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

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

A few days ago, 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 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 thier 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 your Art 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.

23 Comments

  1. Thank you for the topic. It can be an uneven one. I’ve been in almost all the local coops one time or another in my area and they are not created equal. If you keep expectations low it can be fun, friendly and stress free. You might even make some small sales. I am currently enjoying a coop of roughly 30 artists. You are right about the unevenness of the quality of artists well as space limitations for large paintings. It’s always take what you like and leave the rest. A recent unsuccessful attempt was due to a coop trying to be something it could never be which created a ton of pressure and politics. With that said it’s an important first step in the process of art business and customer service,and if you have the time and funds to participate, it might just be for you.

  2. We have a wonderful co-op gallery that is run by the art society of strathcona county. It is only open from 12 – 4 on weekends and the people that show are required to work two shifts per rotation which is every two months. We are a great group of artists, some well established and some emerging. We have large shows biannually and workshops downstairs which help in driving sales.

    The only negative is that people do not know how to sell art. I recommend your two books which we have in our library. If we could get artists more proficient in that area it would make a huge difference.

    The positives are that there are always two artists working and that way artists can learn from each other. We have come up with amazing ideas for shows and have our patrons know that there is always an artist there.

  3. I think one very important aspect of a co-op gallery that was not discussed in your artice is the artist selection process of a coop gallery. Last year I became a member of a long-established co-op gallery in town and they have a very rigorous admission process. Once every three months, before our monthly meeting, member artist will look at several pieces from applying artists. In order to be admitted, the artist has to receive more than a 75% vote from the voting members and the number of artists getting that vote is less than a third of the applicants. There is a one-year probationary period for the new artist. In addition, there are limits as to how many artists in each medium are admitted.

  4. Prices can be a real drawback to participating in co-op galleries. Unless their are some sort of parameters pricing will be all over the map. And sometimes way too low. Hard to sell a 9 x 12 for $1,000 when someone else has 40×60’s priced at a fraction of that amount.

  5. I was juried into a local Hybrid Coop gallery (one owner) a few months ago and started selling pieces in the first months just before the closing of retail for the virus. Another advantage of Coop galleries is being able to experiment with what pieces you want to display and experimenting with price points to find what really will work and sell through. The established gallery in my little town is western themed, so my contemporary work would not be a good fit. The coop model has worked well so far for me and the other local member artists.

  6. coop galleries operated by community organisations tend to be places for artists who produce small amounts of work and or are in the learning stages. thus sales are minimal. In most cases there are a few experienced semi professional artists as well who do relatively well through local contacts.
    coop galleries operated by artists themselves can sometimes be a very good alternative. had friends who operated one like this for 25 years [artists would slowly rotate out as they found commercial venues for their work] doing very good sales that were the equal of most family operated commercial galleries. it gave the artists a good understanding of the business and proved beneficial in later commercial relationships.

  7. I was in a cooperative gallery a number of years ago. As you said there were both pros and cons.

    On the positive side, the sense of community and the exchange of ideas and resources was wonderful! The members were juried into the gallery, so the quality of work was very professional. I was proud to be apart of the group. Additionally, the space was large and well kept up, members were given a solo show every year to year and a half and there was a section of the gallery that was reserved so that everyone could always have something on display.

    On the negative side, no one was really taking care of the business side. At one point, they did have a gallery director but not when I was there. We did get some publicity and pretty good turn outs for openings but other than that, the gallery was pretty quiet. There were occassional sales and I did sell some artwork there, but most of the profits went to pay monthly gallery costs.

    If I had lived closer, I might have stayed or at least stayed longer mainly due to the connection with the other artists. I have remained friends with a lot of the artists from the gallery. Some are still there but many have also left. I did notice that the gallery has started to offer other types of entertainment, such as musicians and storytellers to help being in a more steady stream of people so it will be interesting to see if that also brings about more art sales.

  8. Co-ops are a great source of exposure for the beginner who is hoping to gain exposure within the local community. A co-op is not a realistic avenue however for the serious professional who is intent upon building his or her career, because they are generally not run with that sort of objective. The degree of expertise salesmanship , and management is not really that keen in a co-op. It is also important for any serious minded artist, who has aspirations of art as a career to bear in mind that the type of work that hangs next to your work, can have a profound impact upon your work as well. Co-ops typically showcase a broad range of talent, from the amateur to the professional. Those professional minded artists with the talent behind them, should not look to co-ops as any sort of avenue to long term success, but rather as a temporary stepping stone.

  9. I joined a co-op gallery after moving to another state, where I had NO art contacts. Going into it with the idea that this is a way to connect to the local art community and build a network. For that, it has been wonderful. Sales, well that’s another story. The comment on training people to sell art is so valid…when different people are manning the gallery, the engagement and followup is haphazard. I’m finding also that sharing the work load of promoting and getting the message out there is unbalanced, with a core group of members doing most of the heavy lifting. Trying to look at it as being a team player, active, as opposed to someone on the bench. May not be the answer long term, but for now, it’s good enough.

