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Artists work to make it, stay positive during rough economy

By Staff | Jul 17, 2009

Art and the islands: It’s akin to peanut butter and jelly.

They just seem to go together.

Residents, tourists and folks from neighboring communities flock here for the art shows, events and gallery exhibits.

Sanibel and Captiva has been home to many artists – some well known, such as art icon Bob Rauschenberg who passed away last May, Darryl Portoff, Myra Roberts, Pam Brodersen, Bea Pappas, Gail Jones, Randon Eddy, Charles Lister, Peter Zell, Stella Farwell and many, many others.

Some of these artists paint, some take photographs, others sculpt or work with metal and glass. Some artists are prominent and draw much attention and acclaim while others toil in obscurity.

But one element they all share is the struggle to sell art in a rough economy.

Most artists say they acknowledge that hard times causes would-be customers to tighten their purse strings rather than spend money on non-essential items such as art.

The artist’s struggle

Children’s book-writer and quilt-maker Helen Ketteman said she has not sold much of anything lately.

“Right now a lot of people are trying to just get by,” Ketteman said. “I’m hoping things will turn around in the fall.”

Ketteman is one of the lucky artists, She doesn’t have to depend on her art selling in order to eat.

Lisa Gould, a glass-fusing artist, creates and sells glass belly dancers. Her pieces range from $35 to nearly $300. Those prices would typically not be out of many customers reach, but she’s not selling much right now.

“People aren’t willing to spend the money because it’s difficult,” she said.

“Everybody’s making choices.”

Pam Brodersen is dealing with lackluster sales for her digital photography pieces. The former commercial artist, who created art for national advertisers in her Chicago studio, is working hard to sell her work on Sanibel.

“People are being more selective in what they’re buying,” she said.

It’s a tough time for artists on the islands.

“Summer is always rough,” said Shareen Groce, coordinator for the Founders Gallery at BIG ARTS. “I think definitely artwork under $500 has a better chance of selling. People still want to buy.”

Myra Roberts, well known for her vintage style art, said that many full-time artists who depend on the money they earn from their art to live are not selling much.

“I know many artists are having a terrible time,” she said.

World Renowned artist Darryl Portoff acknowledges the hardship many artists are enduring.

“The economy is without a question is devastating the art world,” Portoff said during an interview from his Captiva home.

Though he himself is not worried about selling art. He said he’s considered to be in the top 10 percent of artists worldwide. But he’s concerned for other artists.

Getting by

Many local artists say they are not selling many of their bigger, pricier pieces but are getting by on creating smaller, more modest priced art.

San-Cap Art League officer Peter Zell paints historical island scenes. Though he said he has sold his work, he noted that smaller pieces sell better in this economic climate.

“It’s hard to sell a large painting,” he said.

He said the San-Cap Art League sold many pieces during the annual Clothesline sale this past spring. The pieces were all smaller and affordable.

Going smaller is a way many artists are carving out incomes for themselves.

Ketteman said she plans to make Christmas stockings with a Sanibel theme to sell this year. They will be inexpensive enough that many people will be able to afford them.

Roberts said artists collaborating together and painting smaller pieces is a great way to help out out organizations who want art for raising dollars.

Galleries such as Tower Gallery are selling small art works and pieces. Though artists working at the Tower Gallery Cooperative say there is no pattern, people are buying affordable keepsakes of their vacation.

“We’re keeping our head above water,” said Charles Lister, the treasurer for the Tower Gallery art cooperative.

How artists can be supported

Artists are not only known for their creativity, they tend to be known for their generosity. Organizations often call upon artists for their work to help raise money for them.

In boom times these donations are not as challenging. But in lean times when artists must often choose between paying bills and making donations, the requests from organizations can be difficult.

“It’s nice when you have auctions but artists can’t keep giving and giving,” Ketteman said.

Ketteman has donated books and quilts to support organizations.

Brodersen said the choices become tough.

“Artists are starving too,” she said from her Sanibel studio. “You cant give to everyone. You have to be selective. It’s not cheap to create art.”

Roberts who has donated many pieces over the years to various island and off-island organizations said collaboration is the key to helping everyone.

“It’s not easy to live on Sanibel,” she said. “I have two kids in college.”

Roberts said that she works out a fair split with organizations on many pieces.

“I am bent on collaboration,” she said. “Most people seem to be happy with that.”

CROW, the local non-profit wildlife clinic, benefits from the sale of Roberts and other local artists paintings.

“It’s a two way situation,” said CROW Development Assistant Carol Rothman.

“They’re helping us we’re helping them.”

Portoff said collaboration is important for supporting artists.

“I do think there should be a split,” Portoff said.

And with a lack of tax breaks available for artists, collaboration is vital in helping keep artists stay artists.

“It would help the organizations and the artists,” Ketteman said. “It would help everybody.”