How artist cooperatives found new ways to help creative people thrive despite COVID-19


This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In the age of online retail and freelance work platforms like Etsy and Upwork respectively, the ability for professional creatives to skip the job hunt and become independent contractors can be very appealing, but studies show that the challenges and anxieties faced by freelancers increase when they take on the responsibility of managing every aspect of running a business, from accounting to marketing and beyond. The global pandemic has only exacerbated the worries of independent creatives, who may not be able to afford to take time off when they want to, whether they are sick or healthy.

Artist cooperatives, like the online art shop Justseeds, offer an alternative model of business for artists burned out from going it alone. However, the benefits of organizing with other disparate creatives may not always be immediate or apparent, according to Justseeds cofounder Josh MacPhee.

“We live in this sort of gig/app-driven economy in which we are perpetually sold the benefits of acting as atomized individuals, while the costs of [such a system] are always invisibilized,” says MacPhee. “When young artists who are trying to pay rent and put food in their mouths see a super slick, well-organized and user-friendly interface like Etsy, and it appears on the surface that [these artists] get [to keep] 70 to 80 percent of the sales, they don’t see the benefit of joining a cooperative that is clunkier and takes more investment.”

An artist cooperative is a business, gallery space or studio that is owned and democratically controlled by its members. Justseeds is just that, and boasts 41 members both foreign and domestic, who sell their radical art prints on the company’s e-commerce website in a similar fashion to Etsy. However, in Justseeds’ cooperative model, every artist has a say in how the business operates.

“When we started [Justseeds], it was great because I only had to be 1/16th of an entrepreneur. Now I’m just 1/41st of an entrepreneur. That means I’ll have more time to make art and do the things I want to do with my life,” says MacPhee. “That’s the real appeal, because as an artist, you don’t really want to be an entrepreneur; you don’t want to be an individual biopolitical, economic machine.”

MacPhee grew up steeped in the DIY punk scene in the 1990s and got his start as an artist printing posters, T-shirts and zines focused on social justice ideas and movements. Justseeds was initially formed in 1998 as a way to distribute the posters and screen-printed T-shirts MacPhee had accumulated over time.

“I made a flyer and sent it in the mail to everyone I knew. This was before I had an email address or website. The flyer was a picture of the art I had made, and people would check off what they wanted, and put cash in the envelope and send it to me,” says MacPhee. “[The reach of Justseeds] grew over time, and artists who were doing similar work asked me if I would sell their art too.”

MacPhee didn’t like the idea of being a middleman, skimming profits off the top of the sales made by his fellow artists, and didn’t care to tackle Justseeds’ administrative work on his own, so he sent a proposal to his colleagues to start an artist cooperative. When 15 others showed interest, they officially transformed Justseeds into an artist cooperative in 2007.

“The dominant way that people bought and sold art was in a gallery, so we were essentially creating a virtual community gallery without gallerists,” says MacPhee. “In that way, it wasn’t a new model. In the 1970s, there was an explosion of artist-run galleries. This [transformation of Justseeds] was just taking [that model] into the 21st century [by making it online].”

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Justseeds, like other online merchants, saw an explosion in sales that didn’t mix well with the safety precautions associated with the virus, as they could only have a few people physically inside their Pittsburgh-based distribution center at one time.

“This sort of perverse thing happened with COVID, where people started spending the money they would [have otherwise been] spending in the world, online. We saw a huge spike in sales, but we had a logistics logjam, and it took months to get art out sometimes [and deliver it to buyers],” says MacPhee. “In some ways, however, the pandemic has been useful for us because we were already struggling with the stressors of online communication, and now we are more conscious of that.”

After almost 25 years, MacPhee wakes up every day amazed that Justseeds has grown to employ artists from 30 locales in three different countries, all tackling different political and social issues, local and global.

