New Outlook for Tough Times

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Island artists are finding new ways to fuel their economic engines in our stalled national economy.

Ironically, some in the Island art community say that artists may actually be better equipped to handle economic paucity than the rest of us because they have long experience with creating silk purses from sow’s ears.

“Artists are always on a budget,” fine artist Leslie Baker said last week. “Artists as a group tend to dig deeper and get more involved when things are harder. They make do. They’re used to it,” she said.

To make ends meet in a downturn that has claimed several Island galleries this year, artists are producing more affordable works of art and marketing to a wider audience via Internet and social marketing. Gallery owners are juggling expenses, reducing and combining artist shows to shave the expense line while insuring their artists get exposure during the critical three-month summer season.

Some artists, like Tisbury artist and gallery owner Beth McElhiney, report their efforts have energized and freshened their artistic life. Others, like Edgartown scrimshaw craftsman and gallery impresario Tom Dumont, are hunkering down while finding new ways to market their art.

Artists and gallery owners who are surviving and thriving credit a willingness to change as critical.

“I had to deal with this economy last year and the year before but struggled through,” Ms. McElhiney said. “Actually, I’m doing well. I’m grateful to the universe. My fabulous landlord helped me through last year. He loves my work and he did whatever he had to do to help me stay in business. My clients were supportive. They would come in and say, ‘We can’t do what we used to do but we can do this.'”

For her part, Ms. McElhiney began creating small art boxes to complement her silversmith jewelry. That worked, so she added small furniture pieces, then added clothing and Victorian-era antiques and lamps.

“If the economy was still perking along, I probably would not have changed. I was depressed, stagnant,” she said. “I needed to play. I starting playing with antiques, kind of brought everything together. I got excited, and clients started getting excited. It’s a completely different media.”

The overall effect has transformed her State Road gallery.

“I feel more like an artist as people define artists. I was trained in technical design skills but this mixed media makes me feel like an artist,” Ms. McElhiney said, and she’s spreading the message. “I was in Florida this winter. Artists were down. I told them you can’t sell art unless you’re excited, so create something new, inspire each other.”

She added, “We got spoiled on the Island, but in this economy the people who are going to survive are those who can deal with it. There are innovators in every economic environment. Bad economies have a silver lining.”

Former Dragonfly gallery owner Holly Alaimo has a practiced eye for the vagaries of the fine art business and agrees with the assessment, saying, “Artists are reinventing themselves in this economy. Mainly, they’re trying new mediums and making things that are more affordable and practical. For example, Dragonfly has glass pieces that can be hung or placed on a table.”

She explained, “Artists are marketing in different ways, overcoming resistance to Internet marketing. Getting savvy about social media, Twitter, and Facebook. Others are aligning with decorators and people in other businesses, hanging work in restaurants and offices — places willing to have artist openings to get really good art for their venues. Some artists are doing more art shows. The Featherstone flea market is packed this summer.”

Ms. Alaimo notes, “In deference to past clients, it’s important for artists not to have prices plummet, so it’s important to create a new medium, style or size that won’t impact the value of prior work.”

Tom Dumont, an Island artisan and owner of Edgartown Scrimshaw Gallery on Main Street, is changing in response to a frightening sea change he sees in the American economic perspective.

“I’m definitely going to get a new website up and running,” he said. “One that markets medium-priced items, such as jewelry, knives, money clips, giclee paintings. Gift items for 60 to 90 bucks rather than expensive Nantucket baskets and paintings.”

He continued, “I’ve been through three or four recessions in 32 years. The recession in the late 1980s through 1992 was horrible, but recovery was faster. But it’s an unbelievably complex world economy today and it affects us here. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill or something happening in a little village somewhere affects the American psyche. The world is fundamentally interconnected and we know about events immediately. So you have to fundamentally change the way you approach things, the way you do things.”

For Mr. Dumont that has meant producing and selling more of his own scrimshaw designs, cutting back on other products and artists, and working far more hours.

“We used to have three to five part-time employees. Now it’s Donna Tompkins and me, with maybe one part-timer. It’s not ever going to be the boom the way it was,” he said.

Ms. Baker, who shows her paintings at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven, is focusing on things she can impact, such as redesigning her website. ” I just stay on task and keep working. I’m doing two shows this year and making smaller, more affordable pieces. I’m casting the net a little wider, finding new ways to reach people. There is not a lot I can do about the economy, so I focus on taking care of myself and my friends.”

Like Ms. McElhiney, Ms. Baker credits support from the community. “I’m participating in Vineyard Voices, an exciting new way to tie the Island arts together. We need more of that kind of thing,” she said.

Both artists has seen serendipity follow hard work. Two years ago, the prestigious and nationally known Copley Society in Boston invited Ms. Baker to do a month-long solo show beginning in September.

One cold, dank Friday night in May, owner Elizabeth Eisenhauer was alone in her Edgartown gallery. A few tourists were surfing the streets. But she was optimistic. “I had three sales today,” she said. “They were small, but it’s a start.”