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The ‘Shared Economy’ Artist Collective: Should Artists Pay for Exhibition Space?

The artist collective business model is evolving to include elements popularized within the sharing economy. Rather than simply organizing to present work like a typical artist collective might do, these organizations are utilizing the artist collective to share exhibition space and costs related to an exhibition, while broadening the platform for emerging artists. This, of course, requires artists to front at least some of the costs in exhibiting their work, but many artists who want to exhibit their work and can’t seem to land gallery representation may consider trying this type of artist collective. But should artists really consider paying a membership fee to an artist collective in order to present their work?

While the most traditional way to exhibit your work is to submit to a well-known gallery, this process is not always a linear path. Often times, artists face difficulty getting their foot in the door, and galleries rarely subsidize artists’ costs for producing work.  On the other hand, there are a variety of artist collective organizations that offer artists the opportunity to exhibit their work while receiving a small stipend for living expenses and other costs.

The Artist Collective as a Means to Exhibition Space

Smack Mellon in DUMBO (Brooklyn) is an internationally recognized institution offering incredible benefits for the working artist. Artists chosen for this coveted fellowship are given studio space to create a site-specific exhibit of their own, as well as a $5,000 stipend for incidental costs and living expenses. A nonprofit space like this runs on grants from major corporations, as well as state and federal support, and the artist, therefore, bears no part of this expense. A program like this one is, of course, incredibly competitive -Smack Mellon only chooses 6 artists per year.

Since not every artist can be chosen for a fellowship, there is also the artist collective model, in which everybody contributes – in some form or fashion – to running an exhibition space. For example, The Brooklyn Artists Gym set up shop in 2005 in Gowanus, not far from the infamous canal. It has been renamed the Brooklyn Art Space (BAS) with a 1,500-square foot shared studio with soaring ceilings and abundant natural light. And true to the tradition of artists colonizing desolate urban areas, it is a bright spot in a now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. However, as with any artist collective or cost sharing venture, there still must be a business model in place. Somebody has to pay the rent.

exhibition space
FASTFORWARDFOSSIL: Part 2 by Ellen Driscoll at Smack Mellon. Photo by See-ming Lee.

A basic BAS membership is $180.00 a month, which goes up in price, depending on the level of perks you receive. For this basic monthly cost, an artist gets access to 4,000-square feet of studio space, as well as wireless internet access, air conditioning, and 24-hour access to the building. The Brooklyn Art Space’s affiliated Trestle Gallery serves as the exhibition space for BAS artists, and hosts eight to twelve exhibitions a year. Members have the option of joining ‘Salon Pop-up Shows,’ BAS’s one night exhibitions, as well as taking classes. They can also take advantage of “networking and community building opportunities, in addition to having access to low-cost studio space.” It’s fair to say this has been a successful artist collective model for New York artists, as it’s been in operation for 12 consistent years.

SHIM’s Sharing Economy Exhibition Model

SHIM, also in Brooklyn, represents one of the newest iterations of an artist collective because it is structured in a different way than Brooklyn Artist’s Space. From their website describing their mission statement:

Innovative startups like Airbnb, ZipCar, and Uber have discovered a booming marketplace inside already existing industries. Rather than building more infrastructures, these companies found new opportunities for what already exists. Our company was inspired by the rise of the shared digital economy.”  

Like Airbnb, which doesn’t own a single square foot of real estate, SHIM only leases exhibition space and manages the artists who exhibit there. Artists who want to exhibit their work pay a sliding scale of one-time fees depending on the exhibition program they’ve chosen. This might appeal to artists who already have a strong community, their own studio, or who don’t want a monthly expenditure, yet are seeking alternative exhibition space to show their work.

Here’s how it works in Brooklyn: SHIM is in residence at Art Helix, a large gallery on Meserole Street in Bushwick, the epicenter of all that is hip. Past exhibitions posted online at Art Helix are filled with vibrant, bold work; from performance-type pieces to large-scale photography. SHIM offers the exhibition space to participating artists, and covers the cost of promotion and marketing, as well gallery staff for exhibitions. SHIM also has a modest, yet established social media presence: for example, their Facebook page has 400 followers, while Art Helix has 1, 000 followers. Artists can leverage their reach with their own social media platforms and draw new audiences to their exhibitions.

An individual artist has three different ways to exhibit their work with SHIM. However, before an artist chooses a program, they must pay a modest, one-time $10 membership fee. Artists then determine which program is most likely to assist them to achieve their exhibition goals. 

The least expensive option is the Invitational, which are two group exhibits, curated by SHIM, each running three weeks long. Once artists have paid the membership fee, they can submit their portfolio to be considered for the Invitational. The caveat, of course, is that not everyone who applies will get chosen. Just like in traditional galleries, SHIM still acts a gatekeeper, determining which artists will have the opportunity to use their exhibition space.

The price point goes up considerably with the second program, a Studio Residency. Again, if selected, artists receive studio space, as well as the chance to participate in a group show. However, they must pay an additional $300 exhibitor fee to be included in the show. To soften the blow, SHIM reminds artists that they do not take a commission on any work an artist may sell when exhibiting at any of SHIM’s programs.

exhibition space
A video art screening at the Brooklyn Art Space. Courtesy of Brooklyn Art Space.

The third way an artist can exhibit their work, if selected, is SHIM’s Solo Program, which “provides selected individual artists with space and logistical and promotional support for mounting their own projects by and for themselves.”  The exhibitor fee for this is not listed; instead, SHIM’s website notes that:

In addition to collected application fees, selected Solo projects will be subject to a one-time supplemental Exhibitor Fee once accepted. Exhibitor Fees are low-cost and flexible and depend on the amount of gallery space and duration of the artist’s proposed project. Like all of our programs, SHIM applies no gallery commissions to sales from our exhibitions.

SHIM also partners with universities, and invites proposals from corporations for event planning. Again, like  any business within the sharing economy, SHIM doesn’t own the space, but they have access to its infrastructure to manage the business affairs and promotion of their selected events.

Will it work?  So far, SHIM artists have participated in Bushwick’s Second International Gallery Biennale in 2016. Hyperallegic wrote: “On a chilly October weekend, Exchange Rates spread a foreign invasion of art across a particularly industrial area of Bushwick and East Williamsburg. Islands of art in small galleries throughout the neighborhood forged surprising, playful alliances between artists from London, Germany, Colombia, the Netherlands and elsewhere,” including SHIM exhibiting at Art Helix.

As an artist collective offering exhibition space for relatively modest fees, SHIM seems to do right by its artists. But would this work for every artist? It’s easy to find out. They do provide a free ‘followship,’ an invitation get to know them, and of course, follow them on social media.  It could be a good way to test drive the artist collective in the age of the sharing economy. There are bound to be more organizations like SHIM, which utilize the infrastructure of an existing gallery or exhibition space, while the artist pays part of that bill. Maybe it’s not such a new model, after all.  Just make sure to read the fine print.

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Lillian Slugocki

Lillian Ann Slugocki is an award winning writer. Her wheelhouse is pop culture, art, health, business and tech. Follow her on Twitter @laslugocki.

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    • Hi Anita, we wrote about programs like BAS and SHIM because we find this model to be a unique twist in light of the rise of the shared economy. As we note in the article, artists who are searching for an opportunity to show their work might decide they would benefit from this type of exhibition model – but we’re not expressly advocating that they should do that.