Art Market

Governments Are Giving Collectors Interest-Free Loans to Support Local Artists and Dealers

Karen Chernick
Jul 3, 2019 8:11PM

Customer Journey for Kunst Aan Zet at Base Alpha Gallery. Photo courtesy of Kunst in Huis.

Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen was an optimistic youngster at the beginning of his career when a seasoned art dealer shared some harsh truths. “He said: ‘You have to see it in this way—how many people like art, maybe 20 percent of the population?’” Vanmechelen recalled. “‘How many of these people like contemporary art? Oh, that’s another number, maybe five percent? Who of these people are able to buy art? Hmm, maybe a half percent. And how many of these people are going to buy your art?’”

Decades later, Vanmechelen still vividly recalls the encounter and feels fortunate that, despite the odds, he’s been able to sustain his art practice. Others are less lucky—especially emerging artists, who are among the lowest earners in the Belgian cultural sector during the first 15 years of their careers. But the Flemish government hopes to bolster the region’s contemporary artists with a new initiative launching this September, Kunst Aan Zet, which will provide interest-free loans for purchasing local art.

The program, available through authorized galleries, helps buyers purchase works by artists living and working in Flanders or Brussels by lending sums ranging from €500 to €7,000 (about $570 to $8,000), to be repaid in monthly installments within a maximum period of two years. The artists and galleries are paid in full once the loans are approved.

As Flemish minister for culture Sven Gatz said in a statement, “Buying a work of art should be possible for everyone, even if you’re not an expert and don’t have a big budget.” As someone who stands to benefit from Kunst Aan Zet, Vanmechelen noted that it also provides artists with up-front funds to continue creating, which will stimulate the art scene in a few ways.

Improving the economic situation of artists and making art collecting more accessible are the primary goals of Kunst Aan Zet, and it is inspired by the success of similar programs in the U.K. and the Netherlands. Collectorplan, a program run by the Arts Council of Wales for over 30 years, offers interest-free loans of up to £5,000 ($6,300) toward the cost of artworks made by living artists in Wales. Another long-running program is KunstKoop in the Netherlands, which to date has been used by more than 50,000 collectors, who have bought more than €164 million ($186 million) in art since the initiative launched in 1997. KunstKoop is operated by the Mondriaan Fund, a public fund that supports Dutch visual art and heritage.

The loans available through Own Art, a program of the Arts Council England, are also completely interest-free and allow collectors to borrow up to £25,000 ($31,700) to purchase art, design, and craft objects. Since 2004, Own Art has loaned about £51.7 million ($65.6 million) in its efforts to invigorate the local creative economy and support galleries, collectors, and living artists.

“We’re making buying and collecting art more affordable for consumers who might consider it to be out of reach, and popularizing the concept of buying art, so it doesn’t remain a sort of exclusive and elitist pastime,” said Mary-Alice Stack, the chief executive at Creative United, which operates Own Art. “It’s very much about democratizing the art market, making sure that everyone feels entitled and able to discover and purchase work.”

While these interest-free loan programs are slowly spreading across Europe, there are no equivalent publicly sponsored programs in the United States. “It’s great that a country wants to get behind art and galleries, and try to create an infrastructure to support that,” said Heather Hubbs, executive director of the New York–based New Art Dealers Alliance. “It would be cool if someone could figure that out here. I don’t have a lot of faith that that would be possible without being something privately done by somebody who’s super philanthropic.”

Private, interest-free loans of up to $50,000 for purchasing art are available to Americans through Art Money, a company that began in Australia and launched in the U.S. in 2016. During its four years of operation, it has reported loaning funds to purchase 4,000 artworks, totaling $18 million in sales across 1,000 partner galleries (about 600 of which are in the United States).

Hubbs believes that interest-free loans are just one approach for governments to support contemporary art, and that there are other ways they can provide a boost. “What do galleries and artists need? They need space,” she said. “They need a space to run their businesses out of, and artists need space to make their work. Especially in New York, and to varying degrees in other cities, as well, the real-estate problem is real. If there was a way that galleries and artists could be more protected in terms of rents, that could potentially be more impactful.”

For now, for that percentage of the population that likes contemporary art, buying art through interest-free loans is just one way to support artists. Stack admitted that e-commerce and social media have changed the art market; when Own Art started 15 years ago, galleries were the main channels for buying contemporary art. Now, Own Art’s primary message is that art-buying is accessible, regardless of whether or not collectors apply for a loan through the organization.

“For many of the customers we reach, we’re simply inspiring them to go and look and discover,” Stack said. “We’re not selfish about it. If we can inspire more people to choose to buy a piece of original work by a living artist as opposed to a reproduction print, or [if] we can build their knowledge and confidence about what goes into the process of making an original, unique work, and why that’s important, and what the role of artists is in society, all these things are very much part of our marketing messages and core ambition for the scheme.”

Karen Chernick