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Friday, December 22, 2006

On being in a co-op

Well, I'm completing my first full year as a member of The Artists' Gallery, an artists' cooperative in Lambertville, NJ. As an emerging artist, this has been a tremendously valuable experience for me. I'll use this post to reflect back on that experience, in case it helps any other artists out there.

A year ago, when I joined the co-op, I knew how to paint but I knew nothing about how run a gallery or how to market myself. At opening receptions, I'd keep a low profile and hope that no one spoke to me. Now just a year later, I have other people asking me for advice, and I feel confident in answering their questions. At opening receptions, I actually enjoy talking to our guests, and don't cringe away from that like I used to. By far, one of the best things about being in this co-op is the chance to work closely with the other artist members. Unlike some co-ops, this one has no individual owner - it's run entirely by the artists, and we all have an equal say in all matters. We do all of the work and make all of the decisions. Our degree of success is entirely in our own hands. And fortunately, this is a really great group of people who get along well and support each other.

Some of the best things I've gotten out of this:

  1. the camaraderie of running a gallery with other artists
  2. learning what it takes to run an art gallery
  3. many opportunities to talk with gallery visitors, and to meet some of the people who have purchased my work. There was a time when this would have intimidated me, but now I'm comfortable with it, and I find it a very rewarding thing to do. Even the occasional bad comment is good to hear, when sometimes customers don't realize it's your work they're commenting on.
  4. the opportunity to take part in a 2-man show
  5. making contacts which led to my first solo show
  6. learning now do press releases: how to write them and who to send them to
  7. the confidence in knowing that I can do this now
In various art forums, I often see artists asking for opinions on joining an artists cooperative. In my case, it's been great, but every gallery is different so I'll offer these points to consider:
  • Does the gallery have a track record of being in existence for at least a few years, or is it brand new? It's relatively easy for a co-op to get started, but few can keep going after the initial enthusiasm wears off. Don't rule out a gallery just because it's new, but this might affect your level of confidence in the gallery. On one hand, it could be very exciting to join a gallery that's just starting up. On the other hand, if you're looking to learn from others, you'll be better with an established gallery.
  • Is the gallery in a good location? (An important question for any type of gallery!)
  • How much wall space will you get and how often will you get to show your work. You may not have the chance to show your work all of the time.
  • Does the gallery put on solo shows or 2-person shows to feature the artists, and does everyone get a fair shot at this? How often?
  • Commercial galleries usually take a 40 to 50 percent commission on work sold, but it doesn't cost the artist anything to belong to the gallery. Belonging to a co-op typically means paying a monthly membership fee but a lower commission is taken, or maybe no commission at all. Whether this arrangement is good for you depends on how much you sell.
  • How much work is expected from you?
    • You may need to attend regular gallery meetings - how often?
    • You will probably have to gallery sit regularly - how often? This means you open up in the morning, turn on the lights, greet gallery visitors, handle the sales, turn out the lights and lock up at the end of the day. You'll have to be comfortable running the gallery all by yourself. (It's not that hard.)
    • Are you expected to help with other things like cleaning up, painting the walls, and fixing anything that needs fixing?
  • What other costs will you be responsible for?
    • Who pays for publicity such as the printing and mailing of postcards?
    • Who pays for the food and wine at opening receptions?
    • Most co-ops have a 1-time sign up fee when you first join the gallery. Sometimes this is refundable when you leave, sometimes not.
  • Once you join, is there any obligation to remain a member for some period of time, or can you leave whenever you want to?
  • Try to meet some of the members and ask as many questions as you can. The co-op that I'm in is a great bunch of people - we're like a family. I've heard of others where things are not so pleasant - clashing personalities, big egos, etc. The mix of personalities could make or break the experience for you, so do some research first. Since co-ops are typically run by the artist members, it's easy for you to meet them by just visiting the gallery.
If anyone out there is thinking of joining my gallery, you can read our co-op membership rules online for more details. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this to anyone. If you're thinking or applying to a co-op somewhere else, I hope that my advice has been helpful. Feel free to ask me any questions via the comments link below. Or better yet, go visit a co-op in your area and talk to whoever is sitting behind the desk that day!

4 comments:

  1. Great post and I so agree. Although I wouldn't join a co-op again (hum, never say never eh!) like you I valued the two years doing it. I learned so much.

    I loved the gallery where you are, I used to visit it everytime I came to Lambertville (lived in Clinton). The quality of the work and the atmoshphere was always very impressive and enjoyable.

    May 2007 continue to be a creative and rewarding year.

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  2. Thanks, jafabrit. If you don't mind me asking, I'm curious why you wouldn't join a co-op again.

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  3. Anonymous2:59 PM

    Much like any gallery, not all co-ops are the same. I'm glad your experience was great, but I was in one for a year and unfortunately it was a very bad experience.

    The location was so-so, and show turn-outs were very low, even with advertising. The gallery's signage was horrible and hard to see and there were no attempts at making things better, even when I suggested it.

    Two of the female members wanted to basically be in charge of everything and pushed the much more elderly members around. There were only about 5 people total who wanted to pitch in and do something while the rest just paid their monthly fee and did nothing but swap out their art. The quality of the members keeps falling and falling. I've been gone from the co-op for two years, but it's now a struggling enterprise and the art is really going downhill. Those two women are still there and still pushing everyone else around and they lose members constantly.

    It's sad that such a great idea can get turned into a bad one by two people being such control freaks. They now have such a bad reputation that I leave their name off of my resumé.

    The other side of the coin! :-/

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  4. Joe, excellent comments and recommendations. Like jafabrit, my experiences haven't been so great, but having access to a good co-op could be fantastic. My advice: Go into the relationship with eyes wide open and be realistic.

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