The Collective was set up in 2001 by a group of friends and family in London as a way for people on normal incomes to support artists, live with their work for a while in their homes and enjoy sharing it with others. It was never designed as a financial investment, but instead pioneered a localised, self-organising culture, which encouraged unorthodox and challenging approaches to buying art.  Other groups were established later, in Birmingham, Bristol, London and Rotterdam (although most have since wound up their collection and shared it amongst themselves).  Each group developed autonomously, managing its own purchasing fund, but adhering to a national spirit of understanding.

The Collective enabled its members to tap into new artistic scenes, offering an alternative, enjoyable pathway into the art market and often encouraged members to go on to buy work individually. Upcoming artists were mostly prioritised, although the original London group acquired works by established practitioners including Fiona Banner, Tracy Emin, Peter Doig, and Paul McCarthy, and later bought works by artists such as Bobby Dowler, Jemima Brown and Frances Richardson.

Performance works have also been commissioned by Katherine Fry and Jefford Horrigan and The Collective is currently commissioning artist Emily Mulenga to celebrate the life of Bob Lee, one of its founding members, a socialist and anti-racist activist who died in 2019 after a long fight against cancer.

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