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Meet the Brit pioneers demystifying the act of buying art

It can be confusing, and at times inhibiting, but at-home curating is starting to change

georgia spray partnership editions
Harry Crowder

In our quest to express individualism in our homes, art often feels like the missing piece of the puzzle. And it’s quite the puzzle. Factor in formidable galleries, the balancing act of budgets and alienating phrasing like ‘diversify your portfolio’ and it’s no wonder we’re baffled by what to hang on our walls. At the other end of the spectrum, vast online e-tailers have given the art world’s staid image a serious shake-up, but their never-ending catalogues can be equally muddling for those without direction – or days to spend browsing.

So what’s the middle way? A new generation of curated, personalised platforms, impeccably edited by insiders with a network of emerging artists (and the know-how to prowl the grad shows). Here, we’ve picked four figures at the forefront of the accessible art revolution...

The Consultant: Georgia Spray

georgia spray partnership editions
Harry Crowder

When friends furnishing their first properties came to Georgia Spray for advice on sourcing affordable contemporary art, it came as a surprise to all that she found herself stumped. She was, after all, a history of art graduate who had then spent six years honing her knowledge at a roll call of London’s most lauded institutions, from White Cube to Christie’s auction house.

‘At the time, I was working for an art dealer called Ivor Braka who deals in the likes of your Lucian Freuds and Francis Bacons. It was an amazing experience, but I was becoming ever more interested in emerging artists and realised that I didn’t really have a place that I could confidently refer people to.’

‘Instagram is the most incredible tool. People can watch the trajectory of the artist and how they're growing'

hester finch nude on grey with white blanket  blue wall
Nude on grey with white blanket & blue wall | Hester Finch
Hester Finch

Launching Partnership Editions in 2017, Spray envisaged a curated and affordable platform that worked collaboratively with artists to produce limited-edition prints and original works. Now, many of the site’s rotating roster of names – bright young artists like Fee Greening and Emily Forgot – are flourishing, with sizable Instagram followings as testament to their talent and a shift in the way we access art.

‘Instagram is the most incredible tool,’ says Spray, quick to defend a platform often demonised as devaluing art. ‘It allows people to follow from a distance yet still feel connected. If someone purchases a piece, they can watch the trajectory of the artist and how they’re growing, which is such a rewarding experience.’

It’s this readiness to embrace an art world in flux that has seen swift success for Partnership Editions, which champions expressive, figurative works by a majority of female artists – ‘not a conscious decision, but an organic one’. But the rate at which the business is growing poses some tricky questions pertaining to the platform’s very ethos. ‘As the company develops, how do we retain that edited feel? The balance of expansion and curation is something I always question,’ says Spray.

An exhibition series in new London retail destination Islington Square at the end of last year was partly driven by a desire to reconnect with the customers beyond the screen, while life-drawing classes, led by artists such as the platform’s breakout star Alexandria Coe, are one of Partnership Editions’ most popular exports. ‘Classes grant our customers a much greater understanding of the way the artists think. It adds value to the artworks, too – people really appreciate how difficult it is!’ partnershipeditions.com

alexandria coe reclined monoprint 1
Reclined Monoprint 1 | Alexandria Coe
Alexandria Coe

Georgia’s Top Tips

Give a specialist a try: We’re not here to add steps or make things more expensive, but to help open up the conversation. There’s a mistrust of consultants, but as long as we’re being honest, we’re here to guide you.

Be open about your budget: People are often scared to talk about the money side of buying art – it’s not theBritish way – but you can start a collection with £50.There’s no harm in saying, ‘this is my budget, this is what I like,’ and seeing what they have to say.

Collect art for its own sake: Try not to get bogged down in buying for a specific space. It’s not about filling a gap, but finding something that will move house with you. Shuffle things around every so often – a new context can make you look at a piece in another way.

