Cooperative Spirit

Artists Co-op Gallery celebrates 35th anniversary in style

What started in a small, second-floor space in the Old Market has become, over the past 35 years, one of the city’s standby art spaces. The Artists Cooperative Gallery celebrates its anniversary during the month of January with a show featuring more than 40 past members. The show takes up the entirety of the gallery’s space and features artists who joined the gallery from the very beginning and some who joined just this year. The diverse lineup makes for an intriguing peek into the artists who were essential in creating the space, and those who continue to maintain it. A bit of history: In 1984, the gallery moved from a second-story space on 11th Street, above where M’s Pub is now, to its current location in a freestanding building that increased exhibition space by more than three times, from 1,200 square feet to 4,000 square feet. “The first time I stepped foot in the building, I think it was raining harder inside than outside,” says ceramicist Thomas Hamilton, who has been with the Co-op since it began. Inside the building sat an old car and part of an old bowling alley, along with all kinds of other junk, he says. The building didn’t have a toilet or working heat. Members of the original cooperative worked with the Mercers, who owned the building, to fix it up, donating more than 3,000 hours of volunteer labor. Today, the space is wide open and white, and is home to a substantial variety of work in all mediums. The anniversary exhibition includes work by familiar artists who joined the cooperative early in their careers. Larry Ferguson displays a set of three black and white photographs. Other familiar exhibitors include Linda Meigs, Leslie Bruning, Jean Mason and Tom Bartek, among many others. Lots of reunions between former cooperative members took place during the Red Carpet show opening; hugs and delighted conversations between former colleagues echoed through the space. Live music and an eclectic crowd — trademarks of a cooperative opening — gave the evening a vibrant feel. The Cooperative always puts a sign outside reading “free art opening” and it works to draw many in. Regulars abound, but first-time art show goers and the newly initiated are always there, too. For those familiar with the art scene, seeing the work of established artists among the work of younger artists was a treat. Current member Katrina Methot-Swanson showed an engaging series of painted portraits of the Old Market and Dundee. Marcia Joffe-Bouska shows work and also lent two pieces from her personal collection, that she purchased during her early Co-op days, to the show; both date from the early 1970s. Lori Elliott-Bartle says that cooperative spirit is one of the gallery’s best holdovers. “In the early days, members would support other members by buying their work,” she says. “That cooperative spirit still exists here today, and it’s why so many people become members and stay members.” Ferguson, who joined in 1976 and stayed a member for six years, says that in the early days, the artists had an entrepreneurial spirit. The more experienced artists helped the younger artists get established, and everyone shared the responsibility of operating the space. Elliott-Bartle says the gallery plans to continue working out of its space in the Old Market. It recently joined 10 new members and is actively working to become a part of the burgeoning Omaha First Friday events. “When the Cooperative first opened, it was basically the only game in the Old Market,” she says. “Now there’s a whole network of galleries downtown and we’re lucky enough to be right in the center of things.” The Red Carpet Show continues at the Artists Cooperative Gallery, 405 S. 11th St. through Jan. 30. Visit artistsco-opgallery.com.

posted at 06:06 pm
on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

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