Is Showing Your Art in a Co-op Gallery Worthwhile?

is it worth showing your work in a co--op gallery?

Recently I wrote a post about the advisability of showing your work in a “vanity” gallery. This post has already received a lot of attention, comments, and questions. I appreciate the input from the community and the willingness to share personal insight from past experiences.

In the comments, it became clear that there is some confusion, or at least a blurry understanding, of the difference between a pay-for-display (“vanity”) gallery and cooperative galleries. I feel it would be a good idea to continue the conversation by expanding it to cover this second type of gallery.

Let’s begin our conversation about co-op galleries with some definitions. As I said, there was some confusion about the difference between “vanity” galleries and co-op galleries. It’s easy to see how the confusion could arise because both of these types of galleries charge some kind of fee or due in order for artists to display their work. A “vanity” gallery, however, is typically a private, for-profit operation that derives a significant portion of its total revenue from the ongoing fees paid by artists to display their works. In essence, the gallery charges a kind of rental fee for the space where an artist will display his or her work.

A co-op gallery also charges for participation and display of work, but typically this charge is a membership fee, rather than a rental fee. The co-op gallery is typically (and I say “typically” because there are many different models for cooperative galleries) a group of artists who have come together to provide a venue where they can jointly display and sell artwork. Sometimes the group of artists will be part of a formally organized community art group or art guild. Other times the artists will have organized themselves around the gallery itself.

Because the co-op gallery is self-organized, members are often required not only to supply artwork to the gallery but also to work in the gallery on a regular basis. Member-artists will man the sales floor and handle the business operations of the gallery.

Depending on the location of the gallery and gallery overhead, the fees to participate in a co-op gallery are usually moderate, significantly lower than a fee-for-representation gallery.

Most major cities and many smaller cities and towns will have a co-op gallery. In some areas that can’t sustain a commercial art gallery, a co-op gallery may be the only fine art venue available to the community.

So, is it worthwhile for an artist to show in a co-op gallery?

In many ways, the same considerations I mentioned in last week’s post on “vanity” galleries apply to this question. There are additional considerations as well. Let’s look at the advantages first.

Advantages of Showing in a Co-op Gallery

  • Co-op galleries can provide a great way for artists who are early in their careers to get exposure. Because a co-op gallery is based on membership and community rather than purely profit, it’s often the case that artists who may not have enough experience, or who are still developing style and quality, can show in a co-op gallery when they might not find representation in a commercial gallery.
  • The opportunity to work in the gallery and get sales experience is a great chance to learn the sales side of the business. I’ve always found it advantageous to work with an artist who understands this side of the business. Artists who have worked in co-op galleries understand not only the sales side of the gallery business, they often also have experience with the logistics of operating a gallery. This kind of experience will help you build a better business as an artist because you will better understand what buyers and galleries need.
  • A co-op gallery can provide a sense of community. You will get to know and work with other members of the co-op and will thus create a network of artists in your community. These artists can help you when you have questions for face challenges in your career.
  • Well-established co-op galleries can actually be quite good at selling work in the community. While I’ve never met an artist who built their long-term success solely on their sales from co-op galleries, I’ve met many artists who supplement their income with steady sales from a co-op gallery.

Disadvantages of Showing in a Co-op Gallery

  • Because co-op galleries give a venue to a wide range of artists, the consistency of work in a co-op gallery can be hit-and-miss. You may be showing your work with some of the top artists in your area, as well as with artists who are just beginning to create. This inconsistency can be a hamper to sales for the gallery.
  • A co-op gallery has incentive to show work by a large number of artists. The more members, the greater the dues that can be collected to offset costs. The gallery also then has motivation to show as much work as possible by as many artists as possible, and this can dilute attention for any individual artist. This can also lead to a cluttered appearance in the gallery.
  • For many artists, the prospect of working in the gallery on a regular basis is a negative, rather than a positive. Volunteering in the gallery takes you away from your studio and from creating. Some artists don’t like the prospect of having to talk to buyers and haven’t yet developed sales skills.
  • Related to the last one, because the sales staff is constantly rotating, buyers at a co-op gallery may not get the service and consistent follow-up necessary to generate strong sales.
  • I’ve heard of co-op galleries that have been destroyed by the politics of having a large group of artists come together to try to sell their art. Egos can get bruised and feelings hurt. Artists are often left wondering why they have less work on display than other members. Some artists have . . . difficult personalities.

