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Starting an Art Guild or Co-op

Many people are interested in starting a guild or art group, but don’t know where to start. Groups provide a good setting to exchange information and to socialize. They can also accomplish things that individual artists can’t, such as sponsoring workshops, organizing group activites, or operating group facilities, studios, and galleries.

The purpose of this paper is to share the experiences of one group of artists in forming a guild.

The Orchard Valley Ceramic Arts Guild is headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. (We chose the name “Orchard Valley” to invoke the heritage of California’s past, rather than referring to a particular geographic area.)

The group was started informally in mid-2000; we began signing up members in January, 2001. By mid-2003, we had 168 members, and lots of activities going on. We were fortunate to be in an area with a lot of active ceramic artists, so we were able to grow quickly, but we know of groups with as few as 9 members that are still able to accomplish a lot by working together. We hope that our experiences can help other artists get together!

Getting Started

First, you will need a core group. One person can be the catalyst, but it takes a lot of work to get something like this started – you’ll need a group of people who are excited about the idea, and willing to put in some work to make it happen. In our case, we eventually had a group of 7 people who met regularly to plan, and who each put in a little seed money ($30) to get things off the ground.

We started out by creating a mission statement, which is just a short statement of what the organization is all about. We wanted to create a supportive group, where members work together to help and encourage one another, so this is emphasized in our mission statement.

Under the umbrella of the mission statement, we then decided on the activities we wanted to offer, and we put a person in charge of planning each of these activities: newsletter, website, regular meetings, workshops, and sale. (We later added special events like group pit firings.) We wanted to have some activities in the works when we started recruiting members, so we could tell them what they would get in exchange for their membership dues!

You will need someone who is comfortable with budgeting and spreadsheets to act as treasurer. The treasurer, working with other members of your core team, will develop your first budget, This means figuring out what your activities will cost, estimating how many members you can recruit, and setting your dues to cover your expenses (with a little left over for future projects).

We identified local places where we could reach other potters: schools, clay suppliers, etc, in preparation for our public "launch." One of our initial team members was responsibility for recruiting, and she put together a nice brochure for us to distribute. It also helped to do a lot of personal networking! We kicked off our recruiting drive with a party that we organized, and we invited every potter we could find. At the party, we ?talked up? the guild and tried to convey our excitement? we actually signed up about a dozen new members that night, and another couple of dozen in the first few months. We now have a meeting every other month. Meetings always have refreshments, usually a guest speaker, but plenty of time to socialize and chat about clay stuff. Members often bring new work to show, or questions for other members.

By the way, the owner of our local clay store has become an enthusiastic supporter. He lets us use his shop for small workshops, post flyers there, and so on. If you have local art suppliers and shops, get them on your side as early as possible!

The rest of this page contains some lessons we’ve learned over the past couple of years.

Professional Appearance

We were lucky to have a professional website developer, and a professional graphic artist, among our early members. From the start, our website, membership brochure, and newsletter looked very good. We didn’t realize how important this was until much later. Once we all got to know one another, many of our new members told us they joined because the group looked professional – they were proud to be associated with it.

So, although it was a lucky accident for us, we’ve learned the importance of a professional appearance. When deciding who will do your design work, don’t just take the first volunteer! We actually held a competition for our logo design. We have a committee review event flyers and other material to make sure it meets the group standards and conveys the image we want to promote. I hope this doesn’t sound too fussy – we just found that if you want people to join you, then you must look like a group they’d want to be part of.

Website and E-Mail

Electronic communication is becoming critical to the visibility of any group!

We found our website to be absolutely essential. I don’t think we could have succeeded without it. It’s the one place members and the public can go for up-to-date information about the guild and guild activities. When you meet a new potter and tell them about the guild, you don’t need to have a brochure handy – just give them the address of the website. If you forget the date of the next meeting, check the website. Want to sign up for the next workshop? Go to the website.

We publish a paper newsletter 6 times a year – people like to get something tangible. But between issues, we send out news and announcements to a mailing list of our members. More than 90% of our members have e-mail addresses – this may not be true in your area. We established a buddy system, so people with e-mail pass on important news to the relatively small number who don’t use e-mail.

Our website now gets about 30-40 visitors a day, and we see big spikes (extra visits) before our events, so we know people are using the website to get information.

We’re also starting to use e-mail to reach customers.

Our guild has built up a mailing list of regular street addresses, which we use to send out postcards before our sales. We won’t abandon that any time soon – it works quite well for us – but we’re also starting to collect e-mail addresses from our customers. We have about 4000 street addresses, and so far just 500 e-mail addresses on our customer list. We send out postcards, and then send out a “reminder” to our e-mail list. But in the future (perhaps a few years from now), I believe we will rely on e-mail to promote our sales and events. So, we’re working hard to build up that e-mail list!

Legal Structure

We initially organized as an informal association. In other words, we didn’t have any legal standing. We found a local bank that gave us a free checking account. That was fine for the first few months, but it started to be a problem as we grew:

  • When we tried to rent facilities, we found that our local community center and other places didn’t want to deal with us unless we were a legal corporation. They also had much lower fees if we could show that we were a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation.
  • Our postage bills started to get pretty high when we publicized our sales and workshops. Again, the postage rates are much lower for non-profit corporations.
  • Our officers started to worry about liability. If someone got hurt at a group event, and decided to sue the organizers, none of us wanted to lose our businesses, savings, etc.

So we ultimately decided to incorporate, and apply for 501(c)3 status from the IRS. We bought a do-it-yourself book from Nolo Press to learn about the process and get started. Ultimately, we decided to hire a lawyer, but by reading the book first, we were able to lay the groundwork and ask our lawyer the right questions. We had a fund-raising drive to come up with the almost $2000 needed to have a lawyer do it for us. That includes the various filing fees, plus the lawyer’s fee. The incorporation process and costs vary from state to state, and I’m sure our California laws are more complicated than many places. My advice would be:

  • Think seriously, in advance, about the need to incorporate
  • Read the Nolo Press book
  • If you’re not completely comfortable handling the process on your own, start networking to see if you can find a lawyer who will help you out for free or at a discount!

Note that, if you apply for 501(c)3 status, you will need to show that your group provides a public benefit, so you’ll want to include public education (or charitable contributions) in your mission statement and activities. (It’s a little easier to become a 501(c)4, or member benefit corporation, but you don’t get all the advantages of 501(c)3 status. Your lawyer, or the Nolo Press book, can explain the differences.)

At any event, it was a long road for us, but we are now a tax-exempt public benefit corporation.

Contracts

If you are starting a co-op studio or gallery, you will need contracts with your members. The contract should clearly define the rights and responsibilities of both the members and the co-op. It should also clearly define how the contract can be terminated by either party. Finally, it should specify a process for resolving conflicts. I recommend that the contract require binding arbitration through a properly accredited arbiter. Otherwise, legal costs arising out of conflicts can bankrupt your group, even if you win!

You may also need to create contracts if you are hiring instructors for workshops, or running sales or other types of programs.

You can write up the terms of your contract in clear, understandable English, then have a lawyer draft the "legal" wording for you. Be sure the lawyer understands your intent, and don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't understand the resulting contract, or if you don't think it says what you wanted. The leaders of your group will probably need to go over the contract many times with prospective members, so be sure you understand it!

That's All for Now!

This short summary of our experiences should give you a lot to think about, and probably raise many questions!

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