  10. I have been in a coop-ish gallery for the past two years (and now a managing director for 9 months),. All your pro and con points are accurate. The Gallery has been in existence for over 20 years, and because of a strict jury process to join, for the most part has top notch artists work on view.
    The comraderie among member artists is a strong benefit of a coop. We build friendships and learn from each other, and interact more as a support system than in a traditional gallery where contact is with a gallery owner.
    The three things we struggle with (and could potentially be the downfall of the gallery) are as follows:
    Aging artists who become unable to produce new work and participate in manning the gallery. These long time members are our biggest burden.
    Inconsistent sales force. All artists are not cut out to be sales people, but all are needed to keep the gallery open 7 days a week.
    Artists who like the low gallery commissions, but don’t participate in all the behind the scenes work needed to promote the gallery.
    The theme in all these issues is membership participation, which must take the place of paid staff.

  11. Have been in 2 Co-ops. 1st was in Pennsylvania and was not good experience. They tried to sell food along with the art. No one really wanted to do kitchen work while trying to sell art.
    I currently belong to a co-op here in Tennessee, and is a good experience. Well run, Art is juried, we rent our space and our location is great as there are a lot of tourists, more than locals actually.

  12. I have belonged for over 10 years to a co-op gallery owned by the artists in Lowertown St Paul MN. The gallery has been in existence for 23 years. It is a wonderfully supportive group of people and is very much a part of the larger artist community. Yes there have been personality conflicts over the years and at times the quality of the work has varied but overall it has been a very positive experience. I couldn’t live on sales from the gallery alone but I feel it is a very good foundation from which I can build my art business.

    The gallery is open 18 hours a week and we staff it in 3 hours shifts. Members pay an annual fee and commissions are a reasonable 20% for members. All members participate in the interview process for new members. We completely rehang the gallery every month, rotating walls so everyone has a chance to display in different spaces, and the 8 members have a chance to have a feature show once every 1-2 years. We participate 2 months a year in larger, city wide art events, have a youth art show once a year and host a bustling holiday market from November to New Years. The gallery does have a gift shop that sells work from the members as well as other local artists, like jewelry, cards and pottery. While most of us have our own website and other outlets, as a result of the pandemic we are just starting to move to a web presence to expand to selling work online as a gallery.

  13. For 5 years I was a member of a co-op in a high volume tourist city. The co-op was successful for 30+ years, but we had to close it in 2017 because of changing conditions. There were too many hotels and restaurants opening which drove up rents and drove out small shops.

    My experience was wonderful. I learned how to sell my work and that of other artists thanks to Jason’s books and articles. In the end, while my work and that of 2-3 other artists continued to sell well, other artists were not covering their costs,

    Bonuses of taking my turn working were meeting people from all over the US as well as the world. And listening to how gallery visitors viewed art was very helpful. I recommend joining a co-op, or starting one. Be sure there is a clear understanding of the rules.

  14. As part of a co-op gallery in Tuscola, Illinois named The Vault Art Gallery, I can say it is a wonderful way to exhibit art and share in the promotion of a variety of styles and types of art. We have about fifty current artists and we are each members, plus we pay for our share of wall and display space and in general work one day a month each. Everything from mugs and jewelry to sculpture, photography and painting. True it is hard to sell any item over $50, so I also have cards and prints of my paintings which sell regularly. Of course right now, with the pandemic, we are closed and waiting patiently. No rent for two months but I expect that will change soon Far superior to paying to appear in someone else’s gallery and we have a committee that decides which artists can join to keep a balance of quality and styles.

  15. My co-op gallery, River Arts in Damariscotta, ME, seems to be quite different. Ten shows a year are judged and 2 are member shows allowing only 1 or 2 pieces. The judged shows have a loose theme and are reviewed by art professionals from throughout the state (or summer visitors). We have a paid manager as well as volunteers. The result is quality work carefully displayed.

  16. When I consciously stepped from “hobbyist” to “professional artist,” I started with a co-op gallery that I helped to launch. I live in a small tourist town; it’s a desirable place to be with a lot of beauty and natural inspiration, so there is a lot of artistic talent here. It’s also a resort town, so downtown real estate is expensive. We did a lot of research when we were starting, and our monthly dues (at around $300/month) were the highest co-op dues I’d ever heard of. That said, we had an amazing space in a historic building, and we set our standards from the beginning to jury in new artists and not over-crowd our space. We had a successful nine-year run before the fallout from the recession finally forced us to close.

    We had all of the pros, and many of the cons, you spoke of. The community experience was invaluable; I was new to town then, and 15 years later, I still count many of those people I co-founded the gallery with as dear friends. We had differences, we argued, but we had put in the effort to have strong founding documents that we could often fall back on in disagreements. We had a curating/hanging committee that was staunch in their focus (based on our mutual desire) to not overhang the gallery and I believe we managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that make a gallery look “obviously co-op” when a customer walks in the door.

    I have since been involved with two other galleries (one began as a art patron-owned non-profit, and one as artist-owned by two of the ten artists) that eventually converted to traditional co-op structures. My experience was very different in my year in each of those – more of your stated cons, less pros – and I opted out after a year in both cases.

