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Cooperatives work to keep money in the community

Artist Gaylon Westika’s hand-crafted pottery behind a glass case at the Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni cooperative. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

ZUNI PUEBLO – Known throughout the Southwest for its bright colors and fine details, Zuni Pueblo-made art is a staple in galleries from Albuquerque to Phoenix.

Along Zuni’s main street in particular, there’s no shortage of stores selling pottery, jewelry, fetishes and other traditional art forms.

But only one of those galleries, Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni, is collectively owned and operated by the Zuni artists themselves.

Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni, or “ARTZ,” is near its one-year anniversary, with nearly 30 artists as members.

Elroy Natachu Jr., a member and in-house manager at ARTZ, said it remains New Mexico’s only art cooperative owned and managed by Native American artists.

He said the goal is to provide a space where Zuni artists can sell their products at prices they set, allowing artists to become less reliant on wholesale markets and art shows.

Elroy Natachu Jr., a member of Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni cooperative, poses with some of his work. (Anthony Jackson/ Journal)

Ultimately, Natachu said the model can provide a lift to a pueblo that relies on its art as a source of income.

“We’re trying to help the community as best we can,” Natachu said.

Cooperatives old and new

While the artist cooperative is unlike anything in New Mexico, it fits into a larger trend of worker-owned and managed electrical, medical and manufacturing co-ops around the world.

The Zuni collective grew out of a partnership with Cooperative Catalyst of New Mexico, a group backed by New Mexico business leaders that aims to establish a broader range of cooperative businesses in New Mexico.

Robin Seydel, senior advisor for Cooperative Catalyst, said co-ops provide an alternate approach to the standard business model in the country, one that he said keeps a higher percentage of funding with the workers and within the community.

“Given the great disparities in wealth right now, not only in this country but worldwide, the co-op model provides a vehicle to increase economic justice through community ownership,” Seydel said.

Zuni Pueblo artists are known for their fetishes, which usually depict animals and icons integral to their culture.

Economic cooperatives can be arranged in a variety of different ways, in industries ranging from manufacturing to arts and entertainment.

Fred Mondragon, one of the founders of Cooperative Catalyst, said many are guided by a set of seven principles, organized around control by voluntary or elected members who participate in the work of the co-op, concern for the community and other issues.

Cooperatives range in size, scope and focus, from the massive Mondragon Corporation in Spain, to Albuquerque’s own La Montañita Co-Op.

Elsewhere in the U.S., co-ops have a long history in the Midwest and Northeast, primarily in the world of public utilities. However, Mondragon acknowledged New Mexico has lagged behind other parts of the country in implementing modern co-ops.

On the other hand, Sandra McCardell, another Cooperative Catalyst co-founder, said the Land of Enchantment has a long history of applying cooperative principles, citing the state’s elaborate system of communal irrigation canals, known as acequias.

The exterior of the Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni cooperative, a Zuni Pueblo gallery owned and operated by Zuni artists.

“What we’re doing in a way is taking those traditional forms and putting structures around them that come from the time that we’re living in,” she said.

McCardell added New Mexico could benefit more than most places from an increased focus on cooperatives. She said co-ops emphasize pooling resources together and sharing them among members, and thus tend to do well in communities where money and materials are often at a premium.

“You’re really bringing together people to support one another at a broader, higher level,” McCardell said.

The power of ARTZ

For Zuni artists, the path toward forming a cooperative started when a handful of artists who participate in the Zuni Artwalk started looking for another path.

Natachu said life in the pueblo is dominated by artists, but those artists don’t have many options as to where and how to sell their work. The most successful are able to participate in prestigious shows like Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix.

Most others, though, have to make a living through wholesale, or leave the pueblo to live in larger cities like Albuquerque and Phoenix, Natachu said.

“What we’re trying to show is that there’s another way,” he said.

Natachu said ARTZ, which signed a lease to move into its gallery space last summer, utilizes a consignment model, where artists receive 60% of the sale price of an item that sells through the gallery. The remaining 40% goes back to the gallery, toward expenses like electricity, rent and general upkeep.

Gaylon Westika, a Zuni artisan, poses with a piece of his pottery.

Natachu said this compares favorably with wholesale, where artists lack the ability to set their own prices, and often receive 25% or less of each sale. He said ARTZ’s model gives artists the chance to charge what they believe their work is worth, and to help break a cycle where artists can only raise prices if their work is well-received at art shows.

“What the gallery is trying to do is get them out of that system,” Natachu said.

The approach has benefits for artists who attend shows regularly as well.

Gaylon Westika, a member of the cooperative and a Zuni artist who has been making pottery for more than two decades, said his involvement in ARTZ has taught him other aspects of running a business, including marketing his pieces.

“What we need to do is to explain our art,” Westika said.

The cooperative currently has 28 members. Natachu said he’d like to see it grow to include 50 to 100 artists in the future, to give artists more lead time to make art and reduce burnout.

Elroy Natachu Jr. helps a client pick out Zuni jewelry at the Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni cooperative.

Going forward, he said the next steps for the co-op will be broadening the range of products for sale in the gallery, and creating a demonstration space that lets more artists show their work. One of the great assets of ARTZ is creating an intimate environment where visitors can learn more about the art as well as the people who make it, he said. “When you come to the gallery and purchase from here, you’re getting a story,” Natachu said.

Looking to the future

ARTZ was the first Cooperative Catalyst project to get off the ground, but the founders are confident that it won’t be the last.

The organization is working with Charey Fox, owner and founder of The Source, a collective of herbalists, massage therapists, and other alternative medicine practitioners to convert it into a member-based cooperative.

Fox said the effort is still in its early stages, but said she hopes a member-based approach can help engage the surrounding neighborhood.

“I would hope our neighbors could feel an even deeper sense of community by being members,” Fox said.

The organization also has plans to work with a caterer’s cooperative, though McCardell acknowledged the spread of the new coronavirus has curtailed some of those plans.

Mondragon said another key for CCNM will be conversion, the process of converting existing businesses into worker-owned cooperatives when founders are looking to sell the business and retire.

“Made in Zuni” is placed on jewelry made by members of the Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni cooperative.

As more Baby Boomers reach retirement age, Mondragon said many business owners are choosing between closing the business and selling to an out-of-state corporation.

Seydel said the problem is particularly pronounced in rural communities, which rely on small, family-owned businesses to function.

“If the grocery store closes, if the hardware store closes, it’s not good for those communities,” Seydel said. “They die.”

Mondragon said the process isn’t easy, but CCNM is offering technical assistance and advice on forming a new business entity. Ideally, he said converting to a cooperative will provide businesses another option to stay in operation.

“It’s not the only way,” Mondragon said. “It’s just another way.”

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