October 6, 2005
The Business of Art
by KATHERINE ALMY
I like breaking stereotypes about artists, and here's a good one: Artists aren't good business people. To refute that, we have Arcata Artisans. They opened their doors two years ago and have been running a good sound business ever since. Who is "they," you ask? Well, a bunch of artists. A cooperative, in fact. Keeping a business open for two years is an accomplishment in and of itself. Having that business make money in the first two years is even better, and running a business by a cooperative of 30-35 members and keeping them all (reasonably) happy is really impressive. It seems that this group of artists has some business acumen, or a lot of luck.
The idea started after the Pottery Farm (remember that cute little place on the Plaza?) closed down. A lot of potters really liked having their work there, and when the store closed it left a vacuum in Arcata for places to show and sell art. Marion Coleman and some other artists put their heads together to see what they could do to fill that gap. The business (and it is a business, not a non-profit) is entirely run by its artist members who do everything from working the cash register to filing taxes. They try to rotate tasks, but some members have particular skills that they bring to the business. They don't have any payroll, and they've only hired outside contractors for a couple of things.
The members pay rent and the co-op takes 20 percent of sales. This way, fixed overhead costs are covered, or nearly covered, every month. This makes it easier to get through the financially tight times that often kill small businesses. Because it's a large group, the membership fee is pretty reasonable, so even the artists who don't sell anything in a month do pretty well, because at least they've had their work on view. Being "out there" on a consistent basis is pretty important to building one's reputation, and by being part of the co-op, the artists have a guaranteed show every day of the year without having to haul their work all over the place.
This is the beauty of the Arcata Artisans. If customers aren't buying, the store can still keep its doors open, artists are still showing their work, and the costs are spread out, making it easier for everyone. Then when sales are good, the store and the artists are still around to sell their wares. I tell you all this because I was so impressed at what good business sense it demonstrates.
Of course, there are frustrations. Getting a group of people to agree on things democratically and get things done is a tedious and often frustrating task, and this group is certainly no exception. "It's messy," says Jim Lowry, who is currently in his second term as the president of the co-op's Board of Directors.
Messy, maybe, but worth the effort. Keeping the doors open is of course the main goal, but there are other benefits to running a business this way. "It's like an art petri dish," says Jim. I like this comparison. It brings up all kinds of interesting images in my head bits of clay breeding or dabs of paint blooming in a small, round, glass canvas. But what he's talking about is the way that each artist is affected by working closely with other artists, dealing directly with the public and thinking about their work in the context of a viable business.
Artists often work in isolation, and those who don't may long to. Jim admitted his preference for working alone, but was also enthusiastic about how the close contact with customers and other artists had affected his work. Because all of the artist-members do some time on the retail floor, they all get an idea of what their customers think of their work and other artists' work.
You can see the results of this contact in the items for sale in the store. There are large-scale, "big ticket" items, but many of the artists have also taken elements from their larger works and come up with smaller, "impulse buy" kinds of things. If you're looking for a gift and you want something truly unique, there are lots of possibilities in the store.
While the store is more accessible to the average customer than a large fine-art gallery, it's not a craft store, either. It really is like nothing I've ever seen before.
Marion Coleman attributes a lot of the store's success to local support people knew about the store, wanted to support it, and so did their Christmas or other shopping there. But goodwill alone won't keep a business going. If there weren't things in the store that people wanted to buy, the most supportive "buy local" shopper would have eventually given up. Local support may have gotten the ball rolling, but high-quality, unique items have kept their doors open.
We're lucky to live in a community with so much talent and creativity, and to have this store that makes it available to us. But it's also a fascinating experiment in business practice and democracy. Who would have thought that any group of people could make it work so well, let alone a bunch of artists? All of the members are involved, all of them pull together, no one is more important than anyone else. Our government should work so well.
"Who takes out the trash?" I asked. Jim laughed, "We all do!" Of course.
Jeannie Fierce, Jacqueline Mayrand and Cathy Warnock are the featured artists at the Arts Arcata opening on Friday, Oct. 14. To learn more about the Artisans go to www.arcataartisans.com.
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