The art of survival
Shelburne Falls cooperative celebrates 15 years
The Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative, still in its original storefront at 26 Bridge St.,, is packed with an eclectic mix of high-end art and craft items.
Members of the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative, celebrating its 15th year in business this month, say that the feeling of being a family has contributed to the co-op's success. Front row: current president Cheryl Denton, Nancy Baker. Middle row: Laurie Wheeler, Edith Bingham, Julie Hall Rocke. Back row: Sandy Denis, Stephen Earp, Christine K. Conniff..
Photo courtesy of the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative.
Jeweler Sally Chaffee's Bridge of Flowers necklace is on display at the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative as part of their Our Town, Shelburne Falls exhibit, closing Aug. 25 with a gala reception to celebrate the co-op's 15 years in business.
Photo courtesy of the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative.
This painting by Sandy Denis shows a pedestrian strolling down Bridge Street near the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative's bright orange awning.
Turners Falls artist Nina Rossi's multi-media piece that depicts the Bridge of Flowers is on display at the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative as part of their "Our Town, Shelburne Falls" exhibit, closing Aug. 25 with a gala reception to celebrate the cooperative's 15 years in business.
Work by Shelburne Falls potter Steve Earp is on display at the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative on Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls. Earp is one of 50-plus members of the cooperative.
Walk into the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative and you’ll find a stunning array of arts and crafts.
The variety of colors and textures, sizes and shapes and the wide variety of unusual, handmade products makes a visit to the co-op’s storefront at 26 Bridge St. feel like a trip to a high-end craft fair. But you don’t have to brave crowds or the elements or drive to some faraway town: it’s all right there in downtown Shelburne Falls under the co-op’s hard-to-miss, bright-orange awning.
The co-op’s 50-plus members produce paintings, photographs, fiber arts, pottery, jewelry, dolls, baskets, fused glass pieces, metal work, hand-cut paper images as delicate as lacework, along with many other unique and unusual items. Because any prospective member’s work has to be juried by current co-op members, the quality of work is consistently high.
The co-op got its start in 1998, when basket-maker Christine Conniff and her friend Marianne Ives, tired of the crafts show circuit, decided to try opening a store. Conniff, who lived in Shelburne Falls for 27 years but now lives in Greenfield, said that the first store, at the same location on Bridge Street, was much simpler than the current one. Founding member Julie Hall Roth, a painter from Heath, agrees.
“We started with mostly apple crates covered with material,” Roth said. “We had a wooden jewelry display.”
In those early days, Roth thought the store might last six months. “It was kind of rustic and yet we made it work. We really made it work!”
Roth’s assessment is no understatement: the cooperative is about to celebrate its 15th year in business this August — no small accomplishment during hard economic times that have forced other galleries in the area out of business.
“Financially, our heads are above water,” said current president Cheryl Denton, a fused-glass and stained-glass artist who lives in Shelburne Falls. She and others attribute the business’ success to its cooperative model. Because co-op members share the work as part of their member requirement, there are no salaries to pay, except to one bookkeeper. This helps keep overhead down.
But the cooperative has also become like family, many members said, and they see that as an intangible yet powerful contributing factor to its success.
“It’s been a really good bonding community, a supportive community. That’s really important,” said Edith Bingham, who makes rugs as well as intricate lace-like paper cuts and other crafts. “If somebody’s sick or somebody has some hardship, people come through.”
Laurie Wheeler, who makes recycled paper jewelry for the shop, added that members celebrate happy occasions as well. “We go to baby showers,” she said. “We’re all new aunties right now. Except you,” she said to potter Steve Earp, laughing. “You’re not a new auntie.”
Browsing customers like to learn that the shop is run as a cooperative and that all of the work is handmade by local artisans. “A lot of people want to support that,” Denton said.
“And they want to know how we did it — for 15 years!” Roth said.
“Well, it doesn’t hurt that it’s probably the geographic center of town,” Earp offered. “It’s probably the best location that you could have, with a restaurant that you share a door with. This is the heart of Shelburne Falls.”
On autumn days during foliage season, “There are no less than five tour buses in town at any given time,” Denton said. “Always in the fall, it’s super, super busy.” Many customers return year after year, searching for gifts or looking to add to their collections.
Curator Sandy Denis makes sure the displays change often, to keep customer interest piqued.
“If it looks new, people like that,” Earp said, of the shop’s overall appearance.
Denis added, “We try to vary the shows. We’ve recently started to do themed shows.”
In early July, when members met to talk about the co-op’s history and the reasons for its success, the theme was “Fiber,” a show that included not only items that might be expected such as cloth scarves, dolls, rugs and other woven goods but a few that might not be, such as paintings or photographs of goats or sheep.
The current themed show is “Our Town, Shelburne Falls.” A closing reception for the show will be the centerpiece of a gala event planned to celebrate the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative’s 15th anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 25. The event will include refreshments, as well as two performances featuring the acoustic folk/country music of Sue Kranz and Ben Tousley at 3 and 4 p.m.
Joining the cooperative
Wall space is tight right now for paintings and larger items, members agreed, but the cooperative will always consider work that is exceptional. Work by prospective members is juried at monthly meetings, held the first Tuesday of each month.
There are two levels of membership in the Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative: nonworking members, also called patrons, and working members. Nonworking members receive 50 percent of their sales, a standard percentage for a gallery arrangement.
Working members who work 12 hours a month can keep 70 percent of their sales; those who work 18 hours a month can keep 80 percent.
Artists interested in being considered for membership should drop their work off prior to the monthly meeting.
Hours are Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For more information about membership or about the 15th anniversary celebration, contact: Shelburne Falls Arts Cooperative, 26 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls, MA 01370; 413-625-9324; www.shelburneartscoop.com.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden.