There are several ways co-op's function, and I'm going to give you the details about ours: how it came together, how it functions (and doesn't) and why it works.
THE SPACE: We had the distinct advantage of being gifted a space to start our gallery- about 2,000 square feet of what was once a department store. It was given to us with the stipulation that we had to take care of the utilities and general maintenance, like lightbulbs, etc. It would be ideal for you to find a similar partnership with an individual or an organization that has access to a space they could allow you to use. Right now, there is some energy towards cultivating a creative scene through CYS, so this is the ideal time to identify a partnership like this; there is likely a lot of potential swimming around in the field of possibility. A city owned building, a fellowship hall, or really any open space would do.
THE ARTISTS: Over the years we had met artists through open mic nights, events and through the local colleges. Many of them wanted to have a gallery, but of course most people couldn't do that on their own; we always knew that a co-op model would be the way to go. So we had artists, but we lacked that cohesion and ability to really pull it off. A couple of years ago, I noticed that there was a critical mass of artists who were willing and able to commit time, and the one thing we needed was an organizer; a manager- other than me- that could make the schedule and keep everything running smoothly. I contacted a close friend who does a great job as volunteer coordinator for our festival Culturefest- and presented the idea to her. She accepted the offer right away, and she, along with the other members of the co-op, devised a plan for starting a co-op and running the shop.
THE DEAL: Each working member is required to work one shift per week, plus we rotate Saturdays. We started with 11 members, so we were able to be open Mon-Sat from 10am-8pm. Each person had a shift, plus the Saturday rotation. If you are a working member, the gallery keeps 15% commission from all of your sales. A supporting member is an artist that shows their work at the gallery but does not work shifts. The gallery keeps 40% commission from their sales. We have recently added the rank of part-time working member. If you do two shifts per month, you gain that status, and your commission rate is 25%. All members are required to contribute $10 to the utilities each month. The commission that the gallery retains goes to pay for lightbulbs, general maintenance and other expenses, and the $10 dues usually cover the electric bill.
New members are decided upon by a vote amongst working members. If someone wishes to show in the gallery, they must bring in an artist statement along with samples of their work and answers to a little questionnaire we all devised together. Decisions are made based upon those items. Ideally, we would meet once a month and make decisions together about everything from new members to new events to window displays.
Each artist is responsible for pricing their work, allowing for the commission subtracted, and each artist is in charge of creating their own inventory. A couple of the more administratively inclined members keep an eye on the inventory, making sure it is done properly and filed correctly. One member is an office enthusiast who enjoys meticulous book keeping and things like color coated organizers. Seriously, Crystal could live in Staples; I love her. Crystal is in charge of creating sales reports and getting them to Jerry, who is our finance manager. Jerry takes care of the tax reporting, paying the bills as well as cutting checks to the artists. Those two positions are pretty crucial to the smooth running of our shop. Those two roles, along with the general manager like Briddy, are the key pieces of the functioning puzzle for the co-op.
REALITY: This model worked very well for us for a while, since we had Briddy to manage the schedule and keep everyone on task. However, Briddy ended up becoming unavailable, and after that cracks began to show. One by one artists ended up graduating, getting a more time consuming job, or losing interest, I think. I realized that this is going to be a natural ebb and flow of our gallery. There will be influxes and declines in our artist roster, and that is ok. Currently, we are in a chapter where only a few of us are available to do shifts in the gallery, and so our hours are sometimes irregular and more sparse than the times when we were heavily populated. I've come to realize that it is acceptable. Sure, a shop manned 10am-8pm daily without fail is ideal, but we are still serving the purpose of being a creative entity in our downtown, and when we are able to keep consistent hours, we do. I understand that this is a luxury we have in having access to a space that we only have to pay utilities for. If we were looking at rent payments, the co-op would need to be much stricter in its guidelines, and we would need to have a constant artist recruitment plan in motion to fill any vacancies.
We are hoping for another influx in contributing artists, and in the meantime, we have applied for some grant funds which we very much hope could fund a staff member. One paid person would go such a long way in making all of this work. That one organizer who can keep the schedule, oversee operations and generally be a point person is essential, and it's tough to find someone who would be able to give that amount of time to something they don't get paid for. However, when you look at the opportunity that we have with the space, each person that steps into the mix is an entrepreneur, and has the ability to reap all the seeds they sew into it. It's like everyone has their own little shop, though we all collectively share ownership. If someone was able to really invest their time into this operation, they could potentially make it profitable for themselves. So, we continue to keep our eyes and ears open for potential collaborators.
VALUE: Our gallery is a hub for creative people as well as a portal into the rest of the downtown. We always direct people to the other shops, galleries and points of interest, and we try to always have a schedule of events handy. Our gallery is also a Visitors Center of sorts for our blossoming arts district.
HAPPENINGS: We host quarterly themed open houses and art showcases; it gives the artists a chance to meet up and socialize as well as interact with and showcase to the community. We start the year by being open for the Downtown Countdown, our epic New Year's Eve celebration. Then we celebrate Valentine's Day with "La Rouge- A Red Dress Art Event." Then, it's "Awakening- The Art of Spring," and "Midsummer Magic" followed by an autumn and winter holiday event. We invite the other neighborhood businesses to participate when possible for "A Night on the Town" and it makes for a great opportunity to showcase our arts district as well as fostering community spirit.
If you have any questions about the way we run our co-op, or want to bounce ideas of me, I'd love to chat. You can ask questions in the comments below or reach out in a private message. I'd love to help you work through the process of starting your co-op.
by Lori McKinney
Creator and Community Organizer