The Publicist: Harriet Mathias

harriet mathias modern muse art
Kirk Truman

Modern Muse Art founder Harriet Mathias pulls no punches when questioned on the challenges facing artists today. ‘London is such an amazing city for art, but it can be really lonely for artists. The fairs are incredible, but you can become lost as an identity among the competitiveness.’ As a former PR manager for Cartier and Prada, she was well versed in communicating the appeal of brands with artistry in their DNA, but had a vision for an accessible art platform that would provide artists with a community and collectors with an emotional connection to the pieces they buy.

London is such an amazing city for art, but it can be really lonely for artists

natasha briefel   watermelon memories
Watermelon Memories | Natasha Briefel
Natasha Briefel

In December 2018, the art history graduate began building up contacts as an art consultant – encouraged by the constant requests for advice from family and friends – and the Modern Muse website went live exactly a year later. ‘I realised I could actually do something with my knowledge,’ says Mathias. ‘I was confident in the artists that I had on my books, and the gap in the market for a tailored platform that puts the artist first.’

It’s a quip that captures the crux of what separates the site from competitors – Modern Muse is not a tradeable art marketplace, but a place to profile artists in depth, where potential buyers can, as Mathias puts it, ‘be alone with their thoughts without the fear of entering a traditional white cube gallery’.

She’s keen to connect as many artists and collectors face to face as possible, and perhaps Mathias’ masterstroke is the upcoming physical space, born from a house purchase that became an integral part of the project (‘I had a eureka moment,’ she says). Modern Mews – wittily named for the Notting Hill townhouse it calls home – is a versatile new venture that will provide a gallery area, plus a backdrop for events, talks and client dinners. Though Mathias envisions it as appointment-only, she’s firm on the fact that artists will be able to come and go as they please. ‘The artist is the muse.’ modernmuseart.com

marco rea   untitled, 2017
Untitled, 2017 | Marco Rea
Marco Rea

Harriet’s Top Tips

Train your eye: We have an incredible selection of galleries in the UK, so make the most of them – go to a range of exhibitions and really work out what you love.

Find parallels with emerging artists: Look for those references in the Old Masters or contemporary artworks that you can’t afford and then find commonalities within pieces by new artists. You’re going to have the artwork on your wall – you have to love it.

Don’t disregard the importance of framing: Skimping on a quality frame is never worth it – it’s a tool to showcase the art. Factor the frame into the budget of your whole purchase, so that you don’t end up buying a piece that you can’t then do justice.

The Auctioneer: Tom Best

tom best the auction collective
Toby Keane

‘There’s a reason why auctions are one of the oldest trading models in history,’ says The Auction Collective founder Tom Best. He’s a fierce advocate of the format, which helped him shift sacks of fruit and veg with his dad in the local village hall as well as multi-million-pound works as a contemporary art specialist at illustrious auction house Christie’s (at 25, Best was its youngest auctioneer in recent record, though he is keen to point out its 250-year history).

After a stint working for a charity in Syria at the peak of the civil war, he returned to London to find friends were starting to become, as he puts it, ‘house proud’. ‘They wanted to create a home with real art and real objects, but that world is such a foreign concept to a lot of people.’ Meanwhile, his network of rising artists was looking for ways to kickstart their careers, and auctions provided a unique platform to test the value of their artwork with the heady thrill of no upper limit.

'I'd get artists and friends together, rent a room and take an auction standing on a table'

the auction collective preview exhibition
Toby Keane

The first pop-up auctions, in 2017, were a cheerfully unpolished affair: ‘I’d get a group of artists together, invite a bunch of friends, rent a room in Shoreditch, and take an auction standing on a table.’There were three key ingredients to those early events: an Instagram account to act as a catalogue, a card reader and a gavel. When punters kept badgering him about the next one – ‘people love an experience’, he offers – The Auction Collective was born.

With curator Francesca Wilson and art advisor Nick Yau in tow, Best began dismantling the barriers that he felt were impeding transparency in the industry, ditching the complicated onboarding process, incorporating the buyer’s commission, VAT and artist’s resale fee into the price. He also introduced the world’s first downloadable bidding paddle, which is ‘as simple as an online train ticket’. Pre-auction exhibitions, which are scanned with VR technology for online perusal, are ‘costly but essential. People are drawn to pieces as soon as they walk into the room.’

