The Commonwheel Artists Co-op celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014 and, for almost all of that time, the gallery has been nestled on the corner of Cañon Avenue and Lafayette Road in downtown Manitou Springs.
“It’s served us very well,” Juanita Canzoneri, the co-op’s current president, said of the location.
Commonwheel was started in the summer of 1974 when, according to a circa-1977 newsletter, “… John Hyde and Michael Mroz came to Manitou Springs from Rock Springs, Wyo. They passed out helium balloons on the streets and decided to be artists. After [awhile], Michael used … drawing materials to make posters announcing a potential art cooperative to meet at 135 [Ruxton]. About 60 people showed up. We were expecting two or three. We started talking, got excited, and by the end of the evening had organised [sic] ourselves into groups … planned a fair, built a castle in the air, and went to Murphys to celebrate.”
Today, Commonwheel is responsible for fewer fairs than it once was — its Labor Day festival remains a holdover from the organization’s first years.
“Initially it was not just a gallery. It was shared studio and office space, they did three festivals a year, they did art classes,” Canzoneri said. “It was really a small, cool, funky organization. I think they even did theater back in the day and poetry readings.”
Today, the co-op’s focus is its 35 member artists, who run the gamut of media — jewelry to pottery, 3D to wall art, woodworking to photography. And each artist has a stake in the business.
“It’s a very unique organization, especially as a business structure,” Canzoneri said. “It’s not like anything else going, mainly because we don’t have an owner — we have 35 owners. It’s maniacally democratic.”
Canzoneri said there is an eight-member executive board and several committees, including a jury committee responsible for vetting new members. The board is allowed expenditures below a certain level, but anything over that has to be approved by members.
“It’s terribly inefficient,” she said. “We want everything to be equitable, but you just can’t do that with 35 people in a very organic business. The needs change from day to day.”
Canzoneri said there are advantages to the model, though.
“You’re in an organization with 30 other working artists who get what you’re going through,” she said, adding most members have another job or are retired.
“As an artist, to make a living, you do a million different things,” she said. “You do as much as you can within your skill set to pay the bills. Some of that is fun; some of that is work.”
Another advantage, Canzoneri said, is the organization is “very fluid. No one says we’re only looking for [a particular] style of work, which is something that you’ll find in a ‘real’ gallery. [For example,] bring us paintings of trees because we can sell your trees.”
The co-op contracts artists on an annual basis. If an artist leaves, he or she must go through the jury process to return. Commonwheel keeps 30 percent of sales and the rest is the artist’s.
“That’s very generous,” Canzoneri said. “Normal galleries are 50/50.”
The co-op also maintains a gallery of nonmember works, for which the co-op keeps 40 percent of sales.
Canzoneri said “it would take work” to grow beyond 35 member artists, and the board and committees have to strike a balance between media and styles.
“We have a set amount of wall artists, a set amount of potters,” she said. “Our 3D artists shifted recently, and those shifts come down to those particular groupings being OK with that. We rotate space every one to three months, depending on the media, in order to be equitable.”
The co-op has two photographers, but one is leaving and likely won’t be replaced by another photographer, Canzoneri said.
“When we brought in the second photographer, the first photographer’s sales went down,” she said. “We need to be very conscious about how what comes in affects what’s already here.”
Local artists’ curse
A recurring theme among many local artists is the difficulty they have selling their wares to local consumers. Canzoneri said they experience the same phenomenon in Manitou Springs, but partly due to tourism-driven sales.
“I don’t know why that is,” she said. “It surprises me because of the quality of art that we are able to keep in this store, and everything is made in a 50-mile radius. It astounds me. … But I know artists who don’t sell locally anymore because they just can’t.”
Canzonari said summer brings the heaviest foot traffic, but the holidays are when most people “are opening their wallets.”
The co-op is concluding its annual holiday market, which features nonmember wares, and in January, Commonwheel will present its annual Pots by the Pound event Jan. 9-Feb. 9.
“It’s the only time of the year you’ll have people waiting outside the doors for you to unlock them,” Canzoneri said. “The gallery is jam-packed with so much art you wouldn’t believe it and pottery is sold by the pound. It’s a way to get income for the store and the artist in a really slow period.”
She said business is good this year compared to last, but nothing like it was before the latest recession.
“We haven’t seen days like that again.”
The largest event for Commonwheel remains its Labor Day festival, but even its sunny mascot has seen cloudy days the past two years. The event features art from Colorado and beyond, and includes food and live music.
“It’s the neighborhood festival writ large,” Canzoneri said, adding flooding and related damage have dampened spirits. The August 2013 flood washed out Memorial Park in Manitou and the festival was moved on short notice to Fields Park on El Paso Boulevard. Canzoneri said sales were down that year and rain kept patrons at bay. In 2014, the committee booked Fields Park again because Memorial Park was still unusable.
“We made a more concentrated effort on advertising, because we had more lead time,” she said.
“We did as much as we possibly could and attendance was up. We at least made some money. But vendors weren’t happy with patrons. … People came on shuttles and weren’t going to buy big works of art to schlep on a shuttle.
“Some vendors said if it’s held in Fields Park again they will not participate,” she said.
“Vendor participation is down last year to this year, but we’ve booked Memorial Park for  — fingers crossed.”
Commonwheel Artists Co-op
Location: 102 Cañon Ave., Manitou Springs, 685-1008