When streaming movies really kick off in the UK it’ll mark another chapter in the de-cluttering of our homes. In twenty years’ time our kids’ shelves won’t be stacked with dusty Harry Potter box sets, or yellowing paperbacks.

Culture, for our kids, won’t be something they’ll need to take home – they’ll merely access it when the whim dictates. They probably won’t even have shelves. What would they put on them?

Art, though. That’s a different cultural commodity. And, maybe, just maybe, it will have its day.

When our CDs and DVDs, our paperbacks and vinyl have long since gone to that big curator in the sky, we’ll need art more than ever: to plug that culture shaped hole in our homes in a way that no Ikea print ever could.

Maybe then we’ll start looking at owning art anew? Maybe the cloud will, ultimately, make Saachis and Sainsburys of us all.

But according to those actively engaged in selling art around here, we’ve some way to go. Right now, it takes a leap of faith we’re not ready (or able) to cross.

How much do we spend on acquiring music, going to see bands, buying books, DVDs? Hundreds? Thousands of quid each year? But imagine this – you spot an original, thrilling and bang-on piece of art for your home. You check the label. £350. You run a mile, right? That’s a week all inclusive in Playa d’en Bossa.

Ceri Hand (pic r, centre) knew it was going to be tough opening a gallery on the bad side of town, in a city 200 miles away from the market (and, like it or not, that’s resolutely still London).

Three years in, and she’s yet to make a profit, despite a programme of well received shows, and a roster of eight or so talented and engaging new artists from all points north.

“If we had just ten people in Liverpool, buying a serious work of art once or twice a year, we’d survive,” Hand admits.

Not much of an ask? Especially when the gallery is making all the right noises in the art world. And in a few other places too…

“We had a mention in Grazia last week,” Hand tells SevenStreets excitedly, as builders hammer and drill the gallery into shape for her next show, “that’s the kind of thing that brings new people through our doors. We had a few new faces in this week. I could just tell they were Grazia readers,” she laughs.

The doors, should you never have stepped through them, are wedged between mechanics and taxi showrooms, brothels and tyre fitters in one of those tight little streets that carve their way inland from the dock road, north of town.

That, last month, the gallery exhibited Hockney and Warhol, and has now crow-barred its way into the art circuit is testament to Hand’s singular vision, and steely determination.

“We have to be ruthlessly fixated on quality. Collectors know about art – they have the time to look at lots of fairs, and know what the market needs,” she says, “and it takes a hell of a lot of convincing to get them to add a new gallery onto their circuit.”

Fortunately, they’ve met their match in Hand – an art professional (ex FACT) with 18 years’ time served, and a 360 degree grasp on the mechanics and marketing of contemporary art.

“We had to offer something different to galleries in London, and our difference is the time we spend working with our artists. I wanted to run as fast as them, and respond to their work, to help give them the best possible chance to make it,” she says.

Hand knows exactly where she’s going. She has a small band of ‘incredibly supportive’ backers allowing her to curate shows, develop exhibitions and represent her artists in fairs across the globe, and she’s not afraid of thinking big (Hand’s got her sights on winning a place at Frieze – the contemporary art world’s most glittering, and influential, bring and buy sale).

What she hasn’t got – yet – is the level of support from the rest of us. Nor, for that matter, any Liverpool-based artists to represent.

“Ultimately, my job is to take artists on board, and to get them ready for the market,” Hand says, explaining that it can take anything up to two years to develop an artist’s work before it reaches a level that makes it collectible. “I’m not into this for one-night stands,” she smiles, adding that, three years down the line, she’s yet to see any Liverpool graduates she’s confident enough to even invite out on a blind date.

“Liverpool’s Art School is obviously going through some kind of transition,” Hand says, trying to negotiate a tactful course to drive home her point. “I think they just have some, um, catching up to do.”

While Liverpool’s Art School flounders, Glasgow’s is in ebullient health – developing such a slew of home grown talent the city is able to support three successful commercial galleries, attracting eager buyers from all over the globe. The point? It’s not all about location – get it right, and they will come.

“We need to start punching above our weight again,” Hand says, adding, “some of my most enthusiastic buyers aren’t collectors, just ordinary folk who’ve come in, loved something, and had the courage to say yes.”

Not that it takes much courage, when you can grab a print for £30, or a limited edition litho for around £150.

So what’s stopping us? Fear? Ignorance? The inability to separate an object’s beauty with its monetary value?

