The Little Co-op that Could

Posted January 6, 2009
by Sandy d'Shore

Cape May, NJ - We’ve been inundated with rather gloomy news when it comes to the economy. So, I was understandably skeptical when I heard that the art cooperative that opened for the holiday season in West Cape May was enjoying a lively throng of customers more than willing to spend their money. On Art? Unlikely.

The idea of an art co-op has been bandied about in Cape May for years. Many artists live and work in the area. Although the city hosts a number of Arts organizations and a few galleries, there has been very little in the way of public space for art to be shown and sold by the artists themselves.

This fall, professional artists Paige Cunningham and Janet Payne took a deep breath and agreed it was Time. A small store, formerly a bakery, was available to rent for the two month holiday season.

Within days, the pair had a resounding commitment from 22 people who make art to begin a co-op. They started the Artists Cooperative Gallery within a week.

All participants agreed to pay a reasonable fee for start up expenses, to volunteer some time at the store and to stay open to the public every day until the lease was up.

The rest of the plan was yet to be determined.

Cunningham and Payne decided to showcase the variety of submitted work as an eclectic mix throughout the two main rooms of the space. Paintings, drawings, sculpture, textiles, clay work and jewelry were mixed artfully together.
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Colorful glimpses of the artwork inside could be seen from the street, through the large windows facing Broadway.

When I stopped in, John Safrit, a participating watercolorist, greeted me with a plate of cookies and an offer to answer any questions. There were a number of people milling about, several heading to the cash register with their selections.

An entire family was delighting in the splashy knitted caps fashioned by artist Barbara Hoepp. I could hear some people talking about clay work by Susan Ross in the other room.

The atmosphere was energetic and convivial - dare I say “Artsy?"

One could truly feel that something big was happening within the confines of the small store. When asked how the co-op was faring, a broad grin spread across Paige Cunningham's face.

”Oh my gosh, the artists are so happy! “ she exclaimed. “ Everybody is having great fun!”

And, along with the fun, the sales kept happening. Not just lower priced items. Higher end pieces were also being purchased.

Customers were coming from around the corner and beyond, including North Jersey, Philadelphia and Wilmington. Cunningham said the support had been phenomenal and even she and Janet Payne were surprised at how successful the co-op had been in just a few short weeks.

Certainly the 22 artists' own networking helped jump start sales. One artist said that the word of mouth had been an amazing phenomenon.

At the same time, the coop wasn’t just a place for artists to make some money, or even to have their work seen – certainly worthwhile aspirations.

The little store was a place of community. An opportunity to relate to others.

That particular day, people in the back room were making hats and scarves for C.A.R.A. (the Coalition Against Rape and Abuse) clients. Even though money was tight, special weekends had been volunteered by member artists to donate 10 per cent of their sales toward various local organizations including animal rescue, food closets, and social service efforts. Information was willingly shared. Free art demonstrations and workshops were provided to anyone interested during co-op hours .

The gallery lease is up and the store has closed it’s doors for the season. There is a waiting list of over thirty artists hoping to sign up when this valuable project resumes. Cunningham, Payne and the original group are looking into a number of possible new locations.

The Artists' Co-Op could become a year round fixture in the community. Or it could become a special, holiday only shopping destination.

No matter where it goes from here, (and there will be many people eager to find out) the Artists' Co-Op's generous philosophy and confidence in each member's abilities has created a bright spot in a difficult season.

Sandy d'Shore is a long time local who writes occasionally for Cape May Times. Look for more of her stories coming up.

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