, the members each sit at the gallery 3-4 days a month, pay dues and receive a percentage of sales of their work.
There are no prima donnas. Everyone is on the same level and contributes to the whole. We all re-hang and move our work once a month. We have a featured artist opening once a month which brings in a different variety of over 100 folks every opening. Being featured every other year and moving once a month provides impetus to produce more and better work all the time.
Our Guild has initiated art events and helped make the area receptive to the arts. A new artist co-op has opened down the street this summer. Several studio /galleries exist in town that were not here 15 years ago. That is belief. It can be done successfully without hiring anyone. The driving force: Having a place to hang and show our work vs. having it leaning against the wall in the studio. Really, isn’t that — and the friendships — worth compromise vs. a 50% commission?
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Successful co-op art gallery requires balance
by Janet Hawse, Edmonds, WA, USA
I belong to Gallery North, a co-op that has just celebrated its 50th birthday. I can’t speak for those artists who got together a half century ago… I wasn’t there, but after working with this gallery for half a decade, I can tell you that a successful cooperative gallery takes balance as well as the personal dedication of the artists involved. Balance refers to both the artists’ commitment and the type of artists that are members.
First, artists need to balance their time between creating and working for the cooperative. If artists spend too much time involved in running and promoting the co-op and not enough time creating, they burn out or become frustrated and angry at their fellow members who may not be contributing as much to the gallery’s success.
Secondly, a successful co-op gallery needs the right balance of artists, both in the work shown and in the skills the artists bring to running the gallery. It is not always easy to find the right mix of art work and personalities. Some artists join cooperative galleries with the feeling that they are joining a club, while others recognize that a co-op gallery is a business, not a club, and decisions have to be made that will keep the gallery going, regardless of hurt feelings. Again, it becomes a balancing act, but with great rewards when it works out.
When cooperative galleries are successful they provide an environment for artists and the community that may be more comfortable and entertaining than a private “for profit” gallery. Some risks can be taken and artists can produce work with more than a price tag in mind. Gallery members pay less commission while the community is presented with the unique work of their local artists, artists that they can meet and make a connection with. In addition, when times are tough, co-op members can come together to weather the financial storm. An added bonus is the diversity of the member artists creating a well-spring of ideas that enrich the gallery.
Obviously, cooperative galleries do not work for every artist — perhaps they are only good for a handful. However, when they do work and are in balance, they become an extraordinary delight for both the artist members and their community.
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Enjoy the past comments below for The co-op spirit…
mosaic, 17 x 21 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Claire Remsberg of McCall, ID, USA, who wrote, “I have visited several co-op galleries recently. Sometimes the eclectic grouping is interesting, but other times I see chaos and a “we’ll take anybody” level of quality. I think that commercial galleries tend to have more of a market niche or unifying impression, which is of course the taste and personality of the gallery owner.”
And also Carolynn Wagler who wrote, “Hoot hoot hurray! Agreeing with you re: co-op spirit. Does ‘Occupy a Town’ make one think of Socialism? Having been to Russia, that didn’t work either.”