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In Recession, Artists Find New Ways to Get By

"Desperation sometimes opens you up to the greatest opportunities," one Hamptons artist reflects.

In the lean months between the holidays and summer, East End painters, sculptors and photographers are often forced to sell work for less money than they could draw during the peak season or to find other sources of income. The Great Recession hasn’t been easy for many artists in the Hamptons, especially the emerging and mid-level set, but some say the struggle is nothing new.

While the recession has clearly had an impact on the nation’s pocketbooks, even in the rich and insulated Hamptons, artists are being affected in different ways. Some say they’re suffering, yet others claim to have benefited from the faltering economy. Much of this, it seems, depends on the trajectory of an individual artist's career, and whether art is his only source of income.

“The majority of shows I go to these days do not have one sold painting, and I’ve been going the second or third week,” Sag Harbor painter said last week. Colleran, 44, has been a full-time artist since 1999. But he only recently returned to the market after taking some time to develop his edgy, mixed-media work. “Because of the market I’ve stayed away from galleries and dealers,” Colleran said, noting that most dealers take 50 percent of each painting sold.

Colleran said that not long ago he had a string of sales that was better than any he’s had in recent memory, and he didn’t have to share the profits. Despite this, Colleran does not see his good fortune as a trend he can count on.

, a 71-year-old Sag Harbor artist, has sold his poppy, mixed media paintings exclusively through his dealer Peter Marcelle for years, but even that relationship has changed. “I ask him if I can sell outside his gallery space,” Slater said, explaining that he would still offer his gallery a percentage of outside sales, according to the “old school” way of doing business. “Because things are so grim right now, he’s lightened up on that,” Slater said, noting that Marcelle wouldn’t accept the money from him today.

In a side anecdote, the painter said he delivered a painting to the Chelsea Museum in Manhattan to earn some extra cash recently and was told the museum would be closing. “They paid me with money from the donation box,” Slater said. “It was their last show.”

Several East End galleries have shut their doors permanently the past few years, and others close during the off-season, but North Haven landscape painter is using that fact to his advantage this winter. In spite of the recession, the demand for Haffner’s paintings of East End roads and power lines allowed him to become a full-time artist last year. He was also given the keys to Kathryn Markel’s Bridgehampton gallery for the months of January and February, and he’s using it to curate shows and champion other emerging artists under the name Tonic Artspace.

Haffner has had little problem selling his own work, but he’s found ways to make pieces that fit any budget and increase his sales volume at the same time. The painter is selling limited edition prints and artist merchandise, including signed sticker sets and large tiles at Tonic and through his online storefront, Haffnervision.com. And he’s encouraging all the artists at Tonic to do the same.

“Getting into the artist merchandise helps because it’s getting into different price points,” Haffner’s twin sister, East Hampton artist Carly Haffner, said, while showing off her whimsical limited edition coloring book and “Carly’s World” miniatures.

The Haffners, with their art collective Bonac Tonic, had popular exhibitions at various local venues from 2005 to 2011, and Carly said the smaller and less-expensive pieces began selling more than anything else. Outside creating artist merchandise, both Grant and Carly said they had not changed the size or scope of their regular work in response to the sales trend.

East Hampton painter has also had some great success in his artistic career, but he admits that the life of a full-time artist is never easy. “Part of the artist’s job is to be a survivor,” Satz said. The 40-year-old painter said the tough times, especially early in a career, teach artists how to manage when sales are slow later in life.

He installed a large commission at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan on Thursday, and he recently sold work to Prince Albert of Monaco, but Satz said he still has to trade work for goods and services, or call one of several patrons to prompt a sale when things get tough. “I’ve been much more desperate in the past,” he said. While acknowledging that the recession is still a concern, Satz added, “Desperation sometimes opens you up to the greatest opportunities."

Water Mill painter said the recession has been the most lucrative and successful period of his career. "2010 for me was a breakout year." he said. "It was the best year of my life."

A full-time artist since 2003, Dever, 49, believes his limited-palette black, white and gray, often geometric paintings could be doing so well because it is quality work in a style attractive to those who may have previously been able to afford more expensive artists. Then again, Dever said, “It could be where I am with my work.”

The painter sells exclusively through his dealer, Sara Nightingale, and the relationship seems to be fruitful for them both. “It’s important for artists to be flexible, and if you’re priced well, I think that’s helpful too,” Dever said. He also noted that his pieces look good grouped together, which encourages multiple sales. “It’s seldom people buy just one,” Dever said, adding later that there is still plenty of new construction on the East End, and those houses will all need art eventually.

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