The art of the cooperative Featured

9:57am EDT July 22, 2002

In downtown Pittsburgh, a group of watercolor artists has adopted a similar approach to give audience to their art in a way that doesn’t put them in the poorhouse.

The idea came to artist Meda Kiming Rago early last year. She had been showing her work in local cafes that agreed to hang her art. But when she lost her job after the company she worked for dissolved its office, she decided to pursue her art full time.

To make a living at it, though, she thought she would have to find a gallery willing to show her work, which meant paying 15 percent to 30 percent commission to the gallery.

“After framing and other costs,” Rago says, “it’s tough to make a living at it.”

Then she and a number of her fellow painters, all members of a local Watercolor Society chapter, got together and discussed potential solutions. That’s when someone brought up a cooperative gallery in Washington, D.C., where members paid $1,000 in dues a year and had to commit to gallery sitting. No such cooperative existed in Pittsburgh, so they created one.

She and artist friend Kit Paulson (wife of Scott Paulson of WDVE-FM fame) last summer opened Watercolors, a gallery on Liberty Avenue downtown, which boasts 75 members, each of whom pays a $100 initiation fee and $25 a month for the right to hang three pictures at a time on the gallery walls.

But even this small cooperative needed rules. First, the group set up bylaws that include such legalities as protecting any single member from being personally liable for problems that might arise; making sure the gallery and cooperative are insured; and requiring regular membership meetings.

In addition, members must agree to “gallery-sit” periodically to make sure the gallery doors stay open at designated times.

Rago says the biggest challenge is making sure members and officers communicate regularly. She notes that most of the artists don’t get caught up in membership politics, as long as they can display their art.

“The bottom line is that most artists would rather be making art than doing business,” she says.

The gallery so far has sold more than 60 paintings, which Rago says demonstrates the early success of this cooperative.

“It’s the fulfillment of a dream for me,” she says.

For Watercolors gallery information, contact Rago at (412) 231-2049.