Color the art world savvy.

Chalk it up to the recession.

Foot traffic is up 20 percent at the Steeple Gallery in St. John, one of 9,000 arts-related businesses in Indiana. Sales are up 15 percent over the past year.

"I honestly don't know why," artist-owner Samantha Dalkilic-Miestowski said. Art "is not food. It's not shelter. It's not your mortgage. It's kind of a luxury item."

Press her for details, though, and a portrait of the artist-as-businesswoman emerges.

The veteran dealer greets first-timers warmly, showing them around her eclectic gallery. Her prices are reasonable, starting at $30 for a vintage botanical print.

As for selection, her gallery, housed in a former church, caters to a wide range of tastes. Framed Gregorian chant vellums share wall space with geometric oils. Abstract portraits lock eyes with metal sculptures.

Confess you have a passion for traditional prints — say, of birds — and "Sam" whisks out hand-tinted images of hawks, hummingbirds, even peacocks.

"I ask why they (guests) are there," Dalkilic-Miestowski said. "And I listen: 'Well, I'm a teacher,' or 'I have a condo in Florida and am looking for a tropical painting. Do you ...?' Well, I do!"

What she doesn't do: take the bottom line for granted. The gallery owner doubles as her own marketing muse, networking with chambers of commerce and businesses.

She also custom-frames art, hosts children's art-themed parties and rents the gallery for receptions.

Her dream is to open a sculpture garden.

"People are more accepting of art," Dalkilic-Miestowski said. "They want to enhance their house, and their soul."

That's good news for region artists in this era of dwindling grants. Thirty-seven states slashed arts funding last year, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies reported. The average cut was 19 percent.

The Indiana Arts Commission protested a proposed 50 percent cut, winning a 20 percent compromise in a special legislative session. South Shore Arts, which distributes IAC grants in the region, is going to bat to preserve existing funds again for the upcoming fiscal year.

The IAC is urging arts advocates to be proactive and brush up on business strategies. According to a 2010 IAC survey, bold strokes are needed to fill in budget blanks.

The survey, a collaboration with the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, cited funding, education, technical assistance and partnership as priorities.

The biggest challenge for nonprofits is money, followed by networking and advocacy, marketing, programs and planning.

The arts are more than "something to do on a free evening or afternoon," IAC chairwoman Jeanne Mirro and executive director Lewis Ricci said in a joint statement. "... the arts do impact our quality of life. We agree with President Abraham Lincoln's statement: 'Show me a great civilization and I will show you a civilization with great art.'"

South Shore Arts long has heeded the call. The IAC's regional partner, which also oversees the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra, has actively courted new donors while freezing salaries and reducing staff through attrition to preserve programs and exhibits.

Last year's Beaux Arts Ball fundraiser raised nearly $165,000, an "encouraging" sum, South Shore Arts chief John Cain said.

To save the cost of a full-time grant writer, South Shore Arts recently tapped Grants Inc., based at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, to seek funds on its behalf.

The ongoing strategies, coupled with the recovering stock market, will allow South Shore Arts to proceed with an ambitious schedule that includes an exhibit of Sept. 11 photos shot by eight Magnum photographers who witnessed the attacks on New York. The show will begin in August and end in September, after the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.

"We're going out on a limb," Cain said. "It's a little bit expensive, but we thought it (the milestone) would be important to commemorate."

On the lighter side, South Shore Arts is importing a crowd-pleaser, "a really cool exhibit of pop art opening at the beginning of December," he said.

Some artists are boarding the business-sense bandwagon, insiders have said, tailoring prices to suit the market. Others are holdouts, hoping the economy improves.

Like art, cost is subjective, hinging on the buyer's desire and "how hungry the artist is," Dalkilic-Miestowski said.

At the Indiana University Northwest Gallery for Contemporary Art, area artists are ultra-accommodating, director Ann Fritz said. In turn, visitors routinely snap up paintings and artworks at shows, most for $500 and less.

The "He Says — She Says" exhibit features the works of Bill Farrell and Delores Fortuna, of Galena, Ill. Fortuna, who was delighted when students packed the opening, gave a free lecture on her geometric ceramics.

Enterprising artists "know that everyone's hurting. And they all want to have shows," Fritz said. A friendly, cost-effective approach is not just a good way to show art, "but to sell."

Color the art world savvy. Chalk it up to the recession. Foot traffic is up 20 percent at the Steeple Gallery in St. John, one of 9,000 arts-related businesses in Indiana. Sales are up 15 percent over the past year.

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