By Annette Hinkle
Back in January 2017, art dealer and Sag Harbor resident Richard J. Demato opened the doors of his brand new RJD Gallery on Bridgehampton’s Main Street. The space was christened just a month after a devastating fire destroyed his previous gallery in the Sag Harbor Cinema building, along with millions of dollars in artwork.
Now, exactly four years later, Demato has relocated again, this time to the small town of Romeo, Michigan, where he is set to soon open his newest gallery space. While the move may represent a loss for the East End art world, it’s Michigan’s gain and Demato is very excited about this latest chapter.
“Life does not come with a valid road map and there was no exact plan many times in my life,” Demato explained in a recent phone interview. “In 1980, I came to New York and opened a business in the city, and then from 2002 to 2020 I was in Sag Harbor.
“After 40 years, I’m leaving New York,” he said.
This move at this time was largely predicated on the severing of his last major link to the area. Having vacated the Bridgehampton gallery space earlier in 2020, on November 18 Demato closed the final chapter here with the sale of the historic 1830s Napier House in Sag Harbor, which he had owned for several years.
“It’s not the same Sag Harbor I moved to,” Demato admitted, hinting at changing demographics and sensibilities that do not mesh with his own. “You learn to deflect unwanted events or others and move out of their way.”
Granted, leaving the East Coast behind to start anew in a romantically named town in the Midwest is definitely moving out of the way, especially for someone who has put so much effort and energy into both his art business and his philanthropic work. For 14 years, Demato, a longtime champion of The Retreat, served on the nonprofit’s board and he has hosted several exhibitions and events at his gallery to benefit the East End domestic abuse shelter.
But this move is one that totally fits where Demato now finds himself — that is, with a new wife and an even newer baby. In 2018, Demato married Andrea Kowch, one of the top artists represented by his gallery, and in October 2019, the couple welcomed son Nathan Kowch Demato into the world. Kowch, whose haunting allegorical paintings typically incorporate Midwestern landscapes and themes, hails from Michigan, so this move allows her to be near her family.
While a changing lifestyle and a new wife and baby is a major reason for Demato’s departure from the East End, it certainly isn’t the only one. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the times, but another major contributor is the way in which the art world itself now functions. It’s a market that has changed substantially in recent years, particularly in 2020 given that the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses of all stripes — including galleries — to reinvent themselves and shift to new ways of operating.
“We use Artsy to post our work and probably sell 60 percent of the art through that, and another 20 to 25 through our website and marketing e-blasts,” Demato explained. “From a logistical point of view, the numbers to keep the Bridgehampton gallery going just didn’t add up.”
He estimates that between rent, taxes and utilities, it cost $14,000 to $15,000 a month to operate the Bridgehampton space. Conversely, noted Demato, a comparable space in Michigan can be rented for $2,400 a month, including utilities.
“We do 80 to 85 percent of our business online. You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to do the math,” he said. “Insurance is less in Michigan. So is property tax. We have an 1860s house we’re renovating — it’s like the Napier house. But the taxes were $65,000 in Sag Harbor. Here, they’re $6,500 and the lot is twice the size.”
It was the reality of COVID-19 that put the expenses in stark perspective last spring when the gallery was forced to close for a while and it became clear that hosting traditional exhibition openings and receptions would be out of the question for some time.
“Then, we could let in two people at a time, but that took a real chunk of our business at the location away,” he said. “Between labor, marketing and rent, it’s $500,000 a year and you can’t show — and I can easily see it’ll be that way for another year.
“I wanted to modify what we’re doing. From what I can see, you and I and my wife and our friends are not getting vaccines until next fall,” he added. “Do I want to keep losing money for next year? We have been working virtually and it’s been fine.”
All the signs, it would seem, were there, and for Demato, even beyond the financials and the logistics of the changing business environment, perhaps the most telling reason he has decided it’s time to move on is the fact that his three closest friends have already left the East End — one for Texas and two for Florida.
“Even my son who lived in hip Brooklyn has now moved to the coastline of San Francisco to be away from the virus and insanity of New York City,” Demato said. “There’s definitely an exodus.”
So while COVID-19 may have accelerated Demato’s East End exit strategy, he can say with all honesty that he’s excited about starting anew in the Midwest.
“There’s still a need for galleries and people like to see art in person and this is an arty community,” Demato said. “People go out of their way to be nicer here. They don’t have to decompress from New York City because they are decompressed.
“Will I miss it there? I will,” he added. “Do I miss going to Pierre’s? Yes, but we haven’t been able to do that in a year. With the COVID surge we still wouldn’t be able to do that for another year.”
But with his wife’s family living nearby, Demato has discovered a ready-made support system, and the pace of life in Michigan has been a welcome step back from hectic New York. Now that he’s settling in, he’s discovering that life in Romeo is not unlike a certain small town he first encountered on the East End way back when.
“This village, Romeo, reminds me of Sag Harbor 30 years ago,” Demato said. “There’s a coffee shop where you can buy papers, a Corner Bar and a Tutto il Giorno kind of place — and we just got sushi.
“And luckily, Zabar’s flies in bagels.”
To learn more about RJD Gallery, visit rjdgallery.com.