Cooperative Art

Not your ordinary art gallery: After overcoming lingerie takeover, Archway thrives in new space

Not your ordinary art gallery: After overcoming lingerie takeover, Archway thrives in new space

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Archway Gallery's space on Dunlavy was built out — by hand — by member artists. Courtesy of Archway Gallery
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Courtesy of Archway Gallery
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3-D artist Tom Irven makes and bottles his own wine, with the help of other artists.
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Courtesy of Archway Gallery
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Courtesy of Archway Gallery
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I have passed by Archway Gallery on Dunlavy street countless times without ever stopping. But once I went through its doors, I was amazed by what I found: A beautiful space that serves as a haven for local artists. 

Archway sets itself apart from other Houston galleries as a longstanding, world-renowned cooperative, owned and run by the very artists who show there. 

In 1976, a small group of local artists took control of selling their own art by organizing together and opening a space in a 600-square-foot gallery in the Jung Center.

 "Visitors come in and meet an artist, and it's not aloof or snooty at all," director John Slaby says. 

Over the past 35 years, more than 100 artists have passed through the organization as it has moved around Houston, from its initial location to Rice Village, then to Montrose, then to a store front in the River Oaks Shopping Center. 

When a lingerie shop took over the lease on West Gray in 2008, Archway found a newer, larger home on Dunlavy Street. With the extra space, Archway was able to double the size of its roster to a group of 30. 

A mix of sculptures, watercolorists, ceramicists and painters comprise the group, where veterans like Margaret Bock, who joined in 1980, work alongside recently-joined members.  

Today, in a vastly different time and situation, the overarching feeling is still a communal one. 

How it works

Archway's system has been lauded by participants and outsiders alike as one that works. Applicants vie for limited spaces through a rigorous selection process, complete with portfolio reviews and voting by member artists. 

Each artist holds stock, submits a monthly fee for rent and works in the gallery at least one day per month — in exchange receiving a constant place to display new work, an opportunity to obtain first-hand knowledge of how a gallery functions and admittance into a warm, creative family.

Every month a featured artist holds a solo exhibit in the front gallery and curator Kay Sarver re-assigns wall space in the back for a refreshed exhibit. At the openings, the gallery serves wine created by Tom Irven

The space is rented out for parties, charity events, fashion shows and receptions. Archway also hosts monthly readings that promote art in various forms and offers Tea & Tours by member Shirl Riccetti

The goal is an approachable, accessible art gallery. 

"Visitors come in and meet an artist, and it's not aloof or snooty at all," director John Slaby says. Because operating costs are low and the artists sell directly to the customer, quality works are priced at a reasonable cost. 

Why it works

Cookie Wells and Irven attribute it to pride for the gallery space and the other artists that show there. Mary Davis claims that it's synergy. 

Slaby says that Archway acts as more than a venue for selling art: It's also a forum for the artists to receive constant feedback and inspiration from colleagues.

 A commercial gallery often expects specific work at a certain pace. The cooperative format allows for creative freedom and immediate reaction from the audience and the other artists.  

"It's a place that allows you to get closer to your art," Slaby says.

A commercial gallery often expects specific work at a certain pace. The cooperative format allows for creative freedom and immediate reaction from the audience and the other artists.  

There is neither exclusivity (artists are allowed and even encouraged to show elsewhere) nor a sense of competition. Everyone has equal input on every issues, making all decisions by consensus — whether it's the addition of a new member or the approval of funds spent. 

Others arts groups have approached Archway for copies of its bylaws in hopes of establishing a similar cooperative. Some former members have gone onto establish their own galleries, like Linda Darke, of Darke Gallery.

"I wouldn't be the artist I am today without this gallery," Slaby says.

GENERATION by Gene Hester and Liz Conces Spencer is now running at Archway. It will be on display through March 5.