THE WORD Where are the missing 6m art lovers who aren’t buying?

Gallerist Ann Petherick on the crisis facing commercial art galleries

In 2004 Arts Council England published a report on the potential market for the visual arts, entitled Taste Buds - how to cultivate the art market which found that there were 5.9m people who had said that they would like to buy original art but had not done so.  (And that’s without counting those who may have thought it but not said it, or all those who haven’t even realised what they’re missing.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Since then ACE seems to have put little or no effort into identifying who those 6m people are, how they might be reached, why they don’t buy, and what might persuade them to do so. 

Main image: Ann Petheridge’s Kentmere House Gallery in York

The result is that the visual arts do not currently form part of most peoples’ everyday experience, either in their homes or workplaces, leading to the arts as a whole being viewed by many as something alien, mysterious and intimidating. And that goes a long way towards explaining why the arts are seen as such an easy target for government cuts.  

Arts publications and the national media are full of articles bemoaning the cuts, often with justification, but in the case of the visual arts could it also be that the arts world is missing a trick?  If ACE really wants to help hard-working artists, how about helping to develop an increased market for their work? Instead of promoting the outlandish & unsaleable in galleries which are 100% subsidised, how about giving genuine thought to expanding the market for original work?  

The standard reason given by non-buyers is shortage of money, but that just doesn’t stand up.  Just look at the interiors’ photographs in the glossies - with a fortune spent on elaborate curtains, huge sofas, expensive flooring, but frequently either with bare walls or walls adorned by mass-produced reproductions.  

Could it be lack of confidence rather than lack of money? Buying an original painting does require confidence in one’s own judgement, and the opportunity to build that judgement is lacking because, particularly in the regions and post-Covid, there are so few galleries showing good, original work of a style which the first-time buyer can relate to. 

It is no surprise that estate agents focus so much on first-time buyers, for without them there can be no subsequent buyers.  Every “serious collector” was once a first time buyer. Everyone remembers the day they took home their first piece of original art because it was an emotional investment every bit as much as financial.  It’s scary and exhilarating, at the same time, and it can transform your life.  You are investing in a living, working artist, rather than buying a mass-produced product.

Many people at all income levels are no strangers to the thrill of collecting, as the spread of ephemera and “collectables” shops show, but something holds them back where original art is concerned.   The media doesn’t help, with its focus alternatively on historical work sold at high prices at auction, or the antics of the no-longer young YBAs.

There need to be positive efforts to remove the fear and mystique. Art library schemes run by some local authorities have great potential and are proven to develop a continuing interest, but there are currently very few of them.  Publicly-funded galleries could do more to work with independent galleries - joint marketing initiatives, co-ordinated private views, exchange of publicity material, and the public galleries could promote talks and discussions led by artists currently showing in local independent galleries, for example.

Most of the work promoted by ACE is “cutting- edge” and, even if it is for sale, is unlikely to attract those who are not currently “engaged” with the art world. But as the late A A Gill once said, “if art has to have a cutting edge, it also needs to have a handle by which people can get hold of it”.  It is that handle, that means of introduction, that is missing.

There will never be widespread support for the visual arts, or arts in general, or a population which knows the difference between an original painting and a “limited edition” reproduction produced on an inkjet printer, until genuine art is a familiar and commonplace experience in homes and workplaces.  

The barrier for many people is the widespread feeling that “art is not for the likes of us”, coupled with a fear of saying the wrong thing and being ridiculed. So is it surprising that government sees arts funding as easy prey, that artists struggle to make a living from their work, and the many of the independent galleries showing good quality representational work are closing?   

Yet the economic case is powerful – the arts are worth 6% of GDP (even financial services only produce 9%) and we now know that the potential for increase is vast.

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