The view looking up

What do you do if you’re not earning big bucks yet still want to buy some art for your walls? Kim Gurney investigates

It was a cheeky but inspired idea. Several years ago, artists James Webb and Jo O’Connor armed Cape Town festivalgoers with a bunch of yellow stickers. The idea was to visit each gallery on the annual circuit that comprises Art Night and place these stickers next to works they liked but could not afford. The intervention challenged the standard gallery declaration of interest (red for sold, green for reserved) while communicating frustration at the price tags.

For younger buyers keen on acquiring art but without deep pockets, the current bull market for contemporary art can be daunting. But there is good news. Contemporary art need not break the piggy bank. Acquisitions can start with as little as R1,000, with work from students and up-and-coming artists often even cheaper. But is it possible to find worthwhile investments in this lower price bracket?

The short answer is maybe. It is a very risky market if you are buying for purely financial gains because the likelihood of the artist moving onto bigger things is counterbalanced by the possibility of falling off the radar completely. Gordon Froud, of Gordart gallery, agrees with the oft-repeated mantra that it is better to buy work that appeals to you.

“You should buy what you enjoy, though this may change with time,” he says. “And if the ‘value’ escalates, this is a bonus. Only the Old Masters can be bought with some expectation of financial growth. The thematic approach may work well as a starting point but most people enjoy variety and move on to develop a taste or style of their own.”

That being said, there are bargains for the taking for those with a sharp eye. Cape Town-based artist Jacki McInnes acquired a couple of limited edition photographic prints by Mikhael Subotzky at the time of his 2005 UCT degree show.. When exhibited one year later, the same body of work had appreciated by 1000 per cent. McInnes’s very first purchase was a work by Diane Victor, a limited edition embossed print that at the time cost less than the current expense of framing it.

McInnes buys work based on two broad impulses: “The best art out there engages me on the basis of its aesthetic qualities and tells me something about the world in which I live that I didn’t already know. I collect art because I find that I can look at it over an extended period of time without blanking it out of my consciousness — as I do with so many other objects.”

Andries Loots, owner of Cape Town gallery 34 Long, says the most important thing for collectors is to do their homework: go to exhibitions, research the market and establish their tastes and preferences. If the purpose is investment, buying art has to take the same analytical approach as stock-picking. Says Loots: “If you buy for investment reasons, it is like a science and you look at the markets.” But he agrees that artworks bought with passion are, paradoxically, more likely to become good investments in the long run.

There does seem to be a growing appetite from younger buyers for art that fits a more modest budget. A growing middle class and an upbeat property market are boosting consumer spend, which is reflected in the latest spate of retail company results. Mr Price and Foschini in June reported strong profits in their respective homeware divisions. These same young professionals equipping their new homes with kitchen gadgets and new bedding are also looking for alternatives to generic prints for the walls.

Hoteliers have applied a similar logic. Marcus Neustetter, a Johannesburg-based artist and arts administrator with The Trinity Session, was last year involved in sourcing 1500 works from about 70 artists for the newly constructed Raphael Penthouse Suites. Built by the Legacy Group and overlooking Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, the initiative redirected décor spend while engaging with the need for social development.

The end result was seemingly a win-win scenario: emerging artists received support for their work, the developers got original works of art for the price of cookie-cutter creations, and The Trinity Session learnt valuable insights about mediating between artists and corporate clients. It also consolidated a successful formula that other major corporations are keen to adopt. “The interest is there but the issue is how to harness it without losing the value of the art in the process,” says Neustetter.

Indeed, the potential to conflate décor objects with fine art is tricky. And hotel environments are a far cry from the traditional white cube of a contemporary gallery designed for aesthetic contemplation. Neustetter acknowledges the issue is “sensitive and complex” but firm parameters helped. “We need to hold onto the artist’s integrity and we fought that battle several times,” he states. “We also set up boundaries [at the beginning] to keep basics in place.”

While commissioned works for the Legacy Project responded to a brief, the colour was not altered to better match the scatter cushions. In fact, The Trinity Session had a bit of fun encouraging the subversion of interior design notions of Grecian urns and Corinthian columns in smart visual parodies, such as an Italian villa surrounded by electric fencing — all very well with a R1.3-million budget.

Neustetter argues that single collectors can do something similar on a much smaller scale with just R5,000 to R10,000. “It depends how one builds a collection and what you are looking for,” he says. “That amount is enough if you buy the right way. There is lots of potential to pick up work, build a little collection and see the value of the growth.”

One new gallery space aimed at buyers with more limited resources is Cape Town’s What if the World, a community-based initiative that according to its website was formed “to represent, recruit, and showcase an ever-evolving database of creative talents”. Run by Justin Rhodes and Cameron Munro, the gallery trades in both art and design-orientated works. Prices rarely breach the R1,000 ceiling and it’s not unusual to find something for a fifth of that price. Recent exhibitors have included Heather Moore (wife of sculptor Paul Edmunds), Marna Hattingh (her gouache and ink works sell for as little as R550), Sarah Nankin, David West and Stan Engelbrecht.

Rhodes agrees that the property market is supportive of sustained interest in affordable, entry-level art. He says young people buying houses or flats are paying off the bond and cannot afford a painting for R10,000 but they still want something original. Investment potential is usually less of a selection criterion from such buyers because they are dealing with smaller sums, but this does not preclude works from appreciating in value.

Art is also currently viewed as fashionable which has helped spike interest from buyers, adds Froud. This intersects with a trend towards levelling the playing fields. The days of art being exclusive and limited to established art circles are gone.

“The majority of the population is not art trained,” says Rhodes. “There is no doubt we show things here on occasion that an established art person would gasp at but I’m okay with that. We often blur the line but I’m not sure the line is soimportant.”

Says Froud: “Affordable art is definitely the gateway drug towards more addictive and therefore more expensive artworks. This is good for the art market.”