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We’re taught all through (art) school to produce something that somebody likes, but that gets you further and further away from your authenticity—what you have to say.
Susan Roth

He(art) & soul

A husband and wife team of painters beat the odds

Thirty-five years ago a man approached Susan Roth with the largest roll of cash she’d ever seen. Roth was standing in a new designer outfit in the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York City, while her husband Darryl Hughto’s art hung on the walls around her.

It was 1977, they were newly married, and it was Hughto’s first big break in the abstract painting world.
The man with the roll of money wanted to buy one of Hughto’s paintings and would pay for it in cash and on the spot. For any number of artists, it might seem like an ideal situation. But, for Hughto and Roth, it was a defining moment in what would be lifelong careers as working artists.

The outfit Roth was wearing had been bought with her parents’ credit card. She and her husband were strapped for cash. They’d put everything they had into the Guggenheim exhibit. They needed money.

Those were the thoughts running through Roth’s head when they man with the money approached her. But Roth knew she couldn’t sell him the painting, because she didn’t want the value of the painting to be based on the bills that needed to be paid.

By limiting the influence of money on their art, Hughto and Roth decided that they would be able to keep their artistic voices more authentic.

Clem Greenberg, an American essayist and one of the most influential art critics of his time, once wrote that no matter how hard artists try to distance themselves from the influence of money, patronage or “the rich and cultured,” they always remained attached by “an umbilical cord of gold.”

Artists need income in order to continue making art; their craft is not impervious to the basic rules of economy. But, for Hughto and Roth, the money and the art have to be separate.

Today, Roth and Hughto say they have a unique system that works for them. As Roth walks across their Canastota property from their house to one of the old barns they’ve converted into a studio, she explains how they’ve managed to keep the money out of their art.

“Darryl deals with money coming in, I deal with money going out. He doesn’t know how much materials cost or what the electrical bill is,” Roth says. “So, when he sets the price for a painting, it is based on the actual value of that painting, not what we need that month to make ends meet.”

This ability to balance artistic expression with business sense has allowed Hughto and Roth to experience a level of success that not many artists are able to reach in their careers.

Despite having one of the highest concentrations of artists in the country, the New York State Department of Labor reported 1,100 fine artists working in the state in 2010 — a drop of nearly 100 artists since 2008.

If that number seems low, it’s because there are likely more than 1,100 artists in New York. Nowhere is this more evident than in an art mecca like New York City.

A March 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal noted the discrepancy in numbers versus reality when it noted that, “It would be easier to count up all the squirrels in New York City than the artists who live [t]here.”

However, few artists can count their craft as a primary source of income. The title of artist is not easy to earn.

With limited gallery space and a limited number of people willing to pay large amounts of money for a piece of work, the art world is a cutthroat community. “Making it” as a working artist is no easy task.

As Americans try to recover from the 2008 recession, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened noticeably. The pool of people buying and collecting art is not as large as it once was.

It seems that Greenberg was right; the artist is dependent on the “rich and cultured.” There are very few who have the income to keep the art world afloat. The umbilical cord of gold is as present today as it has ever been.

So, how have Roth and Hughto managed to succeed when so many other artists have struggled?
By being authentic.

“We’re taught all through (art) school to produce something that somebody likes,” Susan says. “But that gets you further and further away from your authenticity, what you have to say.”

As Hughto and Roth set to work in their studio for the day, Roth has her long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, and her paint-splattered jeans and sweatshirt on. She looks across the studio at her husband as he puts some music on. He’s in his painting clothes as well.

As a Bob Dylan song starts playing, Hughto dances over to his blank canvas. Roth smiles and starts singing along.
“I couldn’t imagine a better life for myself,” Roth said.

They love what they do. And they will continue to do it for as long as they can. Hughto says people who question his choice to be an artist forget one thing: for him, it wasn’t a choice.

“I had about as much choice in being an artist as I did in choosing my parents,” Hughto said. “I’ve just always been one.”
So, the husband and wife team set to work making more art that expresses what they want to say, not what they think will sell in a gallery. As they dance, sing and make art in their studio, tucked away below them are dozens of paintings that have never sold. And that’s just fine with Hughto and Roth.

While their work might not appear to drive much of the economy, their passion for what they do, their dedication to pushing their limits and bucking tradition are emblematic of the role of art in society. A 2011 study by Americans for the Arts said it best: “As the arts flourish, so will creativity and innovation — the fuel that drives our global economy.”