Marketing Mondays: Co-op Galleries, Yes. Vanity Galleries, No

“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.

Two views of pay-to-show galleries, photographed in 2008 in Chelsea
Above, several "solo" show running concurrently
Below, a "salon-style" group show that uses every square inch of wallspace

By contrast, a well-conceived solo at a good co-op gallery is indistinguishable from a well-conceived solo at a commercial gallery . . .
. . . Here, installation view: Rose Olson's solo, No Curves Just Color at the Kingston Gallery, in Boston, 2008 .

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.


matt said...

As you have explained, co-ops and vanities are two different things. The photo of the vanity gallery in Chelsea looks like Agora. *I was in there recently and find their staff to be very friendly. Of course, it's still a vanity gallery.

Membership fees for co-ops most likely vary from place to place - I was curious about these fees. Being that Manhattan is extremely expensive to live in, I would be hard pressed to be able to pay this kind of money despite the potential reward. But that's a catch-22, isn't it.

A co-op in Manhattan:
New members pay a one time initiation fee of $500

2 categories of membership: Active and Less Active
ACTIVE: All Gallery Officers included. Attends at least 5 meetings per year. Must choose a Gallery Job. Pays $165 dues per month. Must fulfill 4 work days or pay remaining work hours.
LESS ACTIVE: Attends less than 5 meetings per year. Cannot fulfill a Gallery Job. Pays $190 dues per month. Must fulfill 4 work days or pay work hours.

Mery Lynn said...

Co-ops are as inconsistent as commercial galleries in terms of quality of work exhibited. Tracking their exhibition history is important. I was the director of one, and the membership consistently blocked me from implementing any changes. They had 3 week shows and multiple "solo" shows, making it nearly impossible to generate press. For these members, the shows were essentially an opportunity to have friends look at/buy work and convince the IRS they were bona fide artists. Some co-ops just want to stay the same and these tend to stagnate. In dire economic times - whether a depression or the massive rent increases during a boom, co-ops can feel desperate for members and take in artists who may not meet standards. Find out how often you will be given a solo show.

max said...

In Minneapolis, there are several prominent artist cooperatives that exhibit members' work, including Traffic Zone Center For Visual Art; Form + Content Gallery; and Rosalux Gallery. Traffic Zone is the best known because of its landmark studio building, which is owned by the artist-members. These and other area co-op venues are generally treated like commercial art galleries and are regularly covered by the local press and national art periodicals. As long as the work is strong, I don't see any disadvantage to showing in a co-op exhibition.

Philip Koch said...

When well done, co-ops can be very important resources for the artist and the art world. I'm thinking of Bowery Gallery or Blue Mountain Gallery in NYC- long running co-ops that have showed many excellent painters over the years.

Just like any commercial gallery, an artist has to get to know it first before deciding whether it's something they should try to join.

annell4 said...

This is a very interesting post. Since I have not had the experience of either kind of gallery, I really didn't know how they were different, or how they were alike.

When I came to Taos, New Mexico. I was surprised at what I would call the vanity galleries, galleries owned by and show the work of one artist. Of course we are on the edge of the world, when it comes to the art world, I guess the rules are different.

And Taos is a tourist town. There are many artists, who have their studios open to sell their work, or have a gallery to sell their work, often run by wives. Or have a gallery, who's principle purpose is to sell their work, even though they might show a few other artists, so they kinda look like a real gallery.

This was new to me, but maybe it is the same in some other parts of the country? Taos has long been considered an artist's community, and has an interesting history. I can see for the tourist, it might be interesting to meet the artists, and maybe get a feel of the area. But it is different than where I came from. And artists that would have a vanity gallery, wouldn't be considered a "real" artist.

I'm not sure....I think these artist work hard, and it is necessary to buy wood to heat in the winter, life in Northern New Mexico isn't easy. So there you go, life on the edge.

But then, you get into that confusion of art, and of craft. Maybe for the most part, they are artisans selling their craft, and if one has a good spot along the highway, it works? It's not quite Route 66, but maybe something similar?

It's a funny place, wonderful well known international artists, like Clemente, and Larry Bell, Ken Price-- long history, but a community of hermits. A great place to work. And, it is to be remembered, Agnes Martin was living and working here, when she met her New York dealer. I guess it's trying to figure out what works for the individual artist, after all we as artists are not alike.

Mead McLean said...

