Monday, March 8, 2010

The "Art" of Crowdfunding

The collective art of doing it on the cheap
How do you purchase a contemporary art collection without having Charles Saatchi’s chequebook at your disposal?

Bob Lee, from North London, is musing on the current value of his art collection, amassed over the past seven years. “Well there are four Turner prize-winning artists in there and others whose star has risen rapidly,” he says. “There’s a Tracey Emin from 2003, a Martin Creed, pieces from Wolfgang Tillmans and Paul Noble . . . I think that the whole collection could be worth £60K now — four times its original purchase value.”

It’s an impressive yield by anyone’s standards — and even more so when you discover that far from fitting the stereotype of a wealthy art collector with money to burn Lee works as a manager for the NHS. Nor was his original investment the thousands of pounds you might assume, rather a more affordable £35 a month.So how do you purchase a contemporary art collection to interest Charles Saatchi without having Saatchi’s chequebook at your disposal?

The solution it seems is as straightforward as a willingness to share.

Lee is a member of The Collective, a founding art purchasing group consisting of seven London households, who all pay £35 a month into a shared fund to buy original art to hang in their homes. The group’s ethos is to live with and enjoy all the works they own. Members take it in turns to sit on a buying panel that chooses and purchases the works which are then displayed in everyone’s homes on a six-month rotation.

“Pooling our resources has enabled us to build a contemporary art collection that, taken as a whole, none of us could have afforded alone,” says Lee.

The London group first evolved in 2001 when the art consultant Tim Eastop saw a set of limited-edition prints on sale at the Cubitt Gallery in North London and asked a group of friends and relations whether they would be interested in clubbing together to buy them. Realising the scope of communal purchasing, the households decided to pay an equal amount every month into a kitty to purchase new works. Their collection now consists of 45 pieces.

The scheme has garnered so much interest that the Contemporary Art Society and the Arts Council are using The Collective to advise new umbrella groups being set up in Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge and elsewhere.

“The momentum is definitely growing. There are seven UK collectives now and people seem to like the idea of making more permanent investments during a recession,” says Eastop. “But the value goes far beyond just ownership — there’s also a huge cultural value. We work closely with curators, galleries and artists to seek out and support emerging talent and most groups contain members with different levels of previous exposure to the art world. Drawing on the experience of others makes art more accessible and has given some members the confidence to purchase for the first time.”

Curators and artists themselves are usually fans of collective buying. Kate Farrell, the curator of special exhibitions at The Lowry in Manchester, is a strong supporter of the idea as a way of making art more affordable to novice collectors. “It’s important for the contemporary art world to be seen as non-elitist, to reach farther than the gallery walls within which for so many people it still exists. Encouraging people to own art in an accessible way can only benefit everyone involved.”

It’s a view echoed by Michelle Salerno of Arts Council England. “Members of collectives tend to enjoy the sharing of knowledge and the social aspect of developing a collection of artworks. As they often bring together novices and experts the collectives can also be rewarding in developing an appreciation of visual art.” But she also cautions that before joining a collective it’s important to look at the conditions of membership and to what extent ownership rights are retained should you leave.

It’s an important point. Collectives are keen to stress that their ethos is less about investing and more about the opportunity to have and appreciate art at home. But while buying for the love of art is all well and good, canny investments can inevitably result in shared ownership of artworks with rapidly increasing values.

So what happens if a member wants to cash in their share of the financial foresight behind a past purchase of a recent Turner prizewinner? The London Collective responds to this with the wry smiles of those who saw fit to invest in the Young British Artists when they were still young unknowns “Luckily it’s a situation that has never arisen because no one has ever wanted to sell. But all new collectives agree on and sign a legal constitution at the outset that outlines what will happen if someone wants out,” says Eastop.

“Nurturing young talent does mean pieces might increase in value, but under our constitution we can only put any profits made back into the collection. If other circumstances such as death, divorce or debt meant someone wanted to cash in their share of the collection there are various resolutions and exit strategies — such as selling another piece to match the value or buying them out. But under the constitution, any sale for profit has always to be a majority decision.”

Sarah Allen, 35, helped to set up a Birmingham collective in 2009 and says that with members’ backgrounds ranging from consulting to hairdressing there were, initially, monetary concerns that the constitution template helped to ease. “It’s a legal document which gives you a feeling of security — we can all see very clearly what the options are financially if we want to leave. We want to make sensible purchases, but we’re not doing it for a profit. We’re more interested in making adventurous purchases and buying art we find exciting to own.”

Louise Copping, of the Bristol Collective, goes further and cautions anyone against buying contemporary art as an investment. “Being motivated solely by the need to make a profit is just too risky. The true value has to come from the rewards you gain from owning a share in the piece. Do it for enjoyment — not profit.”

Finances aside, Annie Bacon, a member of a Cambridge collective that has just purchased its third piece, a sculpture by Andy Holden, says that the social aspect of group buying is another great appeal. “We get together regularly to go to galleries and viewings as a group, which is great fun. After we bought the Holden piece we were invited to see a preview of Art Now at the Tate when he exhibited. That’s the type of opportunity most of us would never have had previously. And recently, he even delivered his latest piece to my house [pictured below left], to see how it would look.”

A recent meeting in Bristol’s Tobacco Docks saw collectives from all over the UK meet to collate and exhibit their purchases and, for the founding London group, also highlighted how years of buying together has pushed their artistic boundaries.

“As the years have passed we have become more experimental and courageous,” says Eastop. Often one of us takes time to warm to a piece, but the rule is that even if you hate it and hang it in the downstairs loo you have to display it somewhere. Nine times out of ten you change your views once you have lived with a piece and are loath to part with it when it’s time to rotate.”

But even among collectives prepared to push the confines some purchases have proved contentious. A piece by artist Franko B drawn with his own blood proved tough for a member of the London collective who has a nursing background. “She loathed the idea of it because she was faced with blood all day at work,” explains Eastop. “But by the end of the six months she had warmed to it.”

A commissioned piece of performance art that saw artist Kathryn Fly come to each member’s house to record observations on domestic life proved even more testing for London member Marie-Louise Collard. “She was rifling through our possessionsand documenting everything. I found it difficult, but it was a great way to explore artistic boundaries — and it has gone down in collective folklore.”

It’s an apt reminder of the differences between living with contemporary art daily and simply viewing it in a gallery. Everyone in the household has their own opinion on the works on rotation and it seems Collard’s teenagers were less than enamoured by their mother’s interest in performance art. They locked their doors and banned the artist from their rooms.

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