A UK initiative is helping average earners own contemporary works and make an investment that could turn out to be quite valuable.
Art's best interest
Ever dreamed of hanging a Banksy print on your wall? A Gary Hume in the hallway? Anish Kapoor in the kitchen? For many contemporary art lovers, the dream is separated from reality by the concrete barrier of financial instability. The boundaries are clearly marked: the super-rich buy Damien Hirst and David Hockney, while average wage earners resort to "supermarket" art - mass-produced, cheap, ubiquitous.
An initiative in the United Kingdom, however, has slowly started to weaken this distinction. Own Art, launched by the Arts Council England (ACE) five years ago to help make art accessible and affordable to all, provides interest-free loans from £100 (Dh557) to £2,000 (Dh11,148), repayable over 10 months in equal instalments, for people wishing to purchase works of art and craft including paintings, photography, sculpture, glassware and furniture by contemporary artists.
"The initiative was a response to an identified need to remove the financial obstacle that some people experience which would otherwise mean that they couldn't access art," said Mary-Alice Stack, the development manager for ACE. "In addition, the scheme helps the arts economy by supporting commercial galleries and encouraging increased sales of contemporary art which in turn provides a very valuable income for artists living and working in the UK."
Since its inception, more than £10.5 million (Dh58.5m) worth of art has been purchased through the scheme and more than £6.5m (Dh36m) worth of income for up-and-coming artists has been generated through 12,500 loans. Own Art constitutes a market revolution, enabling a newly empowered generation of art enthusiasts to appreciate contemporary works not just in the confines of a gallery but in their own homes.
The success of the scheme, which has been most notable in the north-east and south-west of England, has been linked to a greater public awareness of and interest in contemporary art. Well-documented works by Hirst, controversial public graffiti displays by Banksy and an increased emphasis on educational programmes in galleries has boosted the profile of contemporary art in the UK, entering it into mainstream discussion and resulting in the creation of a new consumer confidence. More than a quarter of sales in the Own Art scheme have been to first-time buyers, and 26 per cent of loans have been taken by customers with incomes equal to or below the UK national average. Some people are using the scheme to buy art as an investment, but according to Stack "the majority of people using the scheme are buying works because having original contemporary art is important to them on a personal level. Own Art is really about people considering buying contemporary art as a way of enhancing their own home and deepening their involvement and interest in contemporary art. For the majority of people, it is a personal pleasure rather than an investment opportunity."
The scheme is available through a network of more than 250 galleries across the country. Mimi Connell, the co-owner of Badcock's Gallery in Cornwall, said: "It's been great for us. Giving people the freedom to pay in instalments can be a real deal-clincher because it takes the sting out of the purchase. We get a lot of tourist trade in this part of the UK, and people are more willing to make impulse buys when they can spread out the payments. It doesn't seem quite so naughty."
"It has made the process of acquiring art less elitist," adds Rachel Mapplebeck, the communications manager of London's Whitechapel Gallery. "So many people love art. Maybe they work or study in the field, or perhaps they are just real fans. Own Art means that they can actually take home something special and feel part of that world." The wide range of galleries means that buyers are offered the broadest possible spectrum of work. At Badcock's, Connell recommends work by the up-and-coming Norwegian painter Kristin Vestgard.
"I already own two of her paintings," she says. "Priced at just over £2,000, they are excellent investments. Her work is different - beautiful without being sentimental." For Matt Incledon, the associate director of London's Art First Gallery, the artist Jack Milroy's Birth of the Hurricane would be a good choice for a new buyer. "It's an original work by a respected and mature artist who is held in major collections internationally," Incledon says.
Chili Hawes, the director of London's October Gallery, opts for a Rachid Koraïchi lithograph. "The Algerian artist appropriates life histories into his own calligraphy, and though his aesthetics are deeply rooted in his multicultural heritage, Koraïchi is a truly cosmopolitan artist who speaks to a global audience," she says. Nick Betney, the managing director of the Artzu Gallery in Manchester, suggests that clients should research artists they are interested in, using forthcoming exhibitions and auction records as useful signifiers of their potential. Buying early, before an artist becomes famous, makes it easier to secure a bargain, and the consumer will then be able to see the value of that work going up over the course of a few years, he says.
"Take Matt Wilde," Betney says. "His paintings are becoming highly collectable and his work is gaining increasing recognition. He has a big solo exhibition coming up in London and is a great guy to watch." The loan available from the Arts Council can potentially provide buyers with a significant entry-level artwork. At London's Whitechapel Gallery, works by prominent contemporary artists can cost less than £100.
"We have always pioneered making art accessible to everyone, and, through our limited-edition artworks, affordable as well," Mapplebeck says. "Each artist that exhibits at the gallery produces a limited edition artwork available to buy for about £75 (Dh418). We also offer a smaller run of artworks called the Whitechapel Gift for which we have had the likes of Anish Kapoor and Anthony Gormley contributing. Those pieces are at the upper end of the loan limit, but we also have available works by students, emerging artists and mid-career artists," she says.
Although not specifically designed for investment, there have been some early success stories. "The Whitechapel Gallery editions have proved very good investments," Mapplebeck says. "The Mark Wallinger edition produced for his 2001 show at the gallery now sells at auction for about £5,000 (Dh27,870). It was on sale for £75. A lot of other editions have gone up hugely in value, but for people taking part in Own Art, it is more about the love of the piece."
For some of the higher-end galleries involved in the scheme, the £2,000 loan threshold is limiting, but the Arts Council has no plans to extend the figure. "The average loan value is still under £1,000 (Dh5,574)," says Stack, "so that indicates that for the majority of customers, the £2,000 limit is still more than generous enough. We also have to consider responsible lending and our own funding provisions."
Figures suggest that Own Art has become more popular since the economic downturn and sales are significantly up from last year, indicating that galleries are being more proactive in offering the scheme and that customers are more receptive to the concept of an interest-free loan as a means of affording an art purchase. "The scheme is very much in demand now and the indication is that it will continue to be in demand throughout this period of economic crisis," Stack says.
Incledon agrees. "Own Art has come into its own in the last few months. In difficult trading conditions, it's becoming more and more useful." Young people - who are arguably more accustomed to the pay-in-instalments culture - have also been attracted to the scheme. The Pump House Gallery curator Sandra Ross believes that spending habits among the youth are changing. "Buying a piece of art instead of putting the money into savings or going on holiday is becoming more popular. Young people may also like the idea of supporting emerging artists," she says.
John Simmons, who has used Own Art for a purchase, says: "As a student, I could never afford to have taken £300-400 out of my account. But the idea of £30 being taken out every month isn't so bad. That's the equivalent of a few packets of cigarettes or a night out in London. "I'm now staying in a lot more to try and watch the pennies. It's easier to do that and to invite people over when you have an eye-catching piece of art on the wall. It's a real talking point."