I think your analysis is pretty much correct, but I just wanted to add a couple more options.

I've been a co-op member, but our structure was a little different. We basically put on a show every month, and we were open for the night of the art crawl and by appointment. The rest of the time, we worked in our studios (which were arranged as satellites from the main gallery rooms). It was great because we only had to charge artists a small fee for operating costs since we covered the rent by paying for our studios.

I'm not sure I would do the co-op thing without a studio deal, now. I can understand the use of it, but it seems too much like a job. I'd much rather rent a temporary alternative space with some friends to put on group shows for however long.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, all, for your comments. I laid out a black-and-white scenario, and you all are offering some welcome shades of gray.

Annell, you raise the interesting issue of the artist-owned gallery. You're right; we tend to see these more in tourist areas. Cape Cod has quite a few. Artists paint all winter, sell all summer, take a little time off in fall.

And Mead, as you note, the studio/gallery model is another hybrid.

Max, your comment supports what I see in Boston, that the co-ops are integrated into the fabric of the gallery scene. But as Mery and Philip advise, not all co-ops are alike; due diligence is required.

Matt, I'm sure that New York City coops are more expensive than anywhere else. Studio space is higher here. It stands to reason.

Philip, I would add to your list galleries like A.I.R (DUMBO) and Ceres (Chelsea) , as well as WomanMade Gallery in Chicago. These are all co-ops for women artists, started at a time when exhibition options for women were far more bleak then they are now. The fact thet they're still thriving suggests a continuing need, as well as the geat sense of community they engender.

Altoon Sultan said...

I'd like to add that in the early 70s, when I was in a co-op gallery, the gallery scene was a lot smaller so the co-ops provided a place to show, and very importantly, a community of like-minded artists. Because there were so few galleries, shows at co-ops got some attention and several of us went on to successful careers at commercial galleries after our work was seen at these venues.

Of course things are different now, for both commercial and co-op galleries; it's more difficult for everyone.

Marie Kazalia said...

This is a great article/discussion. I am weary of explaining to other artists why they should avoid vanity galleries.

I would love to post this article, with a link to your blog and any other links + full credit in what ever form you like, to my own blog. Would you allow that?
Here is my blog link:

Joanne Mattera said...

Hi, Marie--

Thanks for your interest in this post. It's an essential read for all artists. I'd prefer if you reproduced the first paragraph on your blog and then linked to my blog so that people could read the full article here, as I conceived it with images.

beebe said...

I had two shows with a co-op--ARC Gallery--in Chicago back in the early 2000s and it was a decent experience. I was not part of the co-op but they had invitational spaces available--you'd submit slides and a proposal and the board would approve or not (I'm guessing they rarely turned artists away) and you'd have a solo exhibition in a gallery that had been split up to provide five or six different spaces, one space for each artist. (Not quite the booth setting shown in your photos but more of a space you had to wander through from room to room.) The work would stay up for a month and the gallery was staffed by co-op members and had regular hours.

My experiences with this co-op system were mixed.
Joanne, if I may steal your format . . .

--The gallery wasn't close enough to Chicago's main gallery district to pull in a lot of foot traffic on opening nights.

--The gallery was located in one of those (sadly plentiful) Chicago neighborhoods that are most easily accessible by car or bus (Chicago's bus system is pretty unreliable) so it was tough to get people there during the run of the show.

--In the years I lived in Chicago, I don't think I ever saw a show from ARC get any press.

--Setting up these kinds of co-op shows instilled a sense of discipline--it helped me think in cycles of thematically-related work and it gave me a kind of time frame for getting these "shows" together . . . every 18 months or so. That's more or less how I work to this day.

--Invaluable experience installing/hanging a show.

--Some sense of this whole endeavor being worth SOMETHING, bringing friends and family together to prove that you're actually creating stuff when you disappear into the studio on evenings, weekends and holidays.

--The gallery took no commission from your sales so--even if you sold only a few pieces--it was generally enough to cover the cost of showing the work at the gallery.

Tom said...

Following up on Max's summary of Minneapolis cooperative galleries, Mpls' other artist run exhibition venue is the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program within the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Our M.I.A. gives space and pays to show locals, (chosen and curated by a panel elected by anyone who shows up for an annual meeting). While the exhibitions are beautifully presented, they sometimes suffer the coop pitfall of the "friends showing friends syndrome" .

Stephanie Sachs said...

