The art of the cooperative Featured

9:56am EDT July 22, 2002

That’s why they usually leave the business end to gallery owners. The one drawback: gallery owners often take a steep percentage of sales as commission. Hence, the term starving artist.

But in downtown Pittsburgh, a group of watercolor artists have adopted a rather painless solution that gives audience to their art without putting them in the poorhouse. They formed a cooperative.

The cooperative idea came to artist Meda Kiming Rago early last year. She had been showing her work in local cafes that agreed to hang the art on their walls. But when she lost her job after the company she worked for dissolved its office, she pursued 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 would have 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 the fact that there was a cooperative gallery in Washington, D.C., where members paid $1,000 in dues a year and had to commit to gallery sitting. They realized that 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 that recently moved to Penn Avenue downtown and boasts 75 members. Each 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 some rules. First, the group set up bylaws that include such legalities as protecting any single member from being personally liable for any problems that might arise; making sure the gallery and cooperative are insured; and requiring regular membership meetings.

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

Rago says the biggest challenge now is making sure members and officers are communicating 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.

Says Rago: “It’s the fulfillment of a dream for me.”

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