It’s not easy for most artists to eke out a living on Cape Cod, or anywhere else for that matter. Few can depend on it as sole income. Many have other jobs to support themselves. Selling art depends not on just the economy, but individual taste and often the current trends of the times. The recession was a death knell for some galleries, and another hole in the road to success for some artists. But not everyone found last year so bad.
For Provincetown gallery owner Julie Heller, her successful business is rooted in Provincetown history. The Julie Heller Gallery sells works by early Provincetown painters such as Hans Hofmann, William and Lucy L’Engle, and Ross Moffett, and many others on the verge of recognition posthumously, such as La Force Bailey (1893 - 1962) whose watercolors document Provincetown and are being sold from $1,500 to $4,000. She also sells contemporary works.
“I almost hate to say it, but I’ve done better and better every year,” said Ms. Heller, whose clients have included first-time buyers, collectors and museums. “It think people have seen that art is a good investment, especially older art and the early Provincetown painters who are becoming more and more recognized.”
Ms. Heller also feels that galleries with staying power have built up repeat buyers and a reputation the longer they are in business. Her gallery has been in Provincetown for 14 years, and she admits, it was a “long, slow climb” to become established and recognized.
Others also say it takes time to build a successful business.
“Actually, I’ve been increasing my business every year; whether we would have had a bigger year because of the recession, I don’t know,’ full-time Brewster artist Tim Struna said. “The only thing I did differently was offer a variety of prices.”
Mr. Struna has his own gallery on Route 6A and also shares space with six other artists at the cooperative Chatham Gallery.
“I think the arts have done well historically in bad economic times. People always want to decorate their walls and homes, and they’ve always supported the arts.”
“Last summer was very good,” Harwich artist Georgia Dearborn said. Mrs. Dearborne sold her gallery and farming business a few years ago and now exhibits in the summer at the Art in the Park in Harwich Port, at the Left Bank Gallery in Wellfleet and a gallery in Wellesley. Her paintings of cat boats sold at a Nantucket gallery for twice what she sold them for in her own gallery, she said. “I was just tickled,” she said.
Mrs. Dearborn thinks she did sell much of her work in summer art shows because she cut her prices 25 percent to reduce the volume in her home following the closing of her gallery.
“I think an artist who wants to be as professional where to compromise to meet the market,’ she said.
Waverly Gallery in Harwich Port was a new venture for owner Margeen Rowley who represents several local painters in her space. Her first year in business proved to be fruitful, particularly due to a marketing concept she came up with early in the summer. She signed up her gallery artists to paint outside the Brax Landing restaurant, overlooking Saquatucket Harbor, for eight Saturday mornings. Every painting sold the day it was painted, she said.
“People liked having a history behind the painting, that ‘yes, I was there when this was painted,’ she noted.
In addition, she set up painting displays in restaurants. “There were days when I was in a different restaurant every week. For me, starting off and not having a lot of money, it was great free advertising.”
Another trend she found was the popularity of miniatures, which sold very well at $95 each and she plans to carry more this summer.
“Little things look nice on shelves and coffee tables,” she said about the smaller paintings’ appeal. “More people can find room in their house for a small painting and the price is more affordable.”
Not all artists reported a good year. Orleans painter Curtis Rosser said he noticed “a marked decline in sales” since mid- 1990 but he doesn’t plan on lowering prices to attract buyers.
“You can’t undercut your market,” he feels. “You spend a good chunk of your time getting to that level.”
He said many artists try to gain more exposure by showing in a number of galleries, but serving the galleries takes time, especially if they are located off-Cape. Mr. Rosser shows locally at Tree’s Place, Cummaquid Fine Arts, the Gallery Under the Elms, a Woods Hole gallery in the summer, and in a Scituate gallery.
On the other hand, he has seen signs that the market is picking up, but again, the reason people buy paintings depends on a number of variables, not just the economy, he said.
[Carol K. Dumas, Cape Cod Antiques & Arts]