Types of Galleries: Cooperatives

Earlier on I discussed commercial galleries and vanity galleries.

Together with commercial art galleries, artists-run cooperative art galleries are perhaps the most important gallery components of a city or area’s art tapestry.

A cooperative (or co-op) art gallery is a for profit art gallery which is owned and run by a group of artists - or a cooperative of artists.

The artists share the costs associated with running the gallery, and often also share the task of manning the gallery - or the costs of hiring a gallery staff to run the space.

Running anything by committee is never easy, and cooperatives (in my experience) tend to have some very good, solid points, and also share the drawbacks of a committee-run enterprise (usually 10% of the people end up doing 90% of the work).

Depending on size and structure, a co-op can usually “guarantee” each member a solo show every couple of years. Most co-ops also have an area (bins or a small room) where members can always have some work on view.

Because co-ops share and spread the costs of running a gallery, they are often better equipped to survive the prodigious ups and downs of a gallery business life. As a result, a good co-op will be able to survive a market where most new galleries fail, and in my experience it is not unusual to see that in many cities the oldest galleries are usually co-ops.

Because co-ops thus dissipate financial dangers, they are also optimally equipped to present shows that are never intended to be commercially appealing, but which nonetheless offer a good contribution to the artistic dialogue. Thus a co-op can sometimes present a show that a commercial gallery may turn down as commercially impossible.

Co-ops are often also the best place to discover emerging artists, and in my experience this happens at all ranges of the age spectrum.

I am a big fan of cooperative galleries, and I strongly believe that this artist-run model for an art gallery is one of the key elements of any art scene.

Next: Non-profit art galleries

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  1. August 11, 2008 @ 11:11 am

    sabine carlson Said,

    i’ve got one more on cooperative galleries.
    I’m an artist who had to move around quite a bit for the last 15 years or so, making it difficult to build a solid base in one paricular area. Cooperative galleries were the go to place for me in a new city and allowed a starting point into local artist scenes. also, like you say their financial situation often allowed to take a risk. as a ‘new in town’ artist i have benefitted from that quite a bit, in CA, DC, NY, NJ. NOw that i am back in DC, hopefully for good this time, i am working again with the cooperative gallery who gave me my first opportunity to show here in DC more than 10 years ago. The place is a true labor of love, and an opportunity to now give back a little bit in return for all the support i had received there in earlier times.
    Thanks a lot for shining a light on this topic!

  2. August 11, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    Anonymous Said,

    I was a member of an artist co-op for a year and found the experience more negative than positive (but it was a learning experience). If anything, I learned what NOT to do in terms of running a gallery. At the first gallery meeting I attended (after I was voted in unanimously), they raised the monthly fees (they had not told me that). Also, at this same meeting, two older women got into a heated “discussion” and almost came to blows. It primarily seemed a venue for the retirement-age crowd to fight with each other (especially the women, and I am female and while not retirement age, I am long past my 20’s). However, there were a few nice people in this gallery.

    I would shop around before joining any cooperative. Just because one has been around a long time, does not mean it is automatically better than any newer ones in the area. I would do my year or two and get my solo show, then move on.


  3. August 12, 2008 @ 9:46 am

    Lenny Said,

    Excellent point!

  4. August 13, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    Lenny Said,

    Dean Anon,

    It sounds like your experience was limited to that one unfortunate space… the other constant about co-ops is that their membership is mostly always in flux as new members come in and some depart, so the look and feel of a gallery may change radically over the course of a few years as new people take over, etc.

  5. August 15, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    Alza Burd Said,

    I would like to receive information about co-ops of plastic artists in the Washington D.C. area.
    Alza Burd

  6. August 19, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    Ray Brucko Said,

    I am the director of a small grass roots arts education non profit. We want to set up a co-op gallery within the context of our non-profit status. Can it be done without jeopardizing are 501(c)(3) status? Any help or information will be of great value. Thank you.

  7. August 19, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

    Lenny Said,

    For Ray Brucko: Depending where you live, you can always get free legal advice from your “Area Lawyers for the Arts,” which are lawyers who give free legal advice to artists and arts organizations.

    Most major cities have them, and they’re usually listed as “Washington Area Lawyer for the Arts” or some such title.

    Or you can always call the IRS 501(c)(3) support line and get their advice.

  8. February 19, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    Lisa Toole, Gallery Mgr. Said,

    WE are experiencing difficulty in our first year keeping the gallery open due to financial constraints on the building owners. In this economy, is it worthwhile in your
    opinion to attempt a cooperative gallery, given the place
    that art occupies in discretionary spending. What would the
    perks be for the participating artists short and long term.
    Thanks for all feedback.

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