Pop! goes the gallery

Intimidated by private galleries? Or just looking for a bargain? Then the Art Supermarket is for you. Hester Lacey puts herself in the frame
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The Independent Culture
Buying an original painting is not like buying a shirt, or a handbag, or a pair of curtains. But, says fine art dealer James West, that's just how it should be: spontaneous, angst-free, even fun. He is the driving force behind the Art Supermarket, which takes up temporary residence on the Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols later this month. For six weeks, the Supermarket will feature original works by 50 European artists - all affordably priced between pounds 125 and pounds 295, and all available to carry off there and then, without any need to brave the snooty portals of a gallery, or pay gallery prices.

"The idea's very simple," says West - blue-jeaned, friendly and infectiously enthusiastic. "Why does art have to cost so much? We demand expensive gallery space to see art in a particular way, and we demand that someone is prepared to talk to us for an hour and a half about why it's so beautiful, so you have a slow sales rate combined with high overheads - everything has to cost twice as much as it perhaps might need to in a different environment."

So the environment at the Art Supermarket will be very different indeed from the hushed environs of a traditional gallery. "There will be a specially designed exhibition space, with a space for each artist, where there'll be one framed work on display," explains West. "Underneath, in racks, will be unframed work that is mounted, protected by polythene so you can pick it up and hold it up to the light, imagine how it's going to look." Then, if you like it, you tuck it under your arm, take it to the cash till, pay for it and carry it home - unless you want to take advantage of the in-house framing service.

The Art Supermarket concept originated in Barcelona in 1983. In its first year it sold just a few hundred works; now, the Barcelona event sells about 2,000 in a six-week period. Art Supermarkets have now spread to Madrid, Zaragoza, Bilbao, Marseilles, Nice, Lyon and Paris. But Barcelona, says West, remains the most successful - and is also the only one so far to associate itself with a fashionable retail outlet, the Spanish designer store Vincon. West is hoping the Harvey Nichols link will mean added potential for success in Britain.

At the same time, Harvey Nichols is hoping it is in the vanguard of a completely new way of buying art. Marketing director Mary Portas believes this kind of demystification is long overdue: "The art world is very stuffed- shirt, far too precious - but art itself is part of people's homes. We are taking art down off that pedestal, getting away from that very hands- off attitude. Harvey Nichols is pretty glamorous - you couldn't do this in a bog-standard high-street store - but we already sell a whole range of leading-edge designer products, and this is all part of that lifestyle thing. It is approachable, achievable, and fun."

The artists who will be contributing are drawn from West's contact lists, specialising in work by contemporary artists from Catalonia, and the Spanish Art Supermarket team. They are based all over Europe, and are "serious professional artists who are not big names, who haven't had a huge marketing exercise behind them to push their prices up to a level which is no longer affordable," West says.

No particular theme or approach will dominate. "We're eclectic. We look for some sense of an original identity in the artist, some sense that somebody's bringing something new to the table. It will range from pure abstraction to traditional figurative art. We haven't simply looked for bright beautiful colourful pictures; there are harder ones, more in tune with the nihilistic feeling of the post-war period." Maximum canvas size will be 35 x 50 centimetres - "large mantelpiece size", says West, who claims that even the cheaper pieces will be of respectable dimensions.

So who is he expecting to turn up, cheque book at the ready? "The buying public in Barcelona ranges from serious collectors of art, who recognise a way to circumvent a lot of the costs they've traditionally had to face, right through to people who are approaching art for the first time." Even among customers who shop at Harvey Nicks, there will be people who simply wouldn't want to penetrate a typical gallery.

"Most of the people who shop at places like Harvey Nichols are bright professional people, but they don't necessarily have a training in fine art," West explains."Often people get pissed off by the kind of attitude which surrounds galleries. A lot of them do a great job, but I think there is an identity problem in the way the art world is perceived by a lot of people who are potentially art buyers. If it could be made a little bit less off-putting, and people could walk in as if they were going to buy a designer shirt or some other article of aesthetic value, that would be all to the good."

There is nothing wrong with the I-don't-know-much-about-art-but-I-know- what-I-like approach, he says. "If people have the confidence to go to films and have views on this complicated form of art - without worrying about not knowing about the process of directing - surely they should be able to walk in, see a painting, and say 'I like that I'll buy it'."

From the buyer's point of view, cheap art can only be a good thing - but what about the painter? West believes that many buyers will gain confidence to go on and buy larger works. And while being sold by a major gallery lends cachet, in these post-recession days, gallery contracts are few and far between. He adds that the Art Supermarket is not only a way of finding potential buyers, but a way for artists to present themselves to potential galleries. "It provides gallery owners with a way of sussing what's happening, picking up on young talent or talent they've missed," he says.

The artists who will be putting their work up for sale are highly enthusiastic. Christine Milne, 23, who is based in Glasgow, studied at Grays School of Art in Aberdeen and paints abstract landscapes in oil. "It's really good to get into Harvey Nichols, and show to a less elitist group of people," she says. "It gives the artist more chance to get their works across to the general public - it's very difficult to get a name for yourself. And it gives us a chance to get some money together to keep going, without having to sign on."

Sam Cadman, 24, a graduate of Middlesex University and the Camberwell School of Art, normally sells some of his work via parties at his London studio, where guests can "meet, drink, chat, maybe buy a picture, maybe not". He believes there is a new strain of young artists "who are very self-motivated, who are doing things in new and radical ways, and don't have to be gallery-represented". About 80 of his screen prints will be on sale at Harvey Nichols. "There should be a middle ground where it is not a big ordeal to buy a picture," he says. "There is a world of art that falls between Athena and Cork Street galleries that is really interesting."

Others are already trying to tap this middle ground, which is certainly extensive - the most popular part of Art Review magazine is the Art Under pounds 1,000 classified section. Even Cork Street has organised an annual open weekend where art can be bought on the spot at reasonable prices. Schemes in London, Cambridge and Norwich have opened local artists' studios to a wider public. And the Contemporary Art Society has run an annual art market for the past 12 years, with works priced between pounds 100 and pounds 2,000 - including paintings, drawings, sculpture and photographs. This year's event, at the Royal Festival Hall at the end of November, is backed by Sainsbury's.

The Art Supermarket, however, is the first self-service gallery on such a scale, and for some artists it will be a springboard to bigger and better things. Some of the Spanish veterans are now selling at 10 to 15 times their Supermarket prices. The non-expert buyer can go for something they like the look of, says West. "Approach on the basis of love. Go in with an open mind, just as when you're shopping normally. Your eye will be caught by something, you'll fall in love with it, and that's the best way to buy. When you're talking about spending thousands of pounds, you need to be careful, but there's a lot been done here to make good work affordable, so follow your gut instinct."

The Art Supermarket, Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7RJ (0171 235 5000), from 18 September. Contemporary Art Society Market, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1, 26 November-1 December.