With interest-free loans for cars, televisions, and even vacations, Britain is sometimes accused of creating a culture of debt.
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 Ј2,000 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 Ј2.5 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.
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 Christian cience Monitor reports.