Friends in the traditional art world were convinced – ‘they deal with fine art every day, but it’s got three more zeroes on the end than they can afford’ – as were crowds of curious first-timers, many of whom now return for each seasonal and special sale. Best’s go-to mantra? ‘Buy with your eyes, not your ears,’ he says. ‘If you can’t stop thinking about it, if you have some weird teenage crush on it... you’ve got to go for it. Who cares what anyone else thinks?’ theauctioncollective.com

the auction collective exhibition
Toby Keane

Tom’s Top Tips

Tell the auction team it’s your first time: They’re on your side and want you to have a fun experience. The auctioneer will look out for you – they might slow down during the auction and make sure you know what’s going on.

Decide on your maximum bid before the auction: Especially if you’re splitting the cost with a partner who isn’t there! We’ve witnessed a few apologetic conversations when someone bids above what they agreed. Although it’s always fine in the end, you don’t want to get caught up in the excitement of bidding and go too far.

Don’t be afraid to sneeze or scratch your nose: People have these wonderful ideas that you’ll suddenly have to buy something for a million pounds, but trust me –the auctioneer only wants to take your bid if you’re going to pay for it.

The Artist: Simi Launay

simi launay ungalleried founder
Simi Launay

The difficulty of securing gallery representation is well documented, but experiencing it first hand proved a catalyst for Simi Launay, founder of online platform Ungalleried. A move from the UK to Portugal left the former headhunter with a window of free time, which she filled by painting. When sharing her works on social media led to a joint exhibition in an arts space in a bar, confidence followed– though it was swiftly curbed when she was rejected by local galleries.‘I didn’t have a traditional art background. I studied economics,’ she laughs. ‘I thought there must be so many artists out there like me.’

A stint in Asia exploring the emerging scene and connecting with curators provided fresh inspiration, and the idea for Ungalleried– which nods to the artists who lack representation and the notion of selling outside a gallery space – was hashed out on her return. By this point, galleries were revealing the industry’s struggles to Launay, citing the overheads of the bricks-and-mortar model.

'I didn't have a background in art. I thought there must be artists out there like me'

bašta nikog nikos garden by andrej julher
Bašta Nikog (Nikos Garden) | Andrej Julher
Andrej Julher

Launay’s business-honed brain, meanwhile, atoned for her lack of experience. ‘I started from a strategic standpoint,’ she explains. ‘I wanted this to be an international gallery, so I began building a global network of curators.’ Now, she has representatives in Serbia, Berlin, Rome and Texas, who source artworks under £10,000 across Europe, plus ‘pockets of excellence’ in the US and South America. Sub-Saharan Africa is next, with physical pop-ups in European cities coming soon.

It’s an ambitious project to realise within a year (the site now hosts165 creatives across the globe), but Launay isn’t stopping there. Having just secured her first interior design commission, she plans for Ungalleried to morph into a gallery concept store. Speaking to Launay about her fledgling endeavour, you get the sense that the old corporate gig is a fading memory. ‘This could be a powerful vehicle for these artists to express themselves and tell stories that you don’t hear on the news. It’s given me that raison d’être.’ ungalleried.com

saint by aleksandra brankovic
Saint | Aleksandra Brankovic
Aleksandra Brankovic

Simi’s Top Tips

Take a leap: Definitely seek advice from a gallery or curator, but don’t wait to find the confidence to buy a piece if you love it. Remember that you can always sell art!

Form a relationship with the artist: Every contemporary master – your Damien Hirsts and so on – started somewhere. Someone was the first person who invested in them and that gave them the confidence to goon to become the great artists they are today.

Follow your passions: The art world is so diverse and different pieces speak to different people. One of Ungalleried’s taglines is ‘buy future classics, sell future classics’, and it’s really about that – seeing an emerging artist today as producing a future classic.

This article appeared in ELLE Decoration May 2020

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