Arati Artists co-op fetes 30th year

       Thirty years ago, it was no easier than today for artists trying to get started. Professional galleries' commissions can be high - and that's even if the artists' works are selected.
       In 1977, a group of local artists set out to buck the system. They formed a co-operative (in which every member is a co-owner) in Old Colorado City called Arati Artists Gallery. The goal, to work together to show their creative efforts, has survived to this day at 2425 W. Colorado Ave.
       Arati will be celebrating its 30-year milestone Friday, Dec. 7, from 5 to 8 p.m., as part of its December all-gallery show opening and the Old Colorado City Holiday Art Walk the same night.
       The date closely coincides with Dec. 10, 1977, when the co-op opened in the same building it's in now. Marian Busey, 95, an experienced artist and still an active printmaker, is the only one left of the original 15 who decided to take the plunge back then.
       Before Arati, a shop called Recycled Records had been at that address. It still had pegboards on the walls that had probably been used to hold records. And, in terms of sales, Arati hardly set any “records” at the outset.
       “After the first year, we didn't know if we would keep going,” Busey recalled.
       Those who stayed with it had to improvise. They raised money for the co-op by painting banners, organizing bake sales, teaching classes and workshops and promoting art shows in Bancroft Park.
       In general, it was not the ideal time to be opening such a business in Old Colorado City. The shopping district wasn't like it is today, with landscaped sidewalks and a dozen or so art galleries. Back then, the area consisted of “empty buildings and second-hand furniture stores,” Busey said. “It was a depressed area.” Then why had Arati chosen that location? “Because it was cheap and available,” she replied.
       But there were also signs of life. The Simpich and Garman's figure-creation businesses relocated to Old Town around the same time, and a public-private revitalization would make the area more appealing to shoppers by the early '80s.
       For Arati, the major turning point came from an unexpected source: its landlords. Looking for ways to cut costs, the co-op had asked the property owners about renting a smaller space or perhaps getting a shorter lease, Busey said. Instead, the landlords - William and Anna Henry, both deaf, and their daughter, Bertha Kondrotis, who signed for them - asked to meet with the Arati group. “They told us, 'We won't push you to the wall' [in terms of payment] and reduced our rent a little,” Busey said. She added her belief that “the kindness of William and Anna Henry is what kept us going.”
       Through the hard times, the Arati people retained pride in their mission. Even though the membership dropped to just 10 people at one juncture, Busey said the group never sank to the point of letting in anyone, just because the co-op needed the money. Like today, only dedicated artists were considered for membership. “We could have said we'd accept a nice old lady who paints by numbers,” Busey said. “But we didn't.”
       Marilyn Kirkman, who joined Arati about a year after it started, was also its volunteer bookkeeper for 10 years. She pointed out a financial nicety of the co-op: “We never borrowed,” she said. “We used cash. And, when we needed something, we'd ask people to donate.”(The gallery would reimburse them later.)
       Over time, affairs improved. Membership grew, and sales picked up. In 1991, three members formed a separate corporation to buy the building from the Henrys. The number of artists has stabilized at 19. And, according to watercolorist Larry Haught, a shorter-term member (four years) who doubles as the Arati publicist, the sales month of September was its best ever.
       But savvy and tenacity aren't all that have made Arati successful. “We're a humane group,” Busey said.
       Kirkman can attest to that. In recent years, she has suffered macular degeneration in her eyesight. Unable to paint like she used to, she invented a tactile art form called Silk Relief, in which silk is shaped on a board and paint and color are applied over it. “If it's wrong, I don't know it,” she laughed. The main point is that during the time she was perfecting the method, the other members supported her efforts. “This is a gallery that takes care of its own,” she said.
       Newer members, such as Haught, are eager to carry the Arati torch forward. “We just want to help improve it,” he said. “They [the older members] have paid their dues.”
       People visiting Arati will always find one or more of its artists tending the store (thus saving money on hired staff). These include the likes of George Fellows, a jeweler who was once the Colorado Springs city manager; Dick Williams, former director of the Artists of the Rockies and Air Force Academy illustrator; Lorraine Watry, president of the Pikes Peak Watercolor Society; and Jane Oyler, whose watercolors have been shown and awarded in Michigan, Colorado, California and New Mexico.
       Co-op members also decide the layout - pieces rotate monthly so that every artist gets to be in prominent locations. There's an opening reception almost every month, at which two of the members' works are spotlighted.
       When a membership opening occurs, applications are taken. The co-op has the luxury now of narrowing the choices to artists whose media would boost the gallery. For example, Arati now offers sculptures, bronzes and wildlife wood carvings. “We have a good time playing store and deciding what would sell,” Kirkman said.
       The Arati membership meets monthly, voting on issues related to the gallery. A current hot topic is closing for two weeks in January, moving all the works out to allow new carpet to be laid and the walls to be painted.
       The name “Arati” comes from an East Indian word that means “something like bringing light to a community,” Busey said. It was thought up by Lou Anne Trainor, the person who also had the idea for starting the co-op but left after a relatively short time. “We've had people who wanted to change the name,” Busey added, “but we never could find anything better.”
       Trying to put the co-op's 30-year history into perspective, Busey said she knows of others that have failed, as well as one significant success - Common-wheel in Manitou Springs. “A cooperative is a pretty delicate thing,” she said. “It's easy to have it go to pieces.”
       Or, as Kirkman put it, “It's hard to get 19 people to be nice for 30 years.”

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