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Made in White City

The Only Thing Keeping You From Owning Great Art Is You

Think you can't afford to have 'real art' in your house? Think again. The Art Council's little-known scheme is helping ordinary people own artwork for as little as a tenner a month. Say goodbye to those IKEA cityscape prints.

WORDS – Caroline O'Donoghue
06.09.2017

When I visit a gallery, many things occur to me. Curiosity, sure. Sometimes awe. More often than not, a slight anxiety that I do not entirely 'get' the work that I am supposed to be enjoying. Eventually, I get hungry, and then I leave. 

It almost never occurs to me that I can buy the work on display. 

But that’s what it's there for, right? Galleries show artwork in the hope that people will buy it. Artists make art in the hope that galleries will sell them. And yet, this last part, this part when the consumer comes in, is where the disconnect happens. Partly, this is because many galleries opt for a museum-like atmosphere, and many gallerists adopt a similarly untouchable air. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the art is valuable after all, thousands and thousands of pounds sometimes, and perhaps an air of formality is the most appropriate attitude around paintings that cost the equivalent of a house deposit. Yet as sympathetic as I am to that, I can’t help but hear AbFab’s Eddie when I enter a particularly frosty gallery: "You only work in a shop, you know, you can drop the attitude."

Because that's the thing. It's a shop. Money for goods. And until I entered Brighton’s Art Republic a few weeks ago, I had kind of forgotten that. As I stood around, falling in love with Magda Archer’s campy silk prints – cooing over a pony with the words “Hormonal and Loving It” written in blue over it – the gallerist appeared at my elbow. I told her that Archer’s prints were exactly my sensibility: splashy, campy, silly, and surreal. But, y’know, not something I could afford to drop £210 on. 

“How about £180?” 

“Sorry...” I said, thinking how could I possibly justify spending even that much money on a pony print. 

“How about £18 a month, for ten months?” 

And that, my friends, is how I came to own a Magda Archer print.

This all happened through a programme called Own Art. Own Art is essentially engage an interest-free loan that you can take on a piece of art by a living artist that is valued at over £100 and under £2,500. This national initiative was set up in partnership with Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Creative Scotland. It's an everybody-wins scenario: the gallery gets to sell art, the artist gets their commission, the buyer doesn’t need to be an actual millionaire in order to have beautiful pieces in their home. I hovered over the paperwork, sure there was a catch. There isn’t one. It feels like something that Corbyn would come out with and then people would immediately retort with “What! Art! Affordable! That fantasist!”

Let me try to put this into context:

This Limited Edition silkscreen by Sir Peter Blake, the artist most famous for the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover? £33.60 a month.

Michael Craig Martin’s prints are available from ten monthly payments of £48.

Bruce McLean, one of the major figures of contemporary British Art, has work available from £28 a month.

BRUCE MCLEAN  TREE FERN AND SHADOW YELLOW

While it may be more expensive than say, Netflix, its probably no more than your monthly cultural debits combined – your Amazon Prime, your Spotify, your NowTV – and the sole difference is, this debt actually increases in value.

Director of White City’s Griffin Gallery, Becca Pelly-Fry, had a huge amount of experience with the programme in her former role at Newcastle’s Biscuit Factory.

“Almost every day we were filling in applications,” says Pelly-Fry. “It encourages people to invest in buying art, as opposed to wanting something for their walls, and feeling comfortable with an IKEA print. It was a huge barrier for them, not necessarily because they didn’t have the money, but because it seems frivolous to drop such a huge chunk on something they see as unnecessary.”

Yet despite the universally positive effects of the Own Art scheme, the success and failure of it is down largely to individual representation. Artists cannot participate in it directly, and must have their work represented by the gallery. 

“The scheme itself depends entirely on the gallery. We had it on fliers, email, all our communication. At the Biscuit Factory, we were trying to build a business model on selling a lot of artwork in an area where people didn’t really buy art. Newcastle 15 years ago was in an economically recovery, so no one was thinking, 'Ooh, let’s buy some art today!' That wasn’t in the psyche. We had to do everything we could to break down those barriers both economically and psychologically.”

Even for bigger galleries, sales can be an issue. Selling art, Pelly-Fry reminds me, takes more than just great art: it takes a sales team, even for the wealthiest of clientele.

“All those psychological barriers apply across the board,” she says. “It takes most people quite a while to come around to the idea of buying art work. You wouldn’t necessarily walk into a show, see something for £5,000, and decide then and there that you were going to buy it. It’s a long term negotiation process.”

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