Brief Encounters:#artistsupportpledge

Veronica Simpson finds cause for optimism in a time of crisis in the innovation of the artist community through the initiative #artistsupportpledge

Words by Veronica Simpson

By the time you read this column, we may be emerging, blinking, into the sunlight of a post lockdown summer. Then again, we may not. As this column was being written, in early April, the UK was in its second week of coronavirus lockdown – still, thankfully, voluntary – with the worst weeks still ahead of us in terms of casualties and NHS impact. But the creative sector – that’s all artists, musicians, actors, designers, film-makers and the industries they serve – had been thrown into limbo for the forseeable future, with potentially catastrophic results for freelance income, which the government’s self-employment support measures did little to alleviate.

Resilience and resourcefulness are, of course, at the heart of creative practice and many interesting proposals and initiatives emerged, from the therapeutic and educational – online art schools, concerts, free craft tutorials, museums offering digital access to their collections – to the life-saving, such as fleet-footed engineering consultancies helping to hack existing industrial manufacturing systems to produce much-needed ventilators.

But by far my favourite cultural initiative, in terms of both its short- and long-term potential impact, was the response of artist Matthew Burrows. Suddenly faced with between three to six months of no exhibitions and no teaching income, Burrows thought he would activate a project he had been mulling over for some time: to create an easy online support mechanism to generate sales for himself and other artists. The idea was to offer a few works at less than their market value, but at a price most might be able to afford – £200 or less – and share the benefits by pledging to buy another artist’s work for £200 once the sales target of £1,000 is hit. He popped pictures of five works at £200 onto his existing Instagram feed, added the hashtag #artistsupportpledge, with a brief explanation, and went to bed. The next morning he woke to find he’d almost hit his target, and generated a significant amount of interest.

Matthew Burrows' work as seen on #artistsupportpledge From the series 'In and Through' 2020, Indian ink on Nepalese mountain paper, 270 x 230mmMatthew Burrows' work as seen on #artistsupportpledge From the series 'In and Through' 2020, Indian ink on Nepalese mountain paper, 270 x 230mm

Speaking on the phone from his studio in East Sussex, he told me: ‘I thought … if I put a bit of effort in, it might gain some traction. So I designed a logo, sent it to friends … They started reposting it on Instagram and by lunchtime on the first day I was getting a lot of messages. By the evening I was getting two messages a second. It’s gone like that for the last week. It’s like being hit by a tidal wave. You can’t duck under it. There was so much more interest than I expected, and it has just carried on.’

By the time we spoke – nearly two weeks in – there had been 21,000 works posted. Actual sales are harder to keep track of, but Burrows says: ‘I had one friend who made more money last week than they normally make in a month. It’s surprising how many people have told me that. But on average people are making about £1,000 a week. And everyone I know has bought someone else’s work when they hit the £1,000 target.’

The monetary value is hard to calculate, as some people are posting works that sell for as little as £25, but Burrows reckons the total raised is ‘between £2m and £10m. Either way you look at it, it’s pretty good.’

To date, he has invested a huge amount of his own time and energy running it – including conducting three to four interviews a day, with everyone from the BBC to newspapers on the other side of the world. ‘We crossed the globe within a week,’ he says. ‘It opens up in different countries every day. Yesterday, we had queries from Egypt.’ A lot of the queries are from people who are not Instagram-savvy, so Burrows has tried to make communications – via his own instagram (@matthewburrowsstudio), his website and a dedicated Instagram account (@artistsupportartists) – as clear as possible. He is now looking at a structure that could help the initiative become self-supporting.

The beauty of the scheme is its simplicity: the artist chooses their works, posts images of them, and interested buyers contact the artist directly. Payment is via paypal, bringing much needed cash instantly to their bank accounts.

The system runs on trust and generosity, says Burrows, and that’s the other defining feature. He says: ‘It’s both based on the idea of generous culture and the gift economy, turning on its head the usual art market practices, which are about gain and momentum built through increasing value. This is a level playing field.’

He made a strategic decision not to discriminate. ‘I decided anyone can do it. Anyone who thinks they might be an artist can put work on. It’s up to the buyer to decide whether they’re interested or not.’ And the remit has expanded to include ceramics, furniture and textiles.

Matthew Burrows' work as seen on #artistsupportpledge From the series 'In and Through' 2020, Indian ink on Nepalese mountain paper, 270 x 230mmMatthew Burrows' work as seen on #artistsupportpledge From the series 'In and Through' 2020, Indian ink on Nepalese mountain paper, 270 x 230mm

Burrows himself is one of the lucky few artists to be represented by a major gallery: the Vigo Gallery in London, whose director he has been in regular contact with – after all, commercial galleries have a vested interest in acting as gatekeepers, protecting and inflating the value of their assets. Burrows is not trying to reinvent that system so much as plug a massive hole in it, to allow a wider range of artists to make much-needed cash from work that sells for less than the £4,000 to £5,000 price tag baseline from which most commercial galleries operate. ‘They are not interested in work that sells for £200,’ he says.

Burrows says: ‘I don’t know any other time in the art world that an economy has come up that has allowed any artist to make a living without those gatekeepers being involved. I didn’t expect to do that; it wasn’t on my to-do list. It might be short-term – it might last weeks, or the period of the pandemic, which is all it’s designed to do – but the potential legacy of that is that it has created a new global economy for artists where they can sell their work, make a living. Market value is somebody else’s business … A lot of artists have studios filled with drawings and works on paper that they don’t really have the opportunity to sell. All I did was tap into that reservoir of stuff and give people access.’

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