The cooperative's previous home a couple of blocks away had been in a Cape May retail outlet, where the lighting might not have been as brilliant and the one-of-a-kind handmade goods of the guild members competed for sales with more mainstream, mass-produced items, said Mary Stewart, 65, of Town Bank, a fiber artist, and the cooperative's president.
"It is the light in this area that inspires a lot of artists to come to Cape May, so it's wonderful to be in this particular space, where the natural light coming in through all the windows really showcases the work of our members," she said.
All the work for sale in the gallery, which is juried, is produced by artists who live in Cape May County, and most of the items are centric to the region. Though you might not find kitschy "greetings from Cape May"-type items, you will find pieces that reflect the spirit of the popular beach and birding part of the New Jersey Shore. Prices range from a few dollars for a hand-blocked postcard to thousands for large paintings and sculptures.
Among the artists featured in the new gallery is Joe Evangelista, 67, a nature photographer from the Del Haven section of Middle Township. His work captures the deep color and exuberance of nature - whether it's a close-up of a snowy owl or a sandy, rustic beach scene.
As a former police chief in Middle Township, Evangelista said he was used to seeing the seamier side of life. But the retiree says photography has allowed him to get away from the "ugliness and hate in the world" and find the "beauty that has always been there alongside it."
"There are not a lot of smiles in police work," Evangelista said. "Nowadays, I just want to be able to go to work and make people happy and feel good by what they see."
And there is a lot to see in the converted 1,500-square-foot office building that is part of a redevelopment complex known as Chattel House Village that straddles Sunset Boulevard. The three main rooms on the first floor of the wood-frame structure are filled with the art on sale. The cooperative plans to make use of its second floor by offering art classes in painting, drawing, and other media.
"That was something that we were unable to do in our previous location, so we're really excited about being able to bring the community in for classes," said Catherine Bosna, 67, of North Cape May, chairwoman of the gallery's relocation committee, who paints and creates artwork using found objects.
Each member of the cooperative helps with staffing the gallery during business hours - which are determined seasonally - as well as with the day-to-day operations.
"Here, we are all responsible for everything," said Diana Cutshall, 67, of Town Bank, a seed-bead jewelry artisan and former president of the group, which formed four years ago. "And we want everyone to be successful, so everybody has a role in everything. Overall, the space is so much more conducive to what we do as a group."
Diane Flanegan, 62, a glass artist who left a career as a psychotherapist and moved to West Cape May in the late 1990s with her husband, Rich, a landscape painter, to make a go at "living by the brush," says the co-op's new digs are the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the group.
"It's been interesting to watch the evolution of West Cape May over the years as a kind of artist's colony where you've had mom-and-pop art stores come in and create a kind of enclave for arts," Flanegan said. "I think this new space adds to that. We now have a chance to create a more welcoming space for the public to come in, have a cup of coffee with us, see the art, and maybe take a class or two."