For over 60 years, the Arts and Crafts Cooperative, known as the “Gallery,” has found a home in Berkeley’s rich tradition of co-op businesses. It’s a special corner of the city to revel in artworks and wonderment, pet a colorful knitted hat, or cock your head to consider a whimsical ceramic pot. The stately brick building at 1652 Shattuck Ave. has supported over 3,500 artists in its time, and lent stability to generations of artists in the city. Now, the business is looking to build ties with young artists and continue its mission of diversity and human connection in the local art scene.
There are currently 110 artists in the co-op, and about half work in the Gallery to organize events, manage operations and sell arts and crafts. Some people think the space is like a museum, where you can look but can’t touch, says co-op president Kirk McCarthy, also a long-time member of the North Shattuck Association board of directors. Its primary goal, however, is to sell handmade arts and crafts, promote local creatives and build relationships with community members and visitors. McCarthy creates jewelry and has been co-op president off and on for the last ten years. He spills over with stories about the people he’s connected with through the Gallery, considered the oldest arts and crafts co-op west of the Mississippi.
He was working in the gallery once when Gus Newport, former mayor of Berkeley, walked in with two guests on a quest to find a piece of jewelry. Upon speaking to Newport, McCarthy learned one of the guests was Vincent Harding, who wrote Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech condemning the Vietnam War. Harding was searching for a wedding ring for his marriage to Aljosie Aldrich Harding.
“There are amazing stories, incredible stories that people come and tell me,” McCarthy said of the people who pass through the Gallery. “You hear about who they are, you know some of them, you say, ‘I know you, I’m reading your book!'”
Creating art and crafts can sometimes be a lonely profession, demanding hours in the studio, but the co-op connects artists with their customers in a way that traditional galleries and museums don’t always allow, McCarthy said. The structure of the business has also helped it persist through years of difficult economies and rising costs in the Bay Area, especially as one of the few artist co-ops that owns its building. McCarthy credited this foundation to the “kickass” women who built up the co-op. Today, a majority of the co-op members are women. And since October the Gallery has had a new, dynamic director, Susan Friedewald.
Alison Lingane, co-founder of Project Equity, works with the Berkeley Office of Economic Development to help businesses explore employee ownership as a path to business longevity, employee engagement and local wealth creation. She explains, “Compared to a single-owner entity, ACCI’s got stability because of its broad base of involvement and support.”
As it grows in age and adapts to a changing Bay Area, the co-op has allowed artists who have been priced out of the region to remain in the organization. Many of its artists are now older, including those who have found an outlet for their artistic creations after retirement, but the co-op is always searching for younger artists who can benefit from its resources. It’s especially difficult to produce arts and crafts independently, McCarthy said, and the co-op also offers informal mentorship for artists who are driven and produce high-quality work.
“There are a lot of cases where people are hustling to survive,” McCarthy said. “We’d love to get younger and more diverse group of artists. We’re trying to figure out how to do that now.”
The co-op has opened its doors to book talks, poetry readings, musical events and an array of community gatherings, and hopes to continue its tradition of warmth and creativity as both an enduring local business and a haven for people who stake their claim as an artist in Berkeley.
Many of the co-op artists and craftspeople return time and again and form bonds with a specific artist. Others make an active effort to keep their prices affordable and share their work with as many customers as possible, some of whom don’t even realize all the work is created locally.
“It’s a tradition for Berkeley residents to fill their homes with locally created arts and crafts.” McCarthy says. “I hope people will buy their gifts here this holiday season.”
This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED staff help entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley.