It’s no secret some might characterize the art industry as a silver fox…but that is changing! More and more young people are taking on leadership. Two such “young people”, Anna Peters and Hilary Pope of Art Coop, share what it means to co-own a business, daily challenges and rewards, and their vision for the store’s future.
Art Coop, a 3,000 square foot store located in the Champaign-Urbana area of Illinois, has been owned and operated by local artists since 1971. Specializing in art, architectural, photographic and craft supplies, Art Coop has a long-standing reputation of expertise within the “Chambana” community. As of last year previous owners Knut and Susan retired. Anna took up the mantle, shortly followed by Hilary.
New owners, yes, but by no means new to the art world. Anna has been in the industry for over twelve years, starting out as a clerk at Art Coop while at university. After graduation and a brief stint in Pittsburgh where she managed an Artist & Craftsman, she returned to Art Coop and began to take on more responsibility. Art Coop co-owner Hilary has a background in graphic design and moves in the same artistic circles as Anna. They were “buds” before they were partners. Their partnership is strengthened by their friendship and their collaborative artistic endeavors on the side. Anna (AP) and Hilary (HP) kindly spent over an hour with me to shed light on how they work together and what makes Art Coop tick.
Art Dog: How did you two initially begin working at Art Coop?
AP: I started working at the Art Coop in August of 2007. I had two friends who worked here previously. I started out as a clerk, and after I managed an Artist & Craftsman in Pittsburgh, I came back with way more managerial experience than before. Knut retired at the end of 2017, I bought his share of the business, then Susan retired and I bought the other half. Hilary and I got ourselves organized, she bought the other half and now we are together! I knew Hilary through friends of friends, her partner is an art teacher, I offered her a position initially and that’s how we began to work together.
HP: Art Coop is legendary; you don’t apply. You get invited. I am a townie, so I grew up here and have always been in awe of the Art Coop. When Anna reached out, I had just finished my degree in graphic design and I needed a job. It worked out perfectly.
Art Dog: What are your artistic backgrounds outside of Art Coop?
AP: I have two bachelor’s, one in Graphic Design, one in New Media. Hilary and I are both practicing artists. The past few months we’ve been a tiny bit overwhelmed trying to get the Art Coop to run without constant babysitting. But lately both of us have been making collages, I do embroidery. We’re part of a group called the Screaming Fridas, a feminist artist collective. It’s a way to do stuff without so much pressure, we get together and make things. We grew up in “it” (the local art scene) and now we’ve inherited “it.” We can help by having lots of paint in stock. It’s a really good community.
Art Dog: Art Coop is located in an indoor mall, next door to a food co-op, a framing shop, a creative reuse store, a quilting store, a couple jewelry stores. How does that influence your business?
AP: It’s quite collaborative. My partner works at the creative reuse store. The manager there comes over every Monday for glue sticks. We go over there a lot to get stuff for window displays, etc. We complement one another in that if a customer wants a full tube of paint you can come to Art Coop, or if you just need a few dots of paint, you can go to the Idea Store. They are getting together their classroom schedule now, we’re seeing if we can do some cross-over, some co-sponsored events.
Art Dog: It sounds like you guys are really collaborative people in general—what is it like owning an art store together?
AP: Hilary and I are really good buds. We have a good relationship in that we call BS on one another and it’s not a huge ordeal. We have open conversations.
HP: It makes communication way easier.
AP: As for owning the store, it’s big. We find it funny. Because I’ve been doing it for so long, I started managing without actually being a manager. I took the initiative and got permission to start ordering things I thought we needed. Hilary and I downplay our position, we feel like it’s “fake”, but it’s pretty awesome to own an established art store that has room to grow, we can put our own spin on it.
Art Dog: And what is the “spin” that you are putting on the store?
HP: The Internet!
AP: Technology! We want it to be more accessible online. I put Hilary in charge of that stuff.
HP: There are these gaps, and the store operated totally fine without it, but the potential business that we can generate from utilizing these tools… we need to be doing this.
AP: We inherited so much from the Art Coop. For instance, a printmaking professor who taught the previous owner, he comes in, we know to order a specific kind of epoxy… I know the community, I’ve been doing this long enough that they trust me, I know what they need. But we are obviously much younger, about half the age of that community. So we bring in a different age group as well.
HP: Also, my partner is an arts coordinator for the public school system here —
AP: That’s something we’ve never tapped into, elementary school, high school, etc. I mean… they use paint… do they want to use our paint? That kind of thing.
HP: We basically know all of the art teachers in town, and that is a huge part of our community.
Art Dog: Technology is such an important tool, and multi-generational connections are crucial for building community. What else is on the docket for Art Coop’s future?
AP: We have a little gallery in our store. We have shows every so often. People have used it for demos (such as Sandy Bacon from Golden). One of the things we are excited about (inspired by Dealer Workshop): we want to figure out a class schedule. Our account manager Cassie hooked us up with Wet Paint and man, they are over-achievers. I just read your article about their social media strategies last night.
HP: That’s another one of our goals, to make that connection on social media fluid, have content that makes sense and connects to what we are selling.
Art Dog: What did you think of NAMTA?
AP: NAMTA is great. I really like being able to see different ways that people have merchandising set up… It was great to meet specific people from companies we work with. And to meet other small business owners. It was great to bring Hilary along, she hasn’t been doing this as long as I have. She brought a real sense of excitement. I try to remember when I first started, getting shot down by the former owners—one time I was so excited about POSCA markers and they said no way, we tried them in 1972 and everyone hated them. I remember thinking… maybe they are better now? We carry them now and everyone loves them. So we try to have a balance when it comes to old and new perspectives.
HP: I thought it was really interesting to see the quick demos at NAMTA. It’s something I want to incorporate here, if we can do something so quickly to explain something to a customer, to show someone how things work. The small display above the products were really cool.
Art Dog: I think the tactile experience is so important for visual people. When I go to an art store, I gravitate towards anything I can touch, anything open and out of the bottle.
AP: That’s what is so important about having a smaller brick & mortar; a community gathering place. When people come in with questions, a lot of people start out with “This is really weird…” and we’re here to be like no, it’s not, it’s cool, and this is how it works. You gotta touch everything, the paper, the pen. There are 6,000 different reds I mean, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you call me or show me color swatches online. We have so much knowledge and know exactly what we want because we are so immersed in this world, and that’s the fun part of this job: trying to figure out the “thing” that people want. So much of our job is translating. Someone will have a vague idea of what they want or what they are already doing.
Art Dog: Is the Buyer’s Guide a useful sales tool and/or source of inspiration for you?
AP: I like it! It feels like I’m being a tiny bit lazy that y’all did a bunch of work for me and it’s awesome. There is so much information there. I also love the calendar; you’ve got it set up in a way that doesn’t go out of style. We can look into the future. Yesterday we were talking and thinking about “National Pencil Day…”
(Hilary holds up two giant pencils in the background)
Art Dog: What! You guys made giant pencils?
AP: There are pencils in the window right now, with ferrules and everything. What’s great about working with Hilary is that before we partnered up, I was doing this all by myself. This last summer I worked seventy days in a row. This kind of excitement? On National Pencil Day, I’m like, uh is anyone going to be working on National Pencil Day? Hilary has the energy to do cool things like this window display. The extra brainspace is great.
HP: When I finished with my program I was working with one client for most of the time, by myself. I realized I couldn’t work by myself all the time. It’s so much fun to work with other people and share ideas.
Art Dog: What is a challenge you are dealing with right now?
AP: Getting all of our employees on board with being the reason why people want to come into our store instead of ordering things online. Working on our community, as a small store. The Art Coop is like my living room, the people are like my family… we are working on taking some big strides forward to be confident in that, as a younger gen of the Art Coop.
Art Dog: What is one of your strategies for making that happen?
AP: Education is a big part of our future plans, both education of our employees and educational opportunities for the art community as a whole. We want our employees to be confident with their knowledge and use it to help customers, so we’ve started what we casually call “Try the Supply.” We pick a different art supply each week for our employees to use in a communal sketchbook so they have first hand experience using lots of media. We’ve been scheduling demos, workshops and lectures to happen in our gallery space in addition to exhibitions. We want to continue our role as a hub for the local art community.
Art Dog: What is most rewarding about your work with Art Coop?
HP: The rotating inspiration. People come in, they have a cool project, they are really excited about what they are doing, they need help. To be a part of that process.
AP: And to have them come back. We help them, they come back and tell us if it worked. There is so much knowledge there, so much to learn. There are lots of moments… for instance last back to school in the fall, I was putting together kits before Hilary came on, in the middle of my seventy day “work pile.” I realized I was one of these 18 year-olds coming into the Art Coop, twelve years ago. I remember thinking how cool the Art Coop was, how exciting, all this cool art sh**. And we are doing that for people now! People who are at the beginning of their art brain life. They come in and say, “My teacher sent me here and they said you know everything!” Or, last weekend there was a little girl running around and she said “This is art supply heaven,” I mean, I’m in the back doing payroll and I wanna cry! It’s a ton of work, but to be that cool community spot giving people the space to…I don’t know, talk about pencils. How did we become adults who own art supply store and are being that resource for the next generation of humans? It’s phenomenal.
Are you a twenty-something staff member taking on more responsibility? Are you grouped in the vague category “young people” and stepping up as manager or owner? We want to hear your story.