Why Co-op Galleries Fail and How yours Can be Wildly Successful

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I’ve received so many inquiries about co-op galleries that I want to address this and give you some helpful pointers on starting your own. Lots of you have expressed interest in opening your own gallery or craft shop and said you are concerned because so many fail. It’s true that many co-op style craft galleries don’t make it but artists who approach it as a business rather than a hobby can do very well. There are some co-op galleries in this county that have lasted decades. 

First, let’s look at the advantages of a co-op: 

Customarily,  the cash output initially is minimal since it is shared amongst members.

You don’t need to purchase inventory to start up since it is the members who make up the artists represented. 

As an artist you will not be stuck sitting the gallery yourself full time at the cost of precious studio time.

You don’t ever have to advertise for help. The members all put in time. 


The reasons they frequently don’t work are:

There are too many “cooks”and not enough sous-chefs. You need a director or a team of directors. 

Every one does every task so you have people taking on responsibilities that they are not qualified for or don’t enjoy so they can’t do their best job.

In an attempt to save money on rent, co-op galleries are frequently poorly located. There is often no jury process so members display any work they chose. One or two amateurish artists can ruin the professional image and reputation.

The mix of price-point or media is out of balance. 

No one’s promoting the gallery.

The artists have their individual contact information on their tags so customers will try to go directly to the artist rather than through the gallery. They believe they’ll save money.

Some artists charge more for their work in a co-op to make up for the percentage the gallery takes. If you are trying to bypass the gallery’s commission, you’re sabotaging everyone’s efforts to make it a success. 


What can you do differently to make sure you are one of the success stories?

Choose three people with a good sense for business to be the directors. We’re not talking about members with a business degree. Just those who are a bit more right-brain balanced or detail oriented. Three because an odd number means there will always be a tie breaker rather than two directors possibly butting heads. If there are not 3 members of your co-op who fit the profile, select members of the small business community.  Ideally, they will be retailers whose business is complimentary, not competitive. 


Divide the tasks according to members strengths. You may have some members who are better at display, others who are good at handling behind the scenes like paperwork or public relations. Someone else who is good at event planning to handle the show details. Of course, you don’t want to put everyone on the sales floor. Many artists find it difficult to ask for the sale and while you don’t want to hard-sell or pressure customers, the purpose is to sell art. The members can be trained at good sales skills but some people are going to be naturally comfortable speaking and educating the customer. 

Don’t skimp on location. I’m always amazed when coops take locations on a second floor or side street to save money. There is no costlier mistake in retail. You may save $800. a month but you’ll lose $8,000. or more in sales. This doesn’t mean that you will only succeed if you choose a very high end location. There are many factors and specific criteria for the right location. If you aren’t sure, it is definitely worth hiring a consultant to help you chose the best location.  I’ve had the experiences that someone has hired me to help them open a gallery and they do everything right except go for the locations we’ve helped them choose and negotiate. They opt to save a few dollars on rent and and their sales figures suffer. 

Appoint a jury to approve what is displayed. As friends, members are often concerned with hurting someone’s feelings but the quality must be consistent. You might ask a few local artists from the local art association or even a nearby college to serve this role. They will most likely be flattered to have been asked. This keeps the selection neutral and professional. 

Every member should agree to charge at least keystone (double) the price they wholesale to other galleries or shops and agree to never undersell the gallery price at craft fairs or online. Keeping your prices consistent maintains integrity for the whole gallery. 

As tempting as it is to bring your work in and paint or make your art when it is your turn to work the gallery, it should be agreed that no one does work during their assigned gallery hours. As artists, we get involved in the creative process and find it an inconvenience to be interrupted. The customers feel that and you will loose sales. 

While having a working artist in the gallery is good for traffic and sales, it should not be the person whose turn it is to be on the sales floor. Customers want  connection with you, to hear the story behind the work, a little about the technique and some bio tidbits. They’re not just buying the piece of art. They’re buying the human element. 


There are many other factors that make a co-op a success and you’ll have a chance to hear from the founders of a successful co-op gallery during our summer Inspired Livelihood tele-summit.  Meanwhile, so that you get your specific questions answered in that call, please let me know what more you’d like to know about about starting a co-op. 

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