If you are considering showing in a co-op gallery, I would encourage you to do the same research prior to applying that I recommended for “vanity” galleries. Call several of the artists who are showing with the gallery and ask them if they feel it is worth the effort. Set definitive benchmarks to gauge the success of your relationship with the gallery, and don’t be afraid to leave the relationship if your needs are not being met.

Finally, take the opportunity to engage with the other artists who are members of the gallery. When I speak to artists who are happily engaged in cooperative representation, I hear repeatedly how valuable they find the sense of community in the gallery. For some artists, this is as valuable as the sales and exposure. If there are calls for volunteers, volunteer. Attend receptions for as many of your fellow artists as possible. Encourage your collectors to visit the gallery and participate in events.

What Have You Learned by Showing Your Art in Co-op Galleries?

Now you’ve heard what I think of co-op galleries, but I’ve never shown my art in one. If you have (or are currently) showing your work in a co-op gallery, I would love to hear your opinion of the experience. Is it worth the effort? Do co-op galleries sell art? What are the challenges you found?

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

8 Comments

  1. I had my work in a co-op gallery many years ago. I didn’t sell anything, I volunteered maybe two hours in the shop. So I quit. I also am an introvert and was not comfortable talking to people. I can see now, you need some sales experience….you need to talk to people about your art. I don’t think I would do it again, because as your article said, many volunteers may not know much about your art….so how can they ” talk it up”? I just started a website, which I will have to find my audience, and “romance” them.

  2. Jason, your thoughts on co-op galleries are spot on! I have experienced every one of your advantages and disadvantages in two co-ops galleries. I have truly grown as an artist and loved everything I learned in them, about hanging, framing, selling, clients, professionalism, etc., etc. that intense exposure to the gallery side of the business is very enlightening. And I have also developed the most amazing artist friends and colleagues as a result.
    But I left the first co-op as a result of continual frustration about poor hanging techniques, unfair bias in exposure, continual in-fighting that results in no consensus and no change or progress as a result. And as a large co-op they accepted members who were not up to the same standard since they had to fill the vacant slots. Unbelievably frustrating and dysfunctional! It drains your energy and takes too much emotional bandwidth to try and make it work.
    I am now in a smaller co-op that is extremely careful about who they admit, in terms of quality of art, and also their ability to work cooperatively and collaboratively. Wall space is carefully portioned for equity between the different artists. We all work extremely well together for the benefit of all.
    So my advice is to try out a variety of co-ops if you can, and do not stay in a dysfunctional one. It is possible to find co-ops that fill you with inspiration and training/knowledge and friendships, as well as great art sales!

  3. I am a member of the Art Stall Gallery that has operated continuously at Seattle’s Pike Place Market since 1965. Our founders must have done something right. Nobody is getting rich, but we are able to display and sell our work to people from all over the world.
    Among the operating rules that work well are the requirement that we each work in the gallery several days each month and take on responsibilities for the maintenance of the gallery. We take pleasure in promoting and selling each other’s work, and feel we are carrying forward an honored institution.
    When selecting new members to replace any who are moving on, the decision must be unanimous.

  4. What I’ve learned from a membership in a coop gallery is that the annual fees and the exhibition fees are the primary revenue stream for the gallery. A certain class of artwork are the primary sale generators which seem to be concentrated in about 15% of the artist members. Aside from the exposure and ability to answer the question, “Where do you show”, the other 85% of the artists subsidize the rest of the gallery operation along with the required gallery sitting. Without a gallery manager devoted to sales who works in the Gallery from day to day, there is no real ongoing effort to develop a collector customer base. People just wander in and out without much interaction from the desk. Most artists figure this out that the return is not worth their time and investment and move on. That means that the Coop is constantly seeking new members to maintain that gallery space for the few artists who have found a niche for their work. There are various business models for Coop Galleries and not all work this way. My advice is to approach with caution and evaluate what your expectations are and figure out if the Coop Gallery is a good fit for your artistic style.

    1. I have been a member of Art 1274 Hollis a co-op gallery since its conception 12 years ago. All of the above comments can hold true for a co-op ,so it’s important for the gallery members to select your members wisely. We say the artist wishing to join must be a good fit for the gallery , we do not take anyone for the sake of filling a spot. The gallery must also be a good fit for the artist wishing to join.This concept has worked well for us.