“That has everything to do with our decentralized solidarity economic model as opposed to a more traditional centralized business structure,” says MacPhee. “Politically, we function as a loose collective while the cooperative creates this larger social identity, so I can do the work I’m doing in my locale, and other artists, whether they’re in the Bay Area or Mexico City or Toronto, can do the work [they want] on their local struggles.”

Looking to the future, MacPhee hopes more young artists organize and experiment with new cooperative business models that make Justseeds’ business structure look like a dinosaur.

“We just need to keep experimenting,” says MacPhee. “Justseeds is 25 years old now, and it’s not easy for us to try new things because there are so many patterns that we already exist in. We try to be fleet-footed and dynamic, but I want to see dozens of groups in dozens of places experimenting with what it means to create culture in a cooperative context.”

An artist cooperative to fight inequities in the immersive storytelling space

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, former lobbyist and human services fundraiser Lauren Ruffin is paving the way for what an artist cooperative looks like in these interesting times. While serving as co-CEO of the arts service organization Fractured Atlas, Ruffin was inspired to co-found the digital artist cooperative CRUX as a way to combat the inequities she saw in the immersive storytelling space, which includes virtual and augmented reality, also known as extended reality (XR).

“Folks weren’t really talking about the immersive storytelling space before the pandemic, and now we’re talking about web3 and metaverses,” says Ruffin. “The core of everything I’m trying to do is to ensure that there is economic justice for Black people as we begin to build these new environments. Because we’re kind of just letting white guys do it.”

While attending the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Ruffin was moved by the immersive art piece NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, but was disturbed when she discovered that the female-led Hyphen Labs, which created the cross-platform project, didn’t receive as much funding as other immersive storytelling projects led by white males.

This phenomenon is not new. According to data from Crunchbase, a platform that provides information about private companies, “Black entrepreneurs received just 1.2 percent of the record $137 billion invested in U.S. startups in the first half of 2021,” which is actually an increase from 2020.

“I kept asking people, who’s going to fix this? And finally, I realized that it was me. I had to fix this myself,” says Ruffin. “That’s how CRUX started. A lot of people talk about their passion for something, but I was just fucking angry. It really pissed me off, and I think rage can be a fuel toward something beautiful.”

With Ruffin’s innate tenacity and background in fundraising, she created an artist cooperative that supports BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) digital creatives in the XR space. CRUX finances and helps these digital creatives produce immersive storytelling art pieces like the virtual reality series POV (Points of View), created by writer and director Alton Glass, which debuted at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

CRUX began as a public benefit corporation, but Ruffin decided to reform CRUX as a cooperative after pondering the speculative fate of the cable channel BET.

“I just kept thinking about how Bob Johnson [co-founder of BET] was the first Black billionaire, but never really helped out the Black community,” says Ruffin. “If BET had been a cooperative, we would have had thousands of Black millionaires seeding the creative ecosystem.”

One of the funders of CRUX connected Ruffin with attorney Jason Weiner, who helped Ruffin navigate the legalese associated with cooperatives.

“We don’t talk enough about how hard it is to find legal counsel to start cooperatives,” says Ruffin. “Finding good counsel at a reasonable rate is really what made the co-op happen. I would’ve stayed as a public benefit corporation otherwise.”

Over the last two years of the pandemic, CRUX paid BIPOC digital creatives nearly $2 million. Moving forward, Ruffin is studying the strengths and weaknesses of the FICO credit score to devise a new merit-based lending model, paying more Black digital creatives to create groundbreaking projects like POV, and educating people about worker cooperatives.

“I love the cooperative model and cooperative principles, and I don’t know that I would do a co-op in the same way again. There are many ways to get to the cooperative principles that are easier to maintain. You can think about democratic governance or multi-member LLCs,” says Ruffin. “I do think that for communities of color, the solidarity economy and cooperatives are really important to us in terms of broadening our understanding of what’s possible.”

Aric Sleeper is an independent journalist whose work, which covers topics including labor, drug reform, food and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications local to California’s Central Coast. In addition to his role as a community reporter, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.


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