“There are lots of barriers,” Hand suggests. “Art can be an investment but, really, you buy it because you love it. Which is why you’ll never see any hard sell tactics here.”

What you will see, for every piece, in every show, is passion. “I know all my artists, and we work so hard to bring a show to completion. So it’s great to be able to help share their stories with visitors, and help anyone make sure they’re buying something they’re confident about.  People really are our best PR. I see the buzz they get when they come to collect their art. There’s nothing that can beat that feeling.”

For Lucy Byrne, who runs Dot Art from a gallery (and website) off Castle Street, the feeling’s mutual. As is the frustration.

“There are so many misconceptions that people can have about buying art,” Byrne says. “I still find it difficult to convey to people that it should, and can, be a pleasurable, interesting and rewarding experience, and that it doesn’t have to be out of their reach, financially.”

Like Hand, Byrne thrives on the opportunity to offer advice and guidance, “People buy from people, especially when something as personal as art is involved. Once the initial barriers are broken down, I can honestly say I have never worked with a customer who has not enjoyed the process of selecting art work for their home or business, but that the first step is always the hardest.”

Unlike the art fairs and aspirations of Ceri Hand’s upscale openings, Dot Art is a resolutely local affair, accepting applications from artists working in Merseyside, Cheshire and Greater Manchester. In many ways, the galleries sit at opposing ends of the spectrum – yet Hand and Byrne (supportive of each other’s enterprises) share much of the same challenges.

“The city has always had an incredibly vibrant art scene, says Byrne, who stayed in the city after graduating from her History of Art degree at Liverpool University, “but this didn’t seem to translate into an active art market.”

“I kept hearing the same thing – that the lack of commercial galleries meant that local artists were struggling to find appropriate outlets for their work, and I knew I wasn’t the only person who didn’t want the same generic, mass produced print on my living room wall, so I decided to do something about it.”

Five years on, and Dot Art’s portfolio has expanded into offering corporate, rented and commission based pieces – and Byrne offers guidance to her artists through her not-for-profit Dot Art Services artists’ support network: “Artists just want to be artists, they don’t want to deal with administration. We take all that hassle off their shoulders and let them getting on with doing what they love.”

For Byrne, and Hand, working closely with their artists is key: and it’s this, they see, as the best way to break down barriers, and, in time, make art collectors out of us all.

“I know each of our artists and their work personally and can tell customers about their background and experience, or even introduce them where appropriate. The people of Liverpool are passionate about their home city and, given the chance, this can be extended to cover what they put on their walls,” Byrne says.

“We’re incredibly lucky to be part of an art scene as vibrant as ours, but at the same time we still have a lot more to do to develop public engagement with contemporary art, and encourage our collectors and buyers to support what we’re doing.”

Ceri Hand Gallery,
Cotton Street, Liverpool
Currently showing:
Juneau Projects: 3 Megabytes of Hot Ram, until May 21

Dot Art,
16 Queen Avenue, Castle Street, Liverpool
Currently showing:
The Other Shanghai, until April 25

Ceri Hand images courtesy of Ceri Hand Gallery. Photos by Alex Hurst

13 Responses to “Why Don’t We Buy Art?”

  1. Percy Street

    If (once again) you had done your homework properly you would know that there are quite a few galleries in Liverpool where you can buy art. There are also several exhibitions a year where again you can buy art.

    It is true to say that Liverpool prices are considerably below London prices – most people aren’t prepared to pay a great deal for art here but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Art shouldn’t be about ripping people off or hyping up mediocre talent.

    Students from the Liverpool School of Art sell their paintings at exhibitions held in the city and that’s fine. Most of the artists working here did not attend the local school of art so the snide remarks made about what it needs to do just demonstrate the kind of ignorance about the city’s cultural scene that one associates with 7 streets but fair dos – at least you’re trying to raise a debate.

    The idea that there isn’t a Liverpool-based artist that Ceri Hand could show is laughable. For reasons of her own she has chosen not to and that’s fine – she’s honing her own niche and good luck to her but sadly it isn’t supporting Liverpool based artists and this hasn’t gone unnoticed.

  2. Jim Mounsey

    “When our CDs and DVDs, our paperbacks and vinyl have long since gone to that big curator in the sky, we’ll need art more than ever:”

    I kind of think music, literature and film are already art. Unless art is limited to pictures hanging on walls?