      We have a great core of hard workers that certainly keep our gallery operating but we have had our share of the ” hang and go artists” that do not pull their weight. These artists usually are not serious enough about their art and tend to fade away.
      My association with this gallery has all been very positive and we have certainly grown and faced many obstacles and challenges. Through it all we feel we are not just a group of artists but have strong bonds and friendship with each other. We support, guide and help one another. We are also fortunate to have different skills within the gallery that help run a business.Web design ,marketing,scheduling, accountant, shipping, the hanging committee, event planner,membership.and management.

      I also have my art work in two private galleries. The owners of both of these galleries are great to work with.and it’s nice to just drop off my work and have no worries or committments in the operation of those galleries.
      However, I do miss not knowing or working with the other gallery artists or having a say on the hanging or placement of my art work. My final conclusion is I love the benefits and oppurtunities that both types of galleries can provide.

  5. I have recently moved south from Pennsylvania to the Low Country of South Carolina. The art environment is very different here and it is something I’ve had to adjust to. For most co-op galleries artwork is changed monthly which is difficult to do when you have an active lifestyle. I’ve joined 3 co-ops-each a bit different.

    One is is an art association in which all skill levels are welcome. I paid an annual fee, must work one shift a month (5 hours), and if something sells a fee is taken as well. I chose to exhibit my acrylic abstract artwork here. This is a touristy seaside town. Lots of traffic from lots of different types of people. I recently brought new work in on a day that I was not working and witnessed a ‘beginner’ artist working the gallery and she was only trying to promote her own work which wasn’t very good in my opinion. So this brings home Jason’s point that the sales aspect is less than stellar for your work.

    The second one is in a very artsy town and sees lots of traffic. I paid an annual fee, must work a shift a month if my art is there that month, and a commission fee is deducted if something sells. They select the artwork through a juried process and limit the number of each media. Only one media per artist unless you pay for a second media. For artists that do a few media this is very limiting. I chose to exhibit my photographs here.

    The third one has a staff so no gallery sitting for the artists. I paid an annual fee and I could only chose one media unless I pay double or triple. I chose to exhibit my artistic furniture here and I sold a large artistic table a month after I joined so that is promising. This is in a seaside town but not close to the town center. The clientele are very affluent tho.

    For me, moving to a completely different area, not knowing anyone, and not knowing how things work, I think I chose fairly well to see how the whole art scene works for my artwork. I have decided to give it a year and will reassess how things are going next summer. I am also building a house here and don’t really have a studio at the moment so I have plenty of time to research all of these markets since I’m not making new artwork.

  6. I am in a co-op gallery in a small town that has a great deal of high-end tourists. We are centrally located and have been here for 24 years. This is my first gallery experience (3 years in). As a new artist, I found it very enlightening about the sales end of an art career. I have developed connections in the wider art community, had a very supportive and cohesive group within the co-op, gotten advice on many aspects of exhibiting my work. We have a system to ensure fairness in wall space, rotating “featured artist” which comes with gallery advertising and front window, rotating wall locations, shared chores, monthly meetings to get everyone’s input. Our business plan is to make no profit for the gallery (focusing on profits for artists instead) so when we have profit we can spend it on improvements, advertising and rent subsidy. We recently did a sales training seminar. We focus on getting information about all our fellow artists to better sell their work as well as our own. Occasionally a selfish artist gets in, but they often don’t last long.
    Downside: we don’t get younger artists-they usually have to work “regular” jobs and can’t juggle the changing schedule. We sometimes get artists whose work is not up to par- either the jury process went south or they are aging and the work quality is declining. It seems to me that those issues tend to be short lived, but my perspective is pretty short so …?
    Overall, my sales are increasing, my work and presentation is improving steadily. It is definitely worthwhile.

  7. Dear Jason, nice to see your comments proffered elsewhere than your fine blog. I’ve been involved in co-ops for years. For an upcoming artist, it’s a great op to hang in an established space with a minimal fee, work in a gallery, learn to deal with the public. Basics every artist should know and lots besides. It’s an all-round learning curve.
    My thought is that in a long-established co-op there is less chance of the gap you describe ‘twixt seasoned & developing artists, as the status quo members do intuit this and choose incoming artists wisely.
    My suggestion to artists in any area is: join local large art groups. Meet artists. This can take two or more years, sorry. Attend all local exhibits. The same names will pop up. Mark those whose art grabs you, those you feel you have work in common with, connections. Check where they exhibit and note those connections. Chances are you will ultimately exhibit there as well. Community is a huge part of where an artist sells. I’ve recently joined a co-op I’ve eyed for many years, hoping to be a part of. And now I am. I’m grateful! But working harder. Sold a few here, have a larger eye out! Enjoy your blogs, thanks. S

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