    I am SO thankful that I have had these experiences – they have taught me about the gallery side of the business from different perspectives. They have put me in sales positions (which I am not at all comfortable with, but I have gotten better, over time). The biggest challenge I have seen throughout all of them is consistency in communication – with each other, and with customers. With a constantly changing staff, follow-up with customers is difficult to non-existent, and you have expressed many times in your blog how critical that is. Without a strong point person for that, it seems to be a weak link in any co-op gallery. But there is much to be gained, especially, as you stated, for a less-experienced artist.

  17. I have belonged to a coop gallery for 22 years. We have 26 members from painters, potters, wood carvers and one glass artist. It is definitely a choice. That being said I do enjoy working a shift at the gallery, talking to people etc. The group is wonderfully supportive, sales for me are minimal, I sell 3 to 5 paintings a year but I also do festivals and art shows and it is nice to have a bricks and mortar place to direct people to. There are hardly any showing venues so the gallery serves in that way. Personal overhead is really cheap so that works in my favour. If an artist leaves new artists are juries in by the group to ensure the artist and work will be a good fit. With so many artists there is a range of expectations. Some are content to sit back and not push themselves and others are constantly learning and painting. Some are more conservative and old school in their painting style and approach to sales. Others are much more experimental and progressive. As a consequence I find the gallery a bit restrictive but that does not stop me from broadening my horizons and stepping out and taking advantage of other opportunities. So bottomline, the members are very supportive of each other, cost is ridiculously reasonable including publicity costs, overhead etc., my gallery sitting time is 6 to 10 hours a month so it doesn’t really take away from painting etc., I will take work with me and paint in the gallery. I have a physical presence, I am part of the local arts community, I have developed a following by being part of this gallery so for me it works.

  18. Was in one co-op gallery. Turns out we were lied to about our so-called membership and ability to make decisions. It was actually an LLC done on the sly by a few of the longer participating artists. So technically it was a vanity gallery run like a co-op? The cash flow was erratic. Great location but no money for advertising or participating in the city wide monthly gallery stroll. Our “members” had to work 3 or more 4 hour shifts depending on the number of artists. The “co-op” took 30% of all sales. As members many of us tried to brainstorm ways to advertise, get people in etc. We were shut down then found out we really had no say. The committee to jury in new artists was basically looking for warm bodies with a check so the quality of art was all over the place and the presentation had some issues.
    That aside the pros of the experience were that I learned how to do my own press releases, I learned to “toot” my own horn! I enjoyed the associations with fellow artists. I learned what not to do and what questions to ask if I ever sought to become a member of a co-op. Now there is a real co-op gallery in the same city and they do all the right things. Their space is a great location but tiny. I am not considering them because my work is too large.
    my advice would be to investigate deeply by asking former and current member artists about their experience. I would definitely ask to see sales records, and a full breakdown of where your monthly rent was going to. If they balk at giving out pertinent info then I would walk away.

  19. I was a founding member artist of a co-op that had a 6-year run. We secured a very large shop in a new mixed-use mall for very little money, as the mall management wanted a community art presence. We had about 30 artists working in 13 different media, and for the most part it ran exceptionally well with lots of sales. I think the trick to making it successful was 1) written rules and standards we all agreed to comply with, 2) clear organization of management and operating committees, and 3) cooperative, democratic decision-making processes. It only ended when the mall management changed and they no longer wanted to subsidize the art presence, and rents became exorbitant.

    Co-ops, if you can find one that is well-managed or has years of success behind it, could be excellent experience for emerging artists, for all the reasons you describe above. In fact, I would even say it should be a ‘compulsory exercise.’ They give you an opportunity to learn how to talk to customers, how to talk about and market your and other artists’ works (to make sales), run a cash register, live according to essential rules and standards, hang and curate (sometimes disparate) artworks, and participate in strategic planning for year over year growth. An observant person can learn more “behind the scenes” lessons by working in a co-op gallery than any other art retail activity I can think of.

  20. The main advantage of a cooperative artist gallery in a small community, is the camaraderie among artists, and the ability to exhibit locally. Personally, I am not interested in shipping art or traveling, thus selling locally in our rural region is my preference. Buyers have been tourists, locals, artists and friends. In the last couple years I have sold about $10,000 of originals between $100 and $300, as well as prints. In addition, I have sold through art in public venues, annual art shows, a rental gallery for a couple weeks, and my website. I read the comment about artists having varying prices at a co-op, and believe the region primarily determines the pricing. It is nice to have affordable art that the average homeowner or business can proudly display our local artwork. Thanks in advance for reading, would love comments about my art on my website.

  21. I belong to a co-op Gallery and though I don’t find it ideal for selling my work, many of our sales are made from tourists, particularly cruise ships. So a lot of them want something they can put in their luggage. We sell lots of handmade soap and small pieces of pottery. Art cards are also a hit. Many people no longer value original artwork. I do have small 10″x10″ pieces available but have not yet gone the art card way. There are a few personality conflicts, but those can be avoided by scheduling. In actual fact I have only sold a single piece in 6 years. I spoke with the woman myself and told her the story of the piece. She is also an artist.

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