“I find it a bit ridiculous that co-op galleries are given more credibility than the much-maligned vanity galleries. They are in effect the exact same thing.”
The quote above is from an e-conversation I’ve been having with a Facebook friend, and I’m going to disagree with her today on Marketing Mondays, because it’s a topic worth sharing.
While it is true that artists pay to show at both venues, there is a world of difference between co-op galleries and vanities. Here’s a quick, totally subjective rundown of vanity versus co-op. For the record, I have never shown in a vanity gallery nor been a member of a co-op, though I have participated in curated group shows at good co-op galleries and will continue to do so when the opportunity arises.
The Vanity Gallery
. None. There is no career benefit to a serious artist
. It costs money, often an exorbitant amount, for you to show—$1500 for a work or two in a group show; $3000 or $4000 for a “solo”
. The “solos” are often set up booth style, so that up to a dozen such presentations can take place simultaneously
. You have little or no say in what other artists will be showing during your “solo”
. The gallery owner, money in hand, has no need to sell anything
. Any “press” comes from the gallery’s in-house publication
. Not only is there no benefit to a serious artist, affiliation with such a gallery can be a career stumbling block. No reputable dealer wants to work with an artist who has a history of paying to show in this way.
The Co-op Gallery
. Each artist is a cooperating owner, which means you have a say in who gets into the gallery and what the gallery policies are
. Juried membership means that you will be in good company
. Becoming a member in such a gallery can, in the best of circumstances, mean becoming part of an existing artists’ community. For emerging artists, or for an artist who has relocated to a new city, or for artists with a particular point of view, this can be a huge benefit
. For artists who have full-time jobs and don’t need to depend on the income from sales, a co-op gallery offers visibility that juried shows and hit-or-miss exhibiting do not
. For artists who depend on sales, the co-op gallery gives you the option of working as hard as any commercial gallery to promote yourself and your work: ads, gallery talks, Saturdays in the gallery, whatever you think it will take to bring in and sell to your audience. (Most commercial galleries prefer their artists to have a limited role in the business part of the gallery.)
. You may show the work you wish to show, even if it’s not commercially viable—an installation, a performance, highly political work, whatever—and unless the co-op rules expressly forbid it, you may show it in the manner you choose, such as pinning work on paper to the walls, or piling your sculptures on the floor
. You may use your exhibition slot to curate a show instead of doing a solo, or you may propose to curate a show in one of the co-op’s flexible slots
. Some gallery cities embrace their co-op galleries as equal (or nearly equal) partners. Boston is a good example, where in the gallery-rich South End, four co-ops hold First Friday openings and get reviewed alongside 15 or so commercial galleries. Critics, curators, collectors and artists make the rounds of them all. And in terms of sales, says one Boston co-op member, “Co-op versus commercial makes no difference to the average gallerygoer. Most are unaware of the distinction.”
. Indeed, a well-established co-op gallery with an experienced manager and a cohort of talented artists has far more to offer than an upstart commercial gallery that may have an inexperienced owner, no collector base, no history of reviews, and no community support, and which may well close a year down the road. I could name at least two directors of established Chelsea galleries who started their careers as directors of co-op galleries, and dozens of artists who started out by showing at co-ops and who are now affiliated with commercial galleries
. There’s no reason you can’t move over to a commercial gallery if the opportunity arises. A good show gives you the opportunity to create a visually compelling postcard, brochure or catalog, just the thing to get a dealer in to see your work
. You retain somewhere in the vicinity of 70% of the sale price. .
. There is a financial obligation in the way of an initial fee and monthly dues, but these are typically not as onerous as a vanity (and if the gallery is run well, the gallery's share of sales will go right into the operating budget)
. You also have some work obligations, such as one day a month in the gallery and volunteering for specific tasks. Some artists pay a part-time staffer to take on their hours, but others relish the opportunity to meet their public and advocate on their own behalf
. You will be seen by some artists and dealers as not quite as “legitimate,” but that view may change if their gallery closes as you get ready for the opening of your next solo show.
Over to you.