Vanity Galleries vs. Co-ops

Janice McDonald Collages
Artist Janice McDonald greets guests at the opening of her exhibition at the lovely Spark Gallery in Denver.

I was talking with an artist-friend the other day and this came up . . .

Deep Thought

What's the difference between a vanity gallery and a co-op?
Why are co-ops (where artists pay to be members) considered okay, whereas vanity galleries (where artists pay to exhibit) are off-limits?
Give me your best argument.


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23 thoughts on “Vanity Galleries vs. Co-ops”

  1. I recently entered an agreement with a co-op gallery in Flagler Beach called the GOLA gallery (Gallery of Local Art). There is no charge to to display work in the gallery. I do not rent a wall. The gallery owner welcomes a variety of artists to be a part of the GOLA but steers clear of inviting artists who create works too similar to existing participants. The co-op part comes in at the percentage split between the gallery and artists in sales. Artists who don’t wish to work one day a month in the gallery get a 50/50 split. Those who sign up to work one day a month get a 40/60 split and for 2 days of work we enjoy 70 percent of our sales. For me this is the best of both worlds. Everyone works hard and everyone wins.

  2. I don’t see how either is sustainable. I have belonged to an artist co-op that eventually had to start charging its members because it couldn’t meet its rent obligation. Half the members understood that we (the artist membership) needed to make sales in order to keep the lights on while the other half looked at the co-op as a vanity gallery. I resigned a few years ago as I couldn’t see continuing to involve myself in a doomed situation.

  3. I love this question! I had been looking at co-ops in the Los Angeles area for several years but they never “felt right”. In October this year, I finally found one that had all the elements I wanted – close to home, reasonable space rental fees, I get to keep 100% of what I make in sales, and, best of all, it’s a really great group of artists. That is what makes a co-op ideal for me – the community aspect. The energy and inspiration are amazing when you get a bunch of like-minded artists together who all have different talents! I’m finding it inspiring not just for my art but for my art business, as well.
    On the other hand, I have nothing against vanity galleries except there are so many avenues to get your work out and shown online for free that I don’t really see the point in paying. In addition, at least in the co-op I belong to, we can have a show and show off all our talents as well as be featured artists in the main display areas periodically.

    1. Adriana: So happy you found a good fit.
      Denver is a REAL co-op town. I have never seen so many co-ops in a metro area. And, like the one pictured here, many are gorgeous and highly professional. The artists run them well and they make sales.

  4. I’ve explored this topic in the past. It is a great topic. One problem is that the two can mingle… which spurs confusion. In other words, there are a lot of co-op galleries ‘out there’ in name alone. At heart they are vanity galleries due to the way they operate.
    Traditionally, co-op galleries — as you noted — don’t have an owner. Furthermore, they traditionally do not take a large commission… if at all. The early co-op galleries, as we know them today, normally involved artists sharing expenses to keep the doors open in the form of member fees (the buck stopped there)… but did NOT involve a commission requirement. If commission is taken — it should go 100% toward funding the gallery itself… it should not be filling the pockets of specific individuals / the owner of the building.
    If the co-op gallery does have a owner… you really need to think about the integrity of the space and the meaning of ‘co-op’. Is it a true co-op OR is it merely a building owner striving to cash in on the booth model.
    As for vanity galleries… it can be easy to confuse them with rental spaces. Art-focused rental spaces are not necessarily a bad thing. The difference is that a vanity gallery will try to appear as legitimate as it can when compared to a ‘real’ gallery. They may even go as far as claiming to represent their artists… all while charging thousands AND commission! The financial paper trail will tell you if the gallery is vanity or not… if you are spending money at every angle just to exhibit — especially if you are spending more than you will ever earn back — the space is likely a vanity gallery.
    The lines DO blur though. Some legitimate galleries have started to charge for services that we generally associate with vanity galleries due to an economic stranglehold. They may expect the artist to chip in on advertisement in exchange for a commission increase on the artists end. BUT if the space starts to charge hundreds or thousands just to exhibit… something is up — that is vanity in my book.
    Oddly enough, I have met a few artists who have stated that vanity galleries can be a good thing. One guy claimed he was approached by a commercial gallery after paying to play. One woman claimed that she actually made far more than she paid to exhibit. I’m still not convinced that they are a good thing… in general I think vanity gallery owners are sharks. Ha. For the prices some of these places charge (in addition to commission)… the artist could rent a warehouse and put on his or her own exhibit!

  5. I guess what I’m saying is… if someone is earning a living from co-op members fees OR commissions — well, that space will likely be considered vanity or, at the least (concerning commission… NOT member fees), a commercial gallery that has labeled itself wrong. Ha.
    A co-op gallery should not be about one or two people making a living from member fees or taking commission for their personal needs… it should be about sustaining the community / space. Anything less is questionable.

