Get in the frame for an art house

You don't have to remortgage your house to afford contemporary pictures, says Jo Lewis
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The Independent Online
MOST people who buy contemporary art aren't wealthy investors spending large sums in exclusive West End galleries. Once you know where to look, it is possible to find good work at prices that aren't terrifying.

Hundreds of smaller contemporary art galleries beyond W1 successfully promote artists' work, offering a huge range of prices. Galleries magazine is a good place to start your search. Published monthly, it provides listings of shows throughout the country. You can pick up a free copy in commercial art galleries or subscribe for pounds 19 a year.

One of the many listings in the South-east is for the New Ashgate Gallery in Farnham, Surrey where prices range from pounds 20 to several thousand. At a recent exhibition Anita Klein prints sold for about pounds 115 unframed, pounds 150 framed; Emma Dunbar's acrylic paintings, currently on show, go for pounds 300 to pounds 500.

Don't worry if you don't know anything about an artist when you first see and like their work. Most galleries are extremely helpful if you express positive interest in an artist's work. It is always worth talking to gallery staff. They will give you information on the artist's training, age and experience, and may well be able to show you less expensive work that is not on display. You can ask to be put on their mailing list for future exhibitions. And if you do decide to take the leap and make a purchase, you can nearly always pay in instalments.

The only reason to buy a piece is because you really like it and want to live with it - not because you think you've got a bargain before Charles Saatchi gets out his chequebook.

Having said that, if you want a chance at picking up a little something by someone extremely famous then test your spotting powers at the Royal College of Art's annual "Absolut Secret" exhibition in December.

Last year more than 2,000 postcard-size works by more than 900 artists (from the unknown to the fabulously famous) were on show. Each work costs pounds 35 and is displayed anonymously, so that until you collect it after the show you don't know whether or not you've got an Eduardo Paolozzi, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Blake or Antoni Tapies. The money raised goes to the college's funds.

Local art fairs, degree shows and studio opens are always worth visiting. At art fairs, galleries show a selection of works by the different artists they represent - all under one roof. These are hugely popular events; Art '98 at the Business Design Centre in Islington took pounds 6.5m. While some buyers wrote cheques for thousands, it was equally possible to take home a wonderful Prunella Clough print for pounds 300 from Blond Fine Art, based in Reading.

The Art Supermarket, on the fifth floor of the Knightsbridge store Harvey Nichols, sells contemporary original art work (oils, water-colours, mixed media, drawings and monotypes) at very reasonable prices. The supermarket was set up with the belief that "art can be sold in an uncomplicated way". Its ethos is to sell high quality work with all unnecessary costs removed. Work is unframed to reduce space and you'll find information about the artist and work on the back of each picture.

Since its launch nearly two years ago the Art Supermarket in London, together with similar projects in Dublin, Leeds and currently Edinburgh, has sold nearly 4,000 original pieces of work. Almost 100 artists are represented and prices range from pounds 135 to pounds 345.

But if you want to avoid paying any gallery commission (which is frequently at least 50 per cent), then head off to your local art college degree shows, usually held in June, and studio opens. Both are great opportunities to meet artists, discuss their art and buy direct from their place of work.

The largest studio open is probably the bi-annual Whitechapel Open in east London. More than 1,000 studios are made accessible, and the Open includes shows at the Whitechapel Gallery, The Tannery gallery and sites in Canary Wharf. To make viewing easier, the Whitechapel Gallery even runs bus tours around the various venues on Sunday afternoons throughout the event.

If this still seems too exhausting, you can now make a purchase on the internet at BritArt's website. Each artist's pages include a CV, pictures of works for sale, details of current exhibitions and reviews of shows past and present. Prices start at around pounds 130, although the most expensive work sold over the net so far is Maggi Hambling's "Suicide Laugh" at pounds 17,000.

q Jo Lewis is a London-based artist.

Where to find affordable art

q Galleries, Barrington Publications, 54 Uxbridge Rd. London W12 8LP. Tel/fax: 0181-740 7020. Available free in most commercial galleries and auction houses, or pounds 19 per year by subscription.

q Harvey Nichols Art Supermarket, Knightsbridge, 0171-359 2750.

q "Absolut Secret", Royal College of Art, London, 0171-590 4444.

q New Ashgate Gallery, Farnham, Surrey, 01252 713208.


q The Whitechapel Open and Open Studios, 0171-522 7878.

q Blond Fine Arts (British Prints 1920-1980), Reading, 0118 926 0880.