I first met Richard Demato about five years ago. I was walking down the high street in Sag Harbor in New Yorks' Long Island, and noticed a painting of a woman surrounded by birds in a gallery window. I went in to take a closer look, and there was this guy sitting behind a desk, casually dressed in that way that people who live by the coast dress, and we started talking about the artist and her work. As it turns out it was one of Andrea Kowch's early exhibitions. I could kick myself for listening to my husband (he wasn't sure where the piece I wanted would fit in our home) and not getting one of her paintings back then. Even at that time her work was being snapped up by major art museums, and in a very short space of time went up exponentially in value, and is now being secured by collectors before the paint is even dry. Andrea is an enormously talented and extremely successful artist, and when you talk to her she is very direct about the role that Richard and the RJD Gallery have had in that success in terms of their representation and marketing of her work. Which is an important and often overlooked aspect of the function a good gallery can have in an artist’s career.
Richard’s a New Yorker, and he’s got the accent and the attitude, and a razor sharp intellect. He has a shock of curly hair and a ground shaking laugh. He's also got that somewhat tough business-like exterior. But when he starts talking about the art and the artists he represents, he softens. Over the years we've become friends, and I've come to appreciate he not only sells art, but he believes in the people he represents, and he cares for them and their craft a great deal. There's a unique generosity in how he seeks to understand the artists and what it means and takes for them to create.
I've had many memorable opportunities to meet the various artists that the gallery represents through art shows and parties that Richard has hosted. This is an important thing to him and his gallery; he wants you to meet the artists, and to know the people whose work you are interested in and whose paintings you will be hanging in your home. And it does make a difference. When I look at some of the paintings we have acquired through the gallery over the years and which now hang in our home, I know each of the artists. I've met them, I've spoken to them, and I've asked them about the paintings that I own. How often do you get the opportunity to do that? To me it makes all the difference to my appreciation of something if I genuinely understand the work and the artists's intention. I once asked Richard about a painting in his gallery and the back story of it, and the next minute he got the artist on the phone and handed it over to me to discuss her work. This is something beyond selling - it's understanding what people need on both sides of the transaction.
Richard not only deals in art, but he buys it too. His home contains an enviable assortment of extraordinary pieces and is dreamy to wander around, which he generously encourages guests to do, but not before filling your glass with some rather good wine. I am, quite frankly, a little bit jealous of his collection.
But the relationship between artist and gallery is not always a happy one. Some artists feel that galleries play the numbers game and don't care for their work personally. An acclaimed artist and prior teacher of mine who refuses to work through galleries told me: If you paint for certain galleries, you are expected to paint in a particular style that sells. You quickly get hemmed in by the more commercial aspects of your work, so forget trying to diversify. Another concern for some artists is their belief that the galleries take far too large a percentage from them, given they, the artists, are the ones creating the work. Then there's the issue of getting galleries to represent you in the first place. There are some enormously talented and respected artists I know who genuinely struggle to find galleries to represent them because their work is simply not considered commercially viable. Quite frankly, many artists have a rather sour attitude about the whole gallery business whether it's down to repeated representation rejections or concerns over percentage fees.
This is why I thought it would be a good idea to ask Richard about some of these things, and to shed some light from the gallery owner's perspective. With thanks to Richard and the RJD Gallery.
Q: How did you come to owning an art gallery?
I've been collecting things my whole life, and since 2002, was far more involved with a myriad of non profit charities. They all raise the most money on selling artworks, or travel experiences, and I was walking in Sag Harbor six years ago, and saw the gallery space for rent ,and took the space within an hour of the sign being up, knowing it would work out, and seeing it as a portal for the cultivation and development
of awareness, for the non profits closest to my heart, and to provide me an opportunity to make a difference.
Q. Do you paint or draw yourself?
Not now, but I was an art and biology major when I started university in 1968, and my highest
achievement throughout my earlier education was in art.