  6. There’s also another model worth considering. I’m not sure if has an official name, but I’ll call it a pop-up co-op gallery. This is when a group of artists rents a temporary space together for a short-term exhibit. I was in on one of these a few years ago in Harvard Square and it worked out reasonably well. (I didn’t sell anything over the weekend, but got some new names for my mailing list, and two of them eventually became clients.) With the economy continuing to struggle, there are lots of prime retail spaces that are empty/between tenants. You can often strike a deal with the owner for a short term lease. Worth asking about, if you see a good spot in your home town, specially over the holiday shopping season!

  7. The answer to the question is quite simple… Co-op galleries (and independant commercial ones of course) at least generally have a measure of vetting in the mix, whereas ‘Vanity’ galleries by their nature are usually only interested in the color of someone’s hanging fees rather than the quality of the work. The point is that if you are a serious artist, the ‘company you keep’ becomes vitally important when presenting to a public audience, particularly if you wish to attract PR and sales. The same applies of course to temporary art society or group exhibitions, wheresoever they may be.

    1. “…the company you keep…”
      So true. I’m not a great artist but I’m a pretty damn good artist. In my ‘one’ vanity gallery experience I came in and installed three works in my allotted space and soon after my “wall-mate” showed up and hung 22 pieces, all flowers made of yarn, glue and glitter. She said her inspiration came from arts & crafts time with her first grade class. Parents loved these little creations their children made so she jumped to the conclusion that everyone would want one too.
      As the buying public arrived I could see them peer at this overbearing wall of yarn and glitter and run in the other direction. I don’t think anyone came close to viewing my art because they were avoiding the explosion of glitter craft on the wall next to me. It was a costly experience and I’ve avoided vanity galleries ever since.

  8. I challenge the notion that even co-ops are viable. Serious collectors avoid them. In the gallery world hierarchy, the have about as much (or little) cachet as a vanity gallery and all the political repulsion of any private club. I advise artists to avoid co-ops or any other gallery type that collectors, curators and critics reflexively avoid because they’ll usually get nowhere showing in such venues.

    1. Aaron: I’m not sure it is fair to dismiss an entire category of venues. It really depends on your goals as an artist and your location.
      As I said in a comment above, co-ops are HIGHLY viable in Denver. And serious collectors visit and buy from them.

  9. I have considered the vanity gallery model but have not found one in my area that has any “quality control” in that they will rent space to anyone willing to pay. The reason I would consider it is that we have downsized our studio and having a client come to the studio means unpacking a lot of work, then repacking it after the appointment. It would be nice to have a space to meet customers where I could show what’s currently available.

  10. It really depends on how the co-op gallery is managed. They can be a viable and worthwhile stepping stone for artists, and some co-op galleries evolve quite effectively beyond the founding group and early years. As others have mentioned (and at least from what i have experienced) there is still a vetting process at co-ops. They can also be vibrant and useful to artists and the community itself in smaller market cities or towns.
    Vanity galeries on the other hand are purely pay to play and I believe are not at all an effective or legitimate model, though the argument could be made that a vanity type gallery space could be used by artists who wanted only to do direct marketing of their work outside of any gallery relationship.

  11. I belong to an artists’ group which runs a co-op gallery paid for by membership fees in the group (which is statewide) and by 1/3 commissions of sales. 4 of the six member shows each year (there are 9 shows total) are juried–the other 3 shows are invitationals of artists from outside the group. The rent the group pays for the gallery is very low by arrangement with the building owner. Work does get sold and the group publicizes the shows in local news outlets and thru social media.
    As for vanity galleries, my only experience with them is anecdotal but I know of 2 of them that closed abruptly and it was difficult for the artists involved to get their work back. I was approached by a vanity gallery but the fees were exorbitant in my opinion. I”m not that desperate to show my work to pay high fees.
    Interesting question

  12. This is a very interesting discussion. In Australia we don’t really have the “co-op” model. I had to google it and got a good description here: which is pretty much what I had imagined. It looks like this would be a great model for regional areas/smaller towns in particular. As far as I know we don’t really have vanity galleries either in Australia (well not like this well-oiled and well-known machine: ).
    In Australia we have artist-run initiatives (ARI’s) – run by a small committee, exhibition by an application process, there’s a fee to show in the space to cover rental and promotion costs, there may be a small commission on sales, and you might be asked to sit in the gallery. A bit of a mixture of the vanity gallery and the artist’s co-op. I think the difference is that in Australia we have such a small art market. Many ARI’s have an established reputation, particularly for showing cutting-edge work from emerging artists. There is a possibility of getting picked up by a commercial gallery or getting included in museum shows, if you’re consistent and show in “the right spaces”. ARI’s are recognised for the role they play in the art world here, so there is some funding available from state and federal government – typically used to fund a co-ordinator’s position (thereby doing away with gallery sitting) or cover some of the costs of running the space (rent, utilities) or in the case of the highly regarded Westspace -all of the above plus they don’t charge artists to exhibit.
    We also have small galleries that are a bit like vanity galleries in that you pay to show plus the gallery gets a commission if you sell, but there is an application process and the fee is just for one show, covering invitations, opening night costs, gallery sitting and sales. Again it’s pretty clear where they sit in the scene ie. what sort of audience you will get for your work. The problem that exists here is how much the gallery owner (or artist committee) needs to work to promote your art – if the gallery fee has covered all the costs associated with running the space there is little incentive for them to sell your work beyond alerting their client list of the latest show.
    I think the crucial thing to be aware of is, as someone else pointed out, “the company you keep” (and therefore the audience you will get) and that no matter what the gallery/co-op does to promote you/the show/the space, you still need to take care of promoting yourself.

