Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

The Ins & Outs of Cooperative Galleries

Some of us “emerging” artists are not quite ready for prime time, that is, the highly selective galleries where prices tend to start at around $1,000. For us, an artist-owned and operated cooperative gallery might be a better venue to show and sell our work.

But a relationship with a co-op gallery is like any other kind of relationship – there are good and bad matches. Before you get entangled, here are some things to consider:

Who are the other members and what kinds of work do they do? 
Before submitting an application to join a co-op, visit a few times and get a feel for the types and quality of work represented there. I’ve been in galleries where the work was, frankly, beneath the quality of my own or where the gallery organizer’s work seemed to predominate. In either case, I had little confidence that the gallery would attract the types of buyers who would appreciate my work.

I’ve also applied to co-ops and been rejected because, in their view, my work was not quite on a par with their other member artists. Rejection never feels good, but it’s better than wasting time and money on a relationship that isn’t a good fit.

What does the gallery expect of its members?
The very name – cooperative gallery – should tell you that the operation and the success of the gallery depend on cooperation among its members. This usually means that members pay a monthly fee (typically $75 – $100 or more, depending on rent), a commission on work sold (from 15% and up), and sometimes additional fees for special marketing campaigns. In addition, co-ops usually require members to staff the gallery one or more days per month, help with hanging or taking down shows, and serve on committees or help with special events. If you don’t have the flexibility or resources to fulfill these expectations, a co-op might not be the place for you.

Joy Nunn, one of the founding members of Art at the Main, a non-profit gallery at the main Salt Lake City Library, also says that one of the things that can make a co-op fail is “members that don’t take their responsibilities seriously.” A co-op gallery is a team effort and you’ll be happiest in a situation where all team members contribute fully.

What does the gallery do for its members?
Exposure is, of course, the greatest benefit of being part of any gallery. When someone asks you where they can see more of your work, you’ll have a response that sounds more professional than “in my basement.” Your work is displayed consistently in most co-ops along with opportunities to be the featured artist during some months. You’ll want to ask exactly how the gallery decides what to display and whom to feature.

And that brings up the question of management and decision making. Some co-op galleries try to involve all members in most decisions. However, if you have 20 members, that structure can be unwieldy and impractical. Some galleries, instead, use an “executive board” or “equity partner” structure in which a smaller group of people run the business but involve the other members in some of the decisions. Just as business teams benefit from strong leadership, co-op galleries usually work better when there are owners or members willing to work on the organization of the business and either make or poll for decisions. To avoid misunderstandings later, it’s best to ask up front about who makes which decisions.

By pooling resources, co-op artists can afford to do more marketing and promotion than most individuals could do by themselves. And, while some artists may not enjoy the business side of the profession, co-op members can pool their skills and interests for a businesslike approach to running the gallery.

Another clear benefit of a good co-op gallery is the camaraderie that members feel toward each other. “It’s like family,” one artist told me. Members share information, skills, encouragement, and empathy. Without such an association, artists can feel isolated.

Being part of a co-op or any other gallery forces you to paint consistently. The galleries want fresh work so there’s always something new for repeat visitors to see. If you complete only a few works each year, you may not be ready to approach a gallery.

Does the gallery require “exclusivity?”
Most co-op galleries do not expect their members to show their work only in that gallery. So you may be able to have relationships with several different galleries. But it’s important to check the policies before entering into a relationship.

How much of your work can you show at one time?
The answer to this question may be purely practical. If you have 30 artists and a small amount of space, and if your work is large in format, you may not be able to show as much as the other member artists. Be sure to ask how much space you will be allocated. Also, are the space assignments rotated occasionally, so that member artists take turns being in more prominent spots? And is there an equitable appeal process when an artist feels she’s being slighted on space?

Art at the Main, for example, has limited space, so they compromise on the sizes of work they will accept. Generally, their artists have space for about eight paintings, four unframed works, and about 10 original cards. Artists are encouraged to exchange their pieces with new work whenever they choose, thus receiving optimum exposure.

What does the gallery want to see and how will it make a decision about artists applying for membership?
Ask the gallery for their call-for-entry form and be sure to follow it. Some will ask for photos or slides; some may ask for actual pieces of art. They will also want an artist’s statement and resume that outlines your training, experience, and awards. If you’ve never put together such a portfolio, seek help from a more experienced artist. Or contact the Utah Arts Council, which sometimes offers seminars on this topic.

The better co-ops seem to want diversity in the art products they show and sell. A range of art media, sizes, prices, etc., will attract a more diverse clientele and will encourage repeat visits. This means, of course, that if the gallery already has an artist whose work is similar to yours, they might not accept you as a member at this particular time even though your work is wonderful. Be patient and keep applying.

If the gallery is interested in your work, they may also request an interview. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you have a positive attitude, you can play well with others, and will make a good contribution to the team. Remember, the success of the business depends on each artist being able to sell the work of all the others. The gallery will look for a sense that you are willing and able to work for the good of the gallery and not just look after your own interests.

Art at the Main is always looking for emerging Utah artists. Nunn recommends visiting the gallery on the ground floor of the main library and speaking with their member artists. Additional cooperative galleries in the state include: Local Colors, now located at 535 S. 700 East, SLC (801-363-3922), and Gallery 25 in Ogden.


Categories: Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

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