Q: Your gallery comprises almost entirely of figurative realism. Can you tell me more about this and why you have gone down this path in terms of the artists you represent?
I've always been drawn to people and their unique visual appearances and persona. I marvel at our ability to all have our own character and personalities, with such similar mechanisms on the inside.
Thus we seek and offer that diversity and emotion to the collectors that are drawn in a parallel fashion.
Q: How do you find the artists you represent or do they find you? Or is it a combination?
It is now a combination of many factors and collaborative discovery. Its very exciting to find a diamond in the multitude of works we are now offered.
Q: You are unusual in that you pay some of your artists a salary to paint. Can you please talk more about this and how it works?
If we strongly and collaboratively believe in an exclusive artist, and they are serious about their craft, we will enable them to paint full time, to find their destiny and dreams, and to best serve themselves and the gallery.
Q: If an artist approaches you to represent them, what is it you are looking for? What is the criteria?
Talent, dedication, loyalty, clarity of vision, and they must have their own voice.
Q: Do you ever get a feeling about a piece or an artist and have a sense that they are special or going to be successful? How's your track record in this respect?
Q: How much influence do you have in what the artists you represent paint?
We comment when asked, we direct them for marketing perspective, like mixing sizes or timing for
an opportunity. We do NOT tell them what to paint.
Q: Have you ever had to let an artist go or end the relationship and why might something like this happen?
Repeated miss-representation, or failure to meet commitments without cause. As an example, we place ads on an annual basis and must provide the images 90-120 days in advance. When an artist fails to deliver the works as promised, we still must pay and honour our commitments to others. Dishonesty is another sure way to end a relationship with us. If an exclusive artist is contacted by a collector to cut us out, and proceeds with a transaction, we let them go.
Q: An an artist comes to you with a body of work and you decide to represent them. This person has never sold anything before. How do you go about valuing their work for sale?
Any of the artists we have all have sold their work. They are professional in every way and come with their own experiences and prior retail price points and together we find our way.
Q: Please talk to us about your overheads as a gallerist. People always talk about the large commission that galleries take, but I'm certain you have running costs - advertising, gallery overheads, art fair fees etc. Please tell us how this works.
The overhead far exceeds what people understand. The time and energy to frame works, hang shows, work with magazines, newspapers, and museums is endless, and there is little to no pay. Quite frankly, the gallery commissions should be larger, as often galleries run without a profit, or lose money, and thus you've seen many decimated in the last few years and will continue to see them disappear. Art fairs will be the next thing to go, as they rarely provide what they promise, overcharge and under deliver, and for now, we are done with them.
Q: Have you ever turned away an artist only to see them find success elsewhere and had a 'shoulda' experience?
Q: What's the best thing about owning a gallery?
Working with a very talented, creative, and "present", in the moment group of fearless artists, and
meeting such intuitive, interesting, and charming collectors, many of which have become close friends.
Q: What aspects of it do you find most challenging?
Breaking through the ceilings of bias and prejudicial decision making.
Q: How do you sell art? It's such a subjective thing. Or does the art sell itself?
Both. Having insights to best guide and navigate the collector to find the most appropriate work to
express their passion….on the internet , where we now do much of our sales, we've lost some
of that collaborative opportunity.
Q: You've got a fantastic art collection yourself. What meaning does it have for you?
Life, love, soul, interactive coffee and wine walks, it is life itself...
Q: Do you have a favourite art museum to visit?
The Met, the Louvre, The Tate in London, Venice and Florence are living museums
Q: Who (living or deceased) would be your dream to exhibit/represent?
Velázquez & Salvador Dalí
Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera
Thomas Hart Benton
Hopper and George Bellows!!
Q: Is there a work of art you would love to own if money were no object?
All of the above
Q: Who, in your opinion, are the great artists of our time?
For additional reading there's also this very interesting article by Magnus Resch about how galleries operate. With thanks to Richard for the link.
(Photo by Richard Demato III)
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