  13. Sarah — There is only one problem with what you said though… most of the vanity galleries I know of claim to have a strict vetting system in the works — but clearly that is not the case. It really does boil down to if the artist can pay or not. Again, those spaces tend to suggest that they have high standards about the exhibited work — they do as much as they can to look like a more legitimate space… but I doubt any of them have ever said ‘no’ as long as the artists has the funds to pay. Ha.
    Aaron — You said, “I challenge the notion that even co-ops are viable. Serious collectors avoid them. In the gallery world hierarchy, the have about as much (or little) cachet as a vanity gallery and all the political repulsion of any private club. I advise artists to avoid co-ops or any other gallery type that collectors, curators and critics reflexively avoid because they’ll usually get nowhere showing in such venues.”
    You do realize that the NYC art gallery scene, as we know it today, is rooted in co-op spaces that existed in the late 1940s and into the 1950s? I’ve worked with galleries in Chelsea and other locations in NYC… believe it or not, most of the art dealers I’ve known have a special place in their heart for co-op spaces. They loathe vanity galleries though.
    As others have mentioned, pop up spaces are becoming common as well… and some notable galleries and artists have explored that direction as well. Shoot, a decade ago people often questioned the credibility of art fairs — yet international art fairs are now a staple of the BIG art market. Food for thought.

  14. What percentage of contemporary living artists with inclusions in important museum or private collections reached success through showing only or mainly in co-ops? I would agree that co-ops provide a community for artists. But without a dealer’s imprimatur, staffing, marketing savvy and good connections, co-op artists mostly languish unsung and off-radar of those who would help make their careers and guide them away from choices that art constrain their critical acceptance, creative growth and sales success. Call it art world snobbery, but serious collectors have a fairly elaborate code that determines which artists to take seriously and oftentimes that starts with which galleries to take seriously – most often reflected by the presence of a prestigious dealer’s name on the door: Gagosian, Zwirner, etc. Co-ops, tourist town galleries, vanity galleries, cafés, municipal galleries are all fine, but artists aiming high should avoid them. If an artist has a prevalence of those on a resume, snob dealers with their own agendas and ambitions will often shun those artists. I’m not saying it’s right, just saying what is.

  15. When I was at some Art Basel events in the design district in Miami a few days ago I noticed that a vanity gallery, Art Fusion, had taken over much larger premises – a free standing building that used to be owned by Bernice Steinbaum if I recall correctly.
    That suggests that they are successfully selling. I guess you’d have to decide if it’s worth the risk for your particular art. Going to look into it.

  16. The vanity gallery doesn’t give you a community. I’m involved for 3 years with a co-op gallery in Denver that’s been around for over 30 years and was pivotal in the development of the contemporary art scene here.
    My experience has been great… some of the original members are still involved! If someone leaves, potential members audition to fill the opening. We have gallery space on a prime corner in our arts district. I’ve truly benefited from the ideas, advice, camaraderie and connections given by other members, not to mention the freedom to show whatever I’d like when it’s my turn to have a solo show, every 12-18 months. There is no commission taken on work sold and no expectation of what your show should be like. Experimentation is encouraged. It really is what you make it.
    In addition to each member’s show, we also hold an annual All Members’ Show, Small Works Holiday Show, and organize both an open and a juried show for the community each year.

  17. Vashon Island is a small island with a large artist community. We’ve been using a kind of hybrid business model through Vashon Allied Arts (VAA), a non-profit organization whose purpose is to support island artists and arts programs of all kinds.
    A big part of what we do is sell local artists’ work on a commission basis through Heron’s Nest Gallery, which is owned and operated by VAA. The artist receives 60% of the sales price and the 40% goes to VAA to pay for expenses associated with running the gallery. Artists’ work is vetted, they do not pay a fee to have their work in the gallery, nor are they required to work in the gallery.
    The gallery is run by a Manager (me) who is employed by VAA. A staff of about 15 hard-working volunteers, many of whom have worked in the gallery for ten or more years, are relied on to service our customers. We do have several volunteers who are also artists with work in the Heron’s Nest. All volunteers receive a 20% discount off any artwork in the Nest. This discount is borne by VAA, with the artists receiving their full 60% share of the sales price. The idea of encouraging artists to work in the gallery by giving them a larger share of sales is an interesting one.
    Any profit that is made by the Heron’s Nest goes first toward expenses associated with running the gallery, and then to the general budget of the non-profit to fund Vashon Island arts programs.
    This business model has been in place since 1985, and significantly contributes to the strong arts community we have on the island.

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