Matthew Burrows on how artist support pledge changed the art world
Matthew Burrows, tells Chris Sharratt how an Instagram hashtag turned the art world on its head.
How did an Instagram hashtag turn the art world on its head, become an international success story, and generate an estimated £60m in sales in less than a year? Painter and #artistsupportpledge founder Matthew Burrows sees it this way: “When Covid-19 kicked off there was that brief moment when everybody was willing just to give something a go. I thought what I proposed was going to be a tiny thing, but it just took off.”
Artist Support Pledge (ASP) came to life last March as the first lockdown took hold and the art world shut up shop, taking with it many of the ways artists earn a living. It was, and still is, a simple idea. Using #artistsupportpledge, artists post images of their work with a price tag of £200 or less. Anyone interested in buying contacts the artist, and the rest is sorted out between buyer and seller.
And the ‘pledge’ bit? Once an artist reaches £1,000 of sales, they commit to spending £200 on work by others using the ASP hashtag. The result is a mutually-supportive online marketplace, fuelled by both necessity and a culture of generosity. So far, the hashtag has been used on more than 570,000 posts.
“It takes what’s local and joins it all up,” explains Burrows via Zoom from his studio in East Sussex. “It’s a kind of network of connected communities and individuals across the world – global, but not a global monoculture. There’s lots of different types of artists, medias, traditions, aspirations. It can look quite messy!”
This uncurated messiness is all part of the egalitarian, open culture that ASP embodies and thrives on. Artists have eagerly embraced the energy and immediacy of the idea. Says Burrows: “Giving artists a sense of agency and their own control over that is extraordinarily powerful. A lot of the people involved in the very curated, mainstream art world – especially those who are successful within it – say it looks like a jumble sale. And it does look a bit like that, but that’s the way reality actually looks like for most artists.”
He adds: “What makes it interesting, what makes it radical, is that I haven’t gone down the line of trying to control it. And although there are some days when it can feel a bit overwhelming, I do believe it was the right decision. What I have to do, what Artist Support Pledge has to then keep doing, is sustain its culture, its modes of practice, and the values it stands for.”
Burrows, who received an MBE in October for his work on ASP, has been working flat out on the project for the last year. But he is also a successful artist in his own right, with gallery representation and an international reputation. He stresses that he is not trying to create an alternative to the commercial gallery system. “I’m part of that world,” he says. “But that shouldn’t be the only part of the ecosystem; we should have many ways in, for many different kinds of artists.”
Crucially, Burrows says ASP has created a market for something that already existed but wasn’t being sold – namely, all those small, relatively cheap artworks that commercial galleries won’t touch because the tiny profit margins make it unviable. What has also happened, however, is that the profile and sales ASP has generated has helped artists sell bigger, more expensive works outside of the network.
But what happens next? A year on, with a vaccine roll-out underway and thoughts turning to life after lockdown, has the idea outgrown the moment it was forged in? It’s something Burrows has been giving plenty of thought to. “I think a lot of people presume it will just carry on as it is, but I’d really like to think broader than that. I’d like to take it out into the ‘real’ world.”
Burrows says there’s already an exhibition planned for the autumn at Hastings Contemporary gallery, and other ideas include setting up Artist Support Pledge spaces in museums and galleries, so people can see the work of ASP artists local to them. Burrows also hopes to put what is currently a not-for-profit company on a more secure footing, with plans for a small full-time staff as and when funding is in place to support it.
Covid-19 may have been the catalyst for Artist Support Pledge, the unprecedented situation that allowed it to flourish, but its success has shown that the need was there long before a global pandemic hit. For Burrows, it is something that should grow and evolve to suit the circumstances. “What I’d really like is for artists and makers and institutions to really run with this idea,” he says. “To really see the possibilities to be more sustainable and economically equal and fair in the way we do things.”
Matthew will be presenting insights into the Artist Support Pledge initiative at our upcoming event New Cultures of Art Funding, this Thursday 25th March at 10.30am (GMT).
The event also features Candida Gertler, Director of Outset, who introduces exciting new initiative #theVOV and Sarah Philp, Director of Programmes and Policy at Art Fund discussing what’s next for the national organisation.
The event is part of our Curatorial Leadership in Collections Connect and Activate Programme. Follow the project on Instagram and Twitter @ActivateMuseums