  3. Percy, where do I say these are the only two galleries in Liverpool? If you’d done your homework, and read our site, you’d see features about Red Wire, Royal Standard, Arena Studios, Corke Gallery, Bluecoat, Metal, art fairs in Hope Street, the piazza of the Cathedral, etc etc. This is how features work – you interview key people with an opinion, and let them have their say, and open the debate for others. I wasn’t conducting a census of all galleries and gallery owners. That would have been a bit dull. And a bit long. J, you’re right, I was making the comparison between ‘visual’ art (never liked that phrase much either, but you know what I mean, installations, sculpture, painting etc) and other art forms we consume.

  4. Liverpool Artists Supporter

    I believe gallery spaces should be located suitably and are publically accessible for everyone to enjoy. Independent galleries are often obscurely placed therefore members of public often do not know they are even there.

  5. Glad to see this article in provoking debate. Thanks to David for starting the conversation.

    We too believe that art and galleries should be accessible to all, so much so that our next project – and current attempt to address the lack of art buying in Liverpool – is a Pop Up Art Shop in the Metquarter Shopping Centre (please see http://www.dot-art.co.uk/pages/news.php). Hope to see you all there from 5-7th May!

  6. Interesting and thoughtful piece, I admire both ladies perserverance. I think, when you first see the price of art works it seems such a shock, but when you add up the hours it takes to create, most of our artists are working at below minimum wage, so it’s amazing they keep going at all. I know the Government’s Own Art scheme is quite successful, but I wonder if this is going to be another casualty of the ConDem cuts, and another blow for the country’s culture? I for one love Ceri’s exhibitions, and will be definitely be checking out Dot Art’s.

  7. Harry Sumnall

    Interesting comments:

    “I’m not into this for one-night stands,” she smiles, adding that, three years down the line, she’s yet to see any Liverpool graduates she’s confident enough to even invite out on a blind date.

    “Liverpool’s Art School is obviously going through some kind of transition,” Hand says, trying to negotiate a tactful course to drive home her point. “I think they just have some, um, catching up to do.”

    Liverpool has a richness of artists, perhaps not easily fitted into her business model?

  8. David Thomas Crawley

    I feel that this is the reality that we find ourselves in, in so called ‘hard economic times’. The problem is that Liverpool is trying to promote itself through the eyes of the international market as with Liverpool Biennial and Liverpool Independents Biennial. Its about educating the masses to realise that in fact they CAN own a piece of contemporary art and that it is affordable to everyone. Forget about Ikea, Habitat etc. In the last 10 years Liverpool is starting to realise what it has in terms of an art market! Look at The Baltic Triangle and we as artists have to make things happen! And happen they will…….

  9. Sevenstreets

    Agreed, David – and Harry, maybe that’s a tad harsh. Ceri’s plowed thousands of hours’ graft (and cash) into her gallery. Trouble is, we’re just too London-centric when it comes to Art (with a capital – as in ‘cash capital’ A) and, yes, her artists would like a career. That’s no crime. But Ceri’s chief concern has always been to nurture talent and not sell out. Otherwise she’d have filled her walls up with watercolours of Mathew Street in the rain many years ago.

  10. Harry Sumnall

    My comment wasn’t a critique of Ceri as I have great admiration for what she was trying to achieve, but I felt uncomfortable with the specifically quoted comment: “I think they just have some, um, catching up to do.”, which I read as a slight on the talents of local artists, however euphemistically phrased.

  11. Sevenstreets

    I think that she’s talking about the market, isn’t she? Which is an uncomfortable thing to talk about without sounding harsh. But I guess it’s like a label saying not all bands are worth taking a punt on. If anyone cares about labels these days, that it.

  12. “When our CDs and DVDs, our paperbacks and vinyl have long since gone to that big curator in the sky, we’ll need art more than ever:”

    I kind of think music, literature and film are already art. Unless art is limited to pictures hanging on walls?


    – Your completely missing the point. The art that the post refers to is one off, original and limited edition. All these other mediums of art are about selling as much as they can. I am a struggling artist and the level of ignorance towards art in the UK frustrates me. £30 for a limited edition print is nothing compared to all the money that we spend. Their are close to 800,000 millionaires living in the UK. Far more people capable of spending £1000’s on art every year than artists are capable of producing. The market potential is huge but the artists are in no way greedy. An honest income that allows the artist to continue to produce work and live off is all that is wanted.

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