Richard Demato: Integrating Two ­Passions

Richard Demato: Integrating Two ­Passions

For many individuals on the South Fork, art and life tend to merge. But for Richard Demato that merger means something a little different and definitely much deeper.

A self-described “nerdy kid,” Richard Demato has been collecting objects and art all his life. (photo by: Morgan McGivern)

A self-described “nerdy kid,” Richard Demato
has been collecting objects and art all his life.
(photo by: Morgan McGivern)


The Sag Harbor gallery owner and president of the Retreat, an organization that provides shelter and outreach to victims of domestic violence on the South Fork, has been incorporating fine art as a means to raise money for the organization since his involvement with it began in 2005.

It started with a purchase of raffle tickets for the Artists Against Abuse benefit from his neighbor on North Haven who was vice president of the organization at the time. He was then invited to an event, asked to volunteer, then asked to be on the board, and eventually named board president three years ago. He has even served as executive director on an interim basis when needed.

“I saw it as an opportunity to integrate my two passions: the nonprofit world and the art world,” he said at the gallery on Saturday. Although the Retreat has had the Artists Against Abuse event for 15 years, in which artists donate works for auction to benefit the organization, Mr. Demato has taken the concept even further with a juried art show. First developed last year, it has this year attracted almost 300 entries from around the world from artists in every medium.

Christina Mossaides Strassfield, the curator at Guild Hall, and Max Fishko of Art Hamptons will serve as judges. The winner will receive a solo exhibit at the gallery and the top 25 selections will be on view at the gallery from May 1 to May 15. All proceeds from the sales of the artwork will go to the artists and to the Retreat. Finalists will be chosen next week.

“The Retreat had Artists Against Abuse before I got there, they didn’t have the contest,” Mr. Demato said. He has also applied a similar framework to another organization called Fountain House in New York City, which will be showing the artwork of its clients at his gallery in July.

“When I saw this space available I knew we could help with Artists Against Abuse and the contest,” he said. “It’s a way to help support ourselves in a bad economy. We’ve lost most of our state, federal, and local funding.”

At the same time, he said that the bad economy has led to an increase in violence often fueled by alcohol and narcotic use. “The local police chiefs have reinforced this and have said that the crime statistics support this.” When people are under stress, they sometimes use their anger in a negative way, he said. “We’ve had a record number of people we’ve had to help, even someone involved in a witness protection situation. Someone was involved with very tough people and we had to get them out of the area. It’s difficult to do that when you have cutbacks in funding.”

With two major donors wiped out by Bernard Madoff investments, the board has made up the difference with its own donations. Fortunately, another group, Paddlers for Humanity, has also gotten involved and a local builder has agreed to donate his services to rebuild the shelter.

But that’s the nonprofit part of the equation; there is also a gallery to run in the downtime between fund-raisers. A self-described “nerdy kid,” Mr. Demato said he has been collecting objects from the time he was a child. He still has classic board games he collected, but he divested himself of his cache of antique tin toys.

His wife, Harriet Sawyer, is a painter and has had two solo shows on the East End. They bought their first artwork together in East Hampton in 1985. Until 2002 they ran a textiles design firm in New York City, and Ms. Sawyer was honored by the Fashion Institute of Technology as the textile designer of the century.

While many have observed that this is not the best time to be opening a new business, let alone a gallery, he said the economy has made it possible for him to find accomplished artists who have lost their representation.

“We went into business in 1985, and people said the same thing, but it was a great time. Production facilities that would normally tell you, ‘We can’t work with you, we’re too booked,’ were available. We were intuitive enough to go to them and say, ‘What is it that you want to make?’ So we could create a good production flow.”

He has extended the concept to his gallery. “I ask the artists what it is they like to paint and when they would like to be ready for a show.” The artists he has on view in his current exhibit, “The Art of Consciousness,” include Jeff Aeling, Andrea Kowch, and Laurel Swab.

As a newcomer to the practice, he is now devoting his free time to reading up on all aspects of art history and even art law. “I’ve always been very serious,” he said. “I need to lighten up a little.”

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