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Executive Suite: Richard Demato, Sag Harbor

Richard Demato, president of RJD Enterprises in Sag

Richard Demato, president of RJD Enterprises in Sag Harbor, pays 25 artists to paint for his RJD Gallery, four of them full time. The walls at the gallery and at his almost 200-year-old house, also in Sag Harbor, are covered with elaborate works by figurative artists, most with a story to tell. Credit: Veronique Louis

In the past, kings, popes and the wealthy supported individual artists through patronage. Now, a Sag Harbor gallery owner is using a twist on the patron model to support painters by paying them regular salaries.

Richard Demato, president of RJD Enterprises, pays four artists to paint full time for his RJD Gallery. The walls at the gallery and at his almost 200-year-old house, also in Sag Harbor, are covered with elaborate works by figurative artists, most with a story to tell.

One artist was earning less than $20,000 a year when Demato discovered her work in a magazine; he said she now makes a six-figure salary as he advances her a monthly check against her future sales.

By providing artists with a dependable paycheck, their work can flourish, they become more prolific, and they can "obtain national and global recognition, museum shows and placement," Demato said. His artists -- none local -- include 22 around the globe working on a traditional commission basis. To feed the demands of gallery customers, he plans to put out a call for two new full-time artists for 2016.

Demato said he does not draw a salary. Instead he gives much of the gallery's profits to charities, including The Retreat, for women and children survivors of domestic violence, Fountain House for the mentally ill in Manhattan, and the Southampton Animal Shelter.

Before starting the gallery in 2009, Demato, 64, had a successful textile/apparel business. He also closed a couple of profitable real estate deals: He invested in a small private island off the coast of Guilford, Connecticut, and sold it for more than $20 million in 2002, he said; then he built a 12,000-square-foot house in the Hamptons and sold it for about $33 million.

How do you pay your full-time artists?

Every month we give them a check. If we sell no paintings, they still get a check. People get advances against future commissions of sales.

Why do you pay some artists to paint full time?

If they don't paint full time, you're not going to get enough art to support a gallery, and you're not going to get the continuity to justify the cost of marketing. I started out with very basic marketing: printing the cards and making the pamphlets about people. It's costly, so if you only get three or four paintings, you really can't offset the cost. But if you don't do the marketing, you don't sell the work.

How much work should they produce each year?

Ideally you want to get six or seven works from somebody. The artists that do well with us take eight or 10 weeks to do a painting.

How do you motivate artists if they don't produce?

It's a different type of mind, and also they're alone incredibly long periods of time. They work 8 to 10 hours alone painting or designing. You try to understand where their roadblocks are. Usually, it's emotional. You call them. One artist's mother was sick, and we helped him get some medicine, and we sent him some money for the surgery. And now he's starting to produce. Another said, "I don't know what to do." I said, "Try something different. What's the most crazy thought you could have?" He says, "I don't know, maybe paint headless people." I said, "That's great." So he did a series of people from their knees to their necks. We sold them immediately, because more people can relate to well-painted jeans with shirts because it's not so personal, and it becomes more decorative for them."

Why do you spend thousands of dollars to have your artists in museum shows?

If an artist is in two or three museum shows, it . . . enhances their [profile] and subsequently, their price point.

How are Internet sales different?

The first six months of this year were very bad for us locally. Because of the weather, people weren't out, it was just so frigid. But we were shipping work: We have three or four collectors in London, one in Ireland, one in Scotland, two in Germany, Dubai, Milan, Moscow, a tremendous [collector] we met in Texas. Thus far, online, no one really asks for a discount. They see an image, and they wire you the money in full.

What's wrong with discounts?

It damages the artist's career. It's like some people will call up and they're an attorney or a dentist. And I'll say, let me ask you a question, when you redo someone's bridge, do you give them 20 percent off? Do you negotiate your fees?

What's your advice on investing in art?

I was told that once you start paying $200,000 to $300,000 for a piece of art, there's a higher likelihood that it's going to ascend in value because [the artist] has already gotten that far. Anything below that, you should just buy what you like.

What makes it worthwhile for you?Knowing that The Retreat is still in business. And it makes me feel like part of the community, being able to make artists famous. They use the artwork to express what's inside them. I'm giving them an opportunity to not only express themselves, but to attain some acknowledgement for the quality of what they do; and make money so they can have families and have a life.

Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m., RJD Gallery, 90 Main St, Sag Harbor, opens the show "Women Painting Women." Call 631-725-1161.

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