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A Decade of Creative Cooperation



It's time to go to the store. You put your list together: butter, milk, coffee, bread — and a small raku-fired sculpture of a frog having tea?

OK, so art is not on the typical shopping list for most people. Perhaps that's why the folks from Arcata Artisans were told "this is never going to work" when they opened the doors of their artists' cooperative a decade ago. "It works!" boasts Jim Lowry, co-op board president, with a confident laugh.

Nestled into a row of shops on the west side of the plaza, Arcata Artisans is a sparkly gem bursting with 32 artists' diverse works. This month, the cooperative is celebrating its 10-year anniversary with a gallery-wide party during Arts! Arcata on Friday, June 14, from 6 to 9 p.m.

While art and Arcata may seem like a match made in heaven, artists who have tried to show their work here know it can be tricky. With only a few actual "galleries," artists frequently compete with food or racks of T-shirts when displaying their paintings or photos. Even then, the shops with distracting merchandise carry a long waiting list for the privilege of a month-long show.

Arcata Artisans is a different story. Early in 2002, frustrated with no place to put her mounting pile of ceramics, Marian Coleman gathered up a group of her favorite local artists and proposed the idea of a cooperative. It would be a place where artists could band together, volunteering their efforts and paying monthly dues to keep costs down and cover necessities like rent and bills. Most importantly, it would be a place where members could exhibit their work month after month in a gallery environment.

Working from examples elsewhere, including an arts cooperative in Ferndale, members of the fledgling group met for over a year hammering out details as they waited for their new building to be constructed. It was well worth the wait. Arcata Artisans' front row seat on the plaza is credited as one of the driving forces behind the group's 10 percent growth in sales each year for the last three years.

Another key to the organization's 10-year tenure is that members "don't have to pay someone to mop the floor, write the paychecks or do the books," member Joyce Jonté says. The cooperative was designed to survive in the event that it made no sales at all. Every new member has to kick in a hefty $300 starting fee. Each member also works eight hours a month at the shop, pays $60 in monthly dues and hands over a 20 percent commission on sales. Indeed, things have gone so well that members actually get a yearly rebate on their dues, sometimes up to $300 or more. "It's a fabulous way to run a business!" says another member, Mimi LaPlant.

It's also a relationship, with 32 people playing a part, and any relationship has its ups and downs. Initially, during the anxious first years, arguments centered on a gift shop versus art gallery debate. Some members wanted the clean lines, conceptual works and open white spaces typical of a gallery. Others thought that the only way to succeed was to pack in small-scale items based less on ideas and more on meeting the bottom line. If the difference between art and craft is concept however, Arcata Artisans is doing a fine job of exploring, and exploiting, this creative continuum.

Beyond having a place to consistently show work, members of the cooperative have learned a thing or two about the business side of art. "It's a rare interface with the public," member Joy Dellas explains. Many artists love making their art because it feels good, and selling the work can be a real challenge if promotion is not an artist's strength. The supportive community atmosphere among members, along with continually displaying and getting public feedback on their work, creates a "stimulating stew to be swimming in," muses Lowry. So stimulating, in fact, that even low-selling members are proud to be a part of the education and inspiration the cooperative provides.

Another benefit for members is the somewhat informal environment of the gallery. Shoppers at Arcata Artisans enjoy the smaller, more affordable works as well as the larger pieces. As a result, members can experiment with new formats or subject matter without feeling like their work will be judged as critically as at other "high-art" locations.

Dellas sees this experimentation as necessary not only for the artists, but for the entire shop as well. "In the first five years we were high key," she notes, "like a deer running for its life as opposed to the wolf running for its dinner." Everyone was open to new ideas and looking for ways to keep their edge. Now, with a streamlined process and 10 years of proven achievement, some members are turning a critical eye to the shop's next steps. They're thinking of refining the shop's look, tweaking advertising or even having "inventory reduction" sales during the slow winter months. Art can be a business after all, and businesses, like art, thrive when they change and evolve.


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