One positive outcome of the coronavirus crisis has been the rallying of communities to help those most vulnerable in the face of adversity. A prime example is Artist Support Pledge, an initiative set up by the Sussex-based artist Matthew Burrows, which is offering a self-sustaining lifeline to an ever-expanding number of fellow artists across the world. The concept is simple: artists are invited to post pictures of their works for sale for £200 or less on Instagram using the hashtag #ArtistSupportPledge. Every time an artist makes £1,000 in sales they then pledge to plough back £200 on purchasing the work of another artist using the hashtag. There are no enforcements, it is a system based on trust.
The original aim was simply to create a “small but dynamic market”, but the success of #ArtistsSupportPledge has surpassed all expectations. In just one week of existence (the first post was on March 17) there have been nearly 9,000 pledges, meaning that around £9m has been generated. “It’s been unbelievable—after about four days it went absolutely crazy and I didn't really have a lot of choice but to run with it because it was too big a wave to duck under,” says Burrows, who himself has made four pledges from selling his work. “The goodwill has been unbelievable from everywhere in the world—from El Salvador, to America, Germany, New Zealand, Italy and Australia.”
Additional evidence of artist-on-artist generosity has been the parallel development of #isolationartschool, an “art school for all, by all” created by Burrows in collaboration with his friend the artist Keith Tyson and also freely available on Instagram. Arguably, artists practise a form of social isolation on a daily basis every time they enter their studios and so are ideally placed to offer tips for the rest of us in a time of global shut down. Free home-based projects for adults, children, experts or amateurs during the Covid-19 crisis have thus far ranged from Tyson’s "Painting for Absolute Beginners" to Isobel Smith’s video on “how to make something positive from all this bad news” by fashioning a wearable elephantine sculpted head from twisted newspaper. Resident tutor Andree Collard is offering a course for A level students whose schools have now shut. Future projects ranging from flower arranging to painting with varnish and glaze and making jewellery are promised by an ever-growing creative roster including Mat Collishaw, Urs Fischer, Nigel Cook and Sarah Pickstone who will all be offering their services gratis.
“I want to create an environment and a culture that has human beings attached to it. Not just this anonymous digital thing,” says Burrows. In this spirit #ArtistsSupportPledge is also encouraging its participating artists to make donations to a different selected artist’s charity from across the globe every week, under the heading of "The Gifted Keep Giving".
The first recipient is Hospital Rooms, which commissions artworks for locked and secure NHS mental health units across the UK. In addition, Tyson is also funding a weekly #ArtistsSupportPledge artist’s prize of £200 for ten artists chosen by a different selector every week, starting with Liz Gilmore, the director of Hastings Contemporary.
Amid all this love-spreading lies a deeper resolve to offer a sustainable art market model based on honesty and giving rather than deal-making and selling. “I have always felt that there should be another economy that drives what works for artists. You’ve got to build a culture of trust and generosity,” says Burrows, who receives no payment beyond the proceeds from selling his paintings like everyone else on #ArtistsSupportPledge. “What we are putting out into the world is a movement not a business. The formula is simple: you give generously, you receive gratefully and you give back. That’s it.”