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December 30, 2010

An interest-free government loan to buy contemporary art? Someone tell Fannie Mae.

Illustration by Tom Tomkinson

Surely one of the great inhibitors preventing people from collecting art is its cost. As if contemporary art weren’t expensive enough, the art buying sprees of the 1980s and 1990s caused prices to skyrocket, effectively pushing working people out of the game altogether. And the secondary market for a spare Matisse or the primary market for a new Koons will always be well beyond the grasp of 99 percent of us.

But a few governments have developed a progressive plan to get more art to average citizens while simultaneously supporting working artists. The most successful appears to be Own Art, a program sponsored by Arts Council England that permits UK residents to borrow between £100 and £2,000 (roughly $155 and $3,100) interest-free to purchase a work of contemporary art from a UK gallery. Pay back your loan in ten monthly installments, and you’ve got a shiny new sculpture or painting for the house. Own Art launched in 2004 and has made nearly 17,000 loans to the tune of £13.5 million (over $21 million).

Similar plans exist elsewhere in the United Kingdom through Creative Scotland and the Arts Council of Wales’ Collectorplan, which started in 1983. In 2008, France sought to stave off a decline in its own art market—–China had recently unseated France as the number three art market, behind the United States and the United Kingdom—–by instituting its own interest-free loans to boost the activities of middle-class collectors.

Much farther afield, and in a spot not widely considered an arts-dealing powerhouse, the Australian state of Tasmania has instituted Australia’s first Own Art–modeled deal. The Collect Art Purchase Scheme began in 2008 and offers Australians interest-free loans of up to AUS$7,500 (about $6,600) for the purchase of work by living Tasmanian artists. And with 35 percent of sales coming from other parts of Australia, the program has successfully increased the visibility of Tasmanian arts, crafts, furniture, and jewelry.

By bringing the world of contemporary art to average citizens, and encouraging a new cache of patrons, governments are managing to invest in both the arts and artists. The top end of the art market will never come into the reach of the masses, but a little boost from City Hall is turning more citizens into collectors.

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