Monday, January 9, 2017

think of it as an internship

This is going to get wordy, so I'm telling you right now to pass unless you have a curiosity about artist's co-ops.  I am writing in defense of them, sort of.  I say this having recently resigned from one- ha!  But, as I was ending my three and a half year involvement with this particular co-op gallery, I thought about all the good stuff learned from the experience:
  • How to coordinate exhibits:  painting and patching panels, communicating with visiting artists, setting up the show, reception, marketing...
  • Brainstorming ideas for exhibits, classes, community events.
  • Some of what it takes to run a brick and mortar business.
More on the plus side:  You have control over your display- change it out, rearrange, whatever. Also, there is no denying the creativity boost from being part of some of the exhibits and being around other artists.  Then there's a pool of customers- some may be new to you, and it's a shop with regular hours so they know where to find you.  I have to admit, it was a difficult decision to end my time with this gallery.
Why did I leave, then?  Time and money.  Some travelling may be in my future.  Pottery is time-consuming work.  So is working at the co-op.  Being gone is a problem.  And, it wasn't making financial sense. The combined commission fee and rent comprised a yearly average of 40- 43% of what I sold.  I was not selling enough at this location to offset the costs. This is a small community and raising prices is not an option.  As I expect to be compensated for my time and experience, a better use of my time is to participate in shows where fees typically take 10 to 15% of my sales. Also, I've found it impossible to keep up with my Etsy shop, which I hope to have stocked and active again in a few months.

Anyone who has been involved in a an artist's co-op knows there are other factors which make it a difficult balancing act- getting a dozen or more people to agree on one course of action (often, things just did not get decided), and equal division of labor are a couple of famously common difficulties in co-ops. Then there's the age thing.  This didn't seem to bother anyone but me.  As a 58 year old, soon to be 59, I was one of the younger members.  For a variety of reasons I felt the organization needed a more diverse age range. But, with a shop open 6 days/week (closed Mondays) younger artists who are working full time (actual paying) jobs and may have little dependents are scared off by the thought of giving up a couple of weekend days per month to man the gallery.  I don't think they get past that consideration to even contemplate all the other responsibilities.

Remember, I started out talking about the positives. My advise is take a look at your local co-op and see what it has to offer you.  Don't forget, you'll probably have to jury in.  Here's the thing- if you can possibly swing it for a year or two, look at the experience as an educational tool.  The knowledge gained is invaluable.  Think of it as an internship.  You might get paid, too.
 all packed up


  1. A really interesting read Melissa. Laura and I are both members of a Co-op and there are certainly challenges in working harmoniously with a group of people. One problem that we have is a really wide earnings gap between those who sell well, and those who struggle to sell at all. Really all members are important, and those who struggle financially are still contributing in their labour and time when doing Co-op duty or helping at a working Bee. Also having a variety of work on show, both "commercial" and "non commercial" in nature, helps everyone as it makes the Co-op a more interesting gallery to visit. It is really hard to be fair to everyone. Our Co-op ran for many years with a fixed monthly fee for all members and no commission, but this proved very hard on the poor sellers, especially as costs climbed. We now have a very small commission and a fixed monthly fee, but I don't think the system is perfect and tensions do rise from time to time in the group that are not always easy to resolve. As you have listed, there are many positives though, and where we are there are very few alternatives.
    Hope things go well for you in the years ahead. (58, Ha,... we're the same age. After being mistaken for someone in their mid 60s, I usually tell people that I am 130 years old, people are often then very complimentary about my appearance!)

    1. I came away wishing that I would have had this experience in my 20's. Of course, I may not have been juried in back then.
      It does seem that there are many different models of co-ops, and probably no perfect formula exists, though I'd like to think there is one. On a recent trip my husband and I stopped at a co-op which did not charge a commission fee at all but charged rent based on the amount of wall space the artist had. I noticed there were no large paintings!
      I like the way you handle the age thing. I'll keep that in mind.


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