I was very active in running a cooperative gallery for about a decade. The gallery is still in existence, possible close to twenty years now. It serves the community well by running many art related events and continues to be a source of income for many artists.
For most of my twenties I was its treasurer and/or president, which gave me a lot of experience learning about the inner workings of a gallery, including bookkeeping and paying the bills. At that point my sales were not great and I met many artists that helped me along with my career.

Now for the cons. There is a reason capitalism won out to communism. Large groups with everyone having a say make for exhausting meetings where a decision takes enormous amounts of time and drains the enthusiasm for the execution of the decision.

Although, I am not involved with the inner working of this gallery anymore, I believe the decision to have two tiers of artists, a smaller group of artist/owners, and a group of artist's who just exhibit, eliminated some of that problem. The hiring of a full time gallery director also helped especially in creating the bigger community projects.

Beware of too many cooks in the kitchen and make sure before you give a collective money to ask for their profit and loss statements for at least 6 months along with their bank statement.

Anonymous said...

My reply to the original solicitation, which I no longer have:

On May 23, 2009, at 5:19 AM, Joshua Bronaugh wrote:

Thank you for your reply. I must respectfully decline your offer. I know that it is a tough time for all artists, but I cannot justify paying more than $2,000 while you still retain a 50% commission. What incentive would you have to sell my work if I've already paid you upfront? And why do so many other galleries seem to be paying for their overhead (which includes publications, catalogues, etc) without asking their artists to pay thousands of dollars?

Thanks again, but this is not for me.

Ico's reply to me:

Subject: Re: Ico Gallery
Date: Sat, 23 May 2009 13:34:41 -0400


You do realize why you don't have any New York galleries on your resume, right? "Paid you upfront?" You do know how much printing and advertising costs, right? A full page in Art In America alone costs almost $10,000. Printing exhibition catalogs is at least another $5,000 - $10,000. Before Ico Gallery will take on complete expenses for an artists solo exhibition, you first have to work with us a for few years. We need to make sure that we can establish a comfortable and profitable relationship before we will make a $50,000+ commitment to an artist. If you had a list of clients holding their checkbooks in their hand to purchase your new work, it would be a different story. You should learn how the art world work before inserting your foot directly into your mouth. We're in the business of bringing emerging artists to the next level of success, which in return makes everyone money. We're not a charity! Go apply for some grants if you want to complain about not having money to invest into your CAREER. It take dedication, financial commitments and a bit of luck to make it in any field.

Best of luck,

Robert Berry
Ico Gallery

Additional note:

I am represented by two galleries, one of which is a very nice gallery in Chelsea. I do sell most work before it is even finished. I am lucky, and talented, enough to receive grants.

Rebecca said...

question: in your opinion, is it detrimental to be associated in any way with a vanity gallery? There's a vanity gallery in NYC that's associated with a print+online magazine. The magazine recently wrote a blurb about me based on a press release, then asked if I'd like to submit a longer statement for a future publication. I researched some of the artists who'd had such a statement published - they seem to be emerging for the most part, but some are emerging rather rapidly with inclusion in very major shows. Their advancement doesn't seem related to this publication, it's just their career arc.

But, the gallery owned by the magazine owner is very clearly a vanity gallery, and I couldn't find any artists who'd made it beyond the regional level after showing in that gallery.

So, is it a bad idea to associate with that magazine?

Joyce Owens said...

I admit I did not read all the previous comments. My experience has been with Co-ops only. If they are thoughtful and dependable (responsible) artists the co-op runs fine. I think they should take commissions on sold works so they feel more inclined to work for sales of artists they host as well as members.

Vanity galleries are ridiculous. I don't understand the draw! Why not submit your work to a reputable juried show? In the latter case you could even win some cash.

Jimmy Pellas said...

Hello everybody .
A friend and I have recently thought about starting a cooperative gallery and plan to recruit thirty members .
I wonder if anyone reading this can give us some tips of the most important things to consider and the practicalities of starting and managing it?

Scott Reid Parker said...

Someone mentioned The Bowery Gallery & Blue Mountain Galleries, but what are some other (Co-Op) Galleries in Manhattan that work along the same lines? I participated briefly with the Ward Nasse Gallery on Prince Street in So-Ho, but Harry relocated to Sussex, NJ this year. There was talk of a location in Queens no one seems to know what will come of that. I would like to maintain a presence in Manhattan! But WHERE & WHOM?