Buying art: Cut-price masterpieces

Buying art is normally the preserve of the wealthy, but the London-based Collective lets people around the country put pieces by Turner Prize winners in their homes. Nancy Groves explains

Saturday night in Sydenham, south London, and the Easthop household looks much like any other. Trainers kicked off in the hallway, homework abandoned on the kitchen table and two teenagers sprawled on the sofa watching X Factor repeats before heading out to meet friends. The only difference from your average suburban home? The walls are covered in contemporary art. Above the sofa hangs a blood-red etching of an African woman, instantly recognisable as a Chris Ofili. Opposite, next to the family computer, sits a mixed-media collage by Bobby Dowler, rising star of the Peckham scene. The overall effect gives even Simon Cowell a run for his money. But the boys remain oblivious. "I've got someone here about the Collective," says their dad and the pair dutifully switch off the box and slope upstairs.

If you thought owning art was a luxury of the rich and famous, think again. Father-of-three Tim Eastop is a founding member of the Collective, an exciting new approach to domestic art collecting that is now expanding to areas as diverse as Birmingham, Bristol and rural Cambridgeshire. The premise is as simple as the name: member households each pay an agreed monthly amount into a joint bank account and use the funds to purchase art to hang in their homes on rotation. "Buying, sharing and living with contemporary art" reads the tagline on their website, a philosophy the Eastops are clearly expounding, teenage apathy notwithstanding.

Back in 1999, Tim and his brother, Ben, were at a gallery opening with friends, sipping free wine and musing on what it would be like to have enough cash to splash, despite both working in the visual arts themselves. Somebody joked that the group should buy a piece together and the idea stuck. A year later they made their first purchase, a £1,000 box of 20 limited-edition prints from Islington's Cubitt gallery, including the aforementioned Ofili and some other big names besides.

"Tacita Dean, Tracey Emin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Martin Creed," lists Eastop. "I think there were least three Turner Prize winners in there already..." But at the time, it was more of a symbolic purchase. From the start, this wasn't about buying into an investment strategy or even decorating our homes with pretty pictures. We wanted to engage with the contemporary visual arts world. The process is as much about meeting and talking with emerging artists as it is about buying a final piece."

Still, a decade later and with monthly contributions of just £35, the founding London group have accumulated almost 50 artworks worth £60,000. The Cubitt box alone has quadrupled in value. Not bad for seven workaday families whose members range from a university lecturer to a nurse.

Three people serve on the group's buying committee at any one time, researching artists, visiting studios and presenting them back to the group. The standard budget is £500 to £1,000 and some choices prove more controversial than others. A work by Franko B, an artist known for using his own blood, upset one member who works in the clinical field. And the whole group was shaken by Katharine Fry's Home Suite, a site-specific piece about domesticity that saw the artist rooting through their possessions before performing at each house in turn.

Former NHS manager Bob Lee is hooked. "I think the performance piece was probably the most interesting thing we've bought," he says. "Sometimes it can be exciting living with work you've not chosen. We recently acquired a sculpture, a block of textured concrete by Michael Dean, and what's great is that you can hold it and feel it and even take it to the dinner table." Each household has an equal amount of pieces at any one time, he explains, and the group gathers socially twice a year, once in the summer and again at Christmas, to swap round the collection. "Our friends get to know we rotate works and people will often pop round for coffee to see what we've got next."

Two more London groups have since emerged and the Arts Council are now promoting the idea alongside their existing Own Art loan scheme, funding a website and boilerplate legal contract that makes it easier for groups to set up elsewhere – and for members to leave, though only one has to date, emigrating to New Zealand where he is already looking into starting a new collective.

Sarah Allen heard a talk from London members in Walsall and was immediately sold. "I just got it," says the theatre programmer. "At the end I went up and asked: 'Where is the Birmingham group?' And they said: 'You are the Birmingham group.'" Previously, Allen could only afford to pick up paintings cheap at auction. "It's a basic truth that a lot of people who feel passionate about art don't have the disposable income to acquire it. What I find so attractive about the Collective is that it gives you more power to your pound."

Allen held an event at Birmingham's Eastside Gallery, inviting people who had been spotted "nearly buying but not quite". Six signed up and the group went on to purchase their first work from Eastside by local artists Simon & Tom Bloor: a silver birch sculpture to be planted in the city park and an accompanying print to kickstart their home collection. Consciously, they have not spent since. "When you buy into this idea, it's something you might be doing for 10 years together," says Allen. "So rather than acquire a lot of smaller pieces, we're accumulating a healthy budget." London has loaned the group a portfolio of six works while they are saving. "It's a great introduction to deciding who has which and why. We get together in someone's lounge and speak up if we want a particular piece. Whoever builds the most convincing argument gets to take it home."

The social aspect is also a big draw for Louise Copping, founder of the Bristol branch. Meeting every three months over a bottle of wine, her six-strong group includes former Riba president George Ferguson. A major collector in his own right, Ferguson pays his monthly fee along with everyone else. "George's thing and mine," says Copping, "is a belief in collective power. The idea that if you get together with people to do something, you can make it can happen." Copping curated a joint exhibition of the London and Bristol collections at Ferguson's Tobacco Factory loft last year. "The world and his wife came to have a look and it was great to see lesser-known artists from Bristol studio Spike Island alongside bigger names," she says. "They can now say their work is held in a collection with Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili!"

For his part, Tim Eastop is keen to see the Collective expand beyond the domestic to small businesses, doctors' surgeries, even schools. "The irony," he grimaces, "is that you can see the Big Society Tories loving this. Local culture, local investment. It sounds worryingly like the present administration's ideas of self-initiated entrepreneurship." But the idea came from a socialist place, says Eastop. "We conceived it as almost a deliberate tongue-in-cheek challenge to the notion of private collecting. Ben and I recently proposed it to a few wealthy Russian collectors and they were not impressed. The cultural and political connotations associated with the term 'collective' made them quite uneasy."

Is there a risk that a scheme designed to open up the art world to those previously priced out simply makes new insiders of the outsiders? "There is that paradox," admits Bob Lee, who has started his own personal collection alongside the Collective. "But we try to keep our feet on the ground. The way we see it, there are lots of emerging artists out there and we're helping to grow a market for their work. We're not in the rarefied White Cube fantasy world here – even if we are invited to their openings!"

Surely, sharing work must be more difficult that everyone's letting on? After six months living with pieces, is it hard to let them go? "Yes," smiles Lee. "But they always come back."



Find out more about groups in your area at www.the-collective.info

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