What is an Artist Cooperative?

An artist cooperative, sometimes known as an arts and crafts cooperative, provides benefits that are specific to its artists/artisan members, but can function similarly to other types of cooperatives, such as worker cooperatives, producer/marketing cooperatives, or purchasing cooperatives. Artist cooperatives are most commonly created for marketing purposes, which may include sharing retail or gallery space, marketing over the Internet, or publishing and distributing a catalog.  Artist cooperatives, however, can also be formed to purchase expensive equipment that can be shared (e.g. kilns, printing presses), rent studio space, or obtain discounts on materials that can be purchased in bulk.

Benefits of Artist Cooperatives

  • Marketing benefits: An artist cooperative provides its artist-members the ability to show and sell their art or crafts in a way that they may not be able to on their own and may provide more opportunities for market contact.
  • More independence and control: Without having to work through a middleman or dealer, an artist-member may assume more independence in what he or she creates, how the work is priced, and can more closely control its distribution. By jointly hiring a gallery or store manager, artist-members can, on the other hand, market their work in a traditional space without having to participate in the day-to-day managing of the space.
  • Equipment sharing and supply discounts: Artist–members who use similar supplies and equipment can share expensive equipment, share studio space, and benefit from  bulk discounts by making joint purchases.
  • Increased earning potential: Many artist cooperatives that have retail or gallery space work on a consignment basis. Artist cooperatives can provide a higher consignment rate because they eliminate the middleman or the dealer. Some artist cooperatives, however, pass on 100% of the sales to the artist and instead collect annual membership fees or collect donations to cover operating expenses of the cooperative.
  • Technical/business assistance: An artist cooperative may provide its members with opportunities to learn more about working with galleries and retail stores and about technical business matters generally, such as obtaining insurance and accounting.

How Artist Cooperatives are Generally Structured

Artist cooperatives are generally established in the state in which they will operate and therefore are subject to that state’s business statutes. While some states have cooperative-specific statutes, they may be specific to certain types of cooperatives such as agricultural cooperatives.  If an artist cooperative does not fit within a state’s cooperative statutes, an artist cooperative may be formed using other structures such as the corporation, limited liability company (LLCs), or nonprofit, but may be subject to some limitations (e.g. use of the term “cooperative”) and may require more creative drafting of related documents establishing the entity.  LLCs, however, are a common choice because of their flexibility.

 Artist-Member Contributions/Other Considerations

  • Capital Investment: Some artist cooperatives may require members to provide capital to finance the cooperative in proportion to their anticipated use (i.e. projected sales).
  • Commission Fees: Some artist cooperatives may charge an artist-member a specified percentage of a sale to be retained by the cooperative for expenses.
  • Fees/Annual Dues: Some artist cooperatives may require its members to pay an annual membership fee.
  • Staff/Volunteering Time: Artist-members may be required to contribute a specified amount of time to a retail store or gallery operated by the cooperative. Be sure to read our page on employment laws to learn more about limitations on volunteering.
  • Quality Control: A prospective member’s work is sometimes juried by current members of an artist cooperative before a membership is offered to a new artist. Additionally, an artist cooperative may establish a set of standards to determine what types of items will be accepted and the minimum quality accepted.

 Links to Artist Cooperatives

Resources

The Cooperative Approach To Crafts
Author: R. Wade Binion and Gerald Ely
Publisher: United States Department of Agriculture Rural Business-Cooperative Service Cooperative Information
Date of Publication: 2000
Content/Usefulness:  Initial focus is directed toward rural cooperatives, but includes information applicable to both rural and urban artists cooperatives. Includes a sample survey used to determine the need or desire for a cooperative among prospective members and sample bylaws.

This page was written and is curated by Cameron Rhudy, an attorney, SELC volunteer, and Sustainable Economies Law Fellow.

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