Mona might smile: Britain offers interest-free loans on art

With interest-free loans for cars, televisions, and even vacations, Britain is sometimes accused of creating a culture of debt and rampant consumerism.

But now Britons can run up debts for higher-minded reasons, thanks to Own Art, a new government-funded initiative that offers interest-free loans of up to £2,000 ($3,545) to anyone wanting to buy contemporary artwork.

"We want to open people's eyes to owning something unique rather than just going to a superstore and buying something mass produced," says Mary-Alice Stack, development manager of Own Art.

The purpose of the program is to encourage ordinary people to start collecting original art work and to bring an influx of money into the opaque, mysterious, and sometimes stuffy world of British art.

Behind Own Art, which has already lent over £2.5 million ($4.4 million) to more than 4,000 customers, is an old-fashioned belief in subsidizing "higher" forms of culture. But the government also hopes that if the public gets used to buying modern art then eventually the market will be able to assume the state's support for the nation's impoverished artists - many of whom must supplement their work with teaching jobs.

In addition to helping feed hungry artists, however, Own Art - administered by the government-funded Arts Council - is helping to fulfill the Labour Party's strategy of creating a more egalitarian Britain.

"I think that historically the owning of art has been seen as very elitist activity only for those with substantial incomes and people within an elite set who know about contemporary art," says Ms. Stack. "This is one of the attitudes that we hope we will be able to change."

Since taking power in 1997, Labour has tried hard to widen access to arts, culture, and education, pledging to send more than half of Britain's youth to university by 2010, and using arts funding to break down the nation's class barriers.

One result is that, under Labour, Britain has seen a quiet revolution in arts. Contemporary art exhibitions have become front-page news and controversial artists such as Damien Hirst have become household names.

At the same time, grants from the central government and the National Lottery Fund have enabled museums to scrap entry fees while international companies such as British Petroleum now see supporting art exhibitions as a cheap source of positive publicity.

Many town councils have followed suit and regularly commission outdoor sculptures and support new galleries as a way to attract tourists and investment while also strengthening local identities.

In Cambridge, where a young, professional, and highly educated population provide a receptive audience for new art, the program has been a success, especially for one small gallery which has made 74 sales due to Own Art loans since April.

"I think it's brilliant. Promoting the idea that anyone can buy art has really worked," says Nathalie Staples, owner of the Cambridge Contemporary Art Gallery where modern paintings, prints, and sculptures cost from £20 to around £5,000.

"There are hundreds of artists producing a very wide variety of contemporary art," says Ms. Staples. "And we want people to discover that part of the joy of art is about seeking out something original rather than just getting something convenient."

As the arts council prepares to bring the program to London next year, it is aiming to reach out to people who would never usually consider stepping into a commercial art gallery - with advertisements and leaflets appearing at health clubs, municipal swimming pools, and cinemas.

The promise of an interest-free loan convinced one young professional, Alexandra Crouch, from Cheltenham in western England, to buy her first-ever painting - an abstract landscape of Vence on the French coast.

"I think everyone should be able to own something original," says Ms. Crouch, who studied art history at university. "And it doesn't have to be a masterpiece but just something you really like."

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