Cape Cod art community thrives despite seasonal market

Kat Sampson

Editor’s note: This piece is the product of the Helen M. Powell Traveling Fellowship that provides funding for a student who works at The Daily Texan to travel and report on a community of choice. Kat Sampson spent the summer on Cape Cod, Massachusetts reporting on the art community.

Making a living as an artist isn’t easy, and no one knows that better than pastel artist Jeanne Smith. For the last fifteen years, Smith has described herself as a “full-time artist,” but she’s quick to point out she doesn’t just paint.

She makes her living from a number of outlets including teaching art classes year-round, showing her art at five galleries up and down the east coast, writing for art publications and hosting traveling art vacations. Smith said one of the biggest misconceptions about being an artist is that there’s no need for formal training.  

“I hadn’t been trained in how to make a living doing this,” Smith said. “I got myself into a gallery or two, and I realized I needed to keep teaching because that’s a sustainable, steady, reliable income. With a gallery, you never know when you’re going to sell a painting. I had to learn to sell myself, to be proud of what I was doing and to talk like an artist.”

Her suburban home is located about 30 minutes away from Cape Cod, the area that inspires most of her work. Like most artists, her home is also her work place and includes a personal studio and a basement-turned-teaching studio.

Smith shows her Cape-centric art at a number of galleries across the country in an effort to diversify her client base. When her artwork isn’t selling on the Cape during the winter, sales are picking up at the Charleston, South Carolina, gallery where her art is displayed.

Smith said because the Cape has such a dynamic coastline, the artist per capita is higher than other areas. Once a month, Smith gets together with five other Massachusetts artists to paint and compare notes on competitions and galleries.

“You have to educate yourself. You have to find mentors. I found people that I admired and worked with them,” Smith said. “I formed alliances with other artists. It’s just networking.”

Sherry Rhyno owns Gallery 31, a fine arts gallery located in the cultural district of Orleans, Massachusetts where Smith displays her wave paintings. She runs Gallery 31 seven days a week during the summer seasons. During the winter season, gallery owners such as Rhyno significantly reduce their hours to accommodate for the minimal traffic.

Gallery 31 was founded in 2000 in Falmouth. It started as a cooperative gallery, where artists could both paint and sell their art in the space. Cooperatives are often owned equally by all the members of the business in exchange for dues to cover the cost of upkeep.

Rhyno advises up-and-coming artists to show their work to join a co-op where the environment is laid back and supportive.    

“To be an artist that engages with other artists, mentors and potential clients — you don’t do it just on your own,” Rhyno said. “You have to have part of a community.”

Rhyno and Smith agree that joining community art associations is one of the easiest ways to build up a network. Both Rhyno and Smith belong to the Pastel Painters Society of Cape Cod.

Rhyno believes there are three different categories of collectors that come to the Cape. The largest category is the second-home owner who is buying art to fill their first home. The smallest category is the year-round Cape resident who buys art to give to others. The last category is the one-time vacationer who wants an item to remind them of their vacation.

“It’s almost like loyalty to vacation,” Rhyno said.

Sheree Dolan was on vacation from Medfield, Massachusetts when she stopped in to buy an oil painting of hydrangea flowers. Over the years, Dolan noticed how the iconic hydrangea was much more vibrant on the Cape and began collecting paintings of the flowers.

“Most of my art is from [the Cape] in my house because we’re on vacation, and it just seems like a treat to buy a special piece,” Dolan said. “It’s just like a memory.”

Selling art in a resort community means sales are considerably lower half of the year sales. But artists and buyers keep coming back to the Cape..

“Your head is more clear when you’re not at home dealing with doctors appointments and life is going to kick in again for us soon,” Dolan said. “When you’re down here it’s just more of a relaxed state, something you want to take home with you.”