Since their launch in 1992, the Apollo Awards have celebrated exceptional achievements in the art and museum worlds, commending remarkable work by individuals and institutions in both historical and contemporary fields. Cultural activity has continued in 2020, albeit in challenging circumstances and to an unfamiliar rhythm. This year’s Apollo Award winners and shortlists reflect innovations that have provided much-needed optimism in an otherwise bleak period – as well as celebrating outstanding projects that were realised before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Personality of the Year Matthew Burrows
When the artist Matthew Burrows launched the Artist Support Pledge initiative on Instagram in March, his family said that garnering 1,000 participants would be a ‘brilliant’ achievement. The online selling platform helping artists make a living now has more than 69,000 followers, has produced 447,000 posts and generated around £70m in sales. Burrows, Apollo’s Personality of the Year, was subsequently made an MBE in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours – and his no-frills initiative has been hailed as a lifeline for artists struggling in the wake of Covid-19.
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 in turn pledge to spend £200 on work by another participating artist (pledges are made using the hashtag). Payment is arranged directly with the artist; there are no third parties.
The initiative is providing thousands of creative professionals with income, giving them some liquidity in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. It has spin-off benefits too: driving traffic to artists’ websites and possibly leading to further higher-level sales. Artists participating in the pledge give credit to Burrows, saying the initiative has kept them afloat in these turbulent times. ‘The concept has been such a success because it helped the artists’ community help itself,’ says the London-based photographer Karen Knorr.
David Risley ran galleries in London and Copenhagen for 20 years; he jumped the fence, became an artist, and now lives off the proceeds of his watercolours available on #artistsupportpledge. ‘I have sold to museum curators, gallery directors, high-level art collectors, writers, critics, friends, people in my street and complete strangers all over the world who just see [my work] on Instagram and have no idea who I am,’ Risley comments. The platform is his only source of income.
The Artist Support Pledge runs on a business model that certainly feels more humanitarian. But Burrows has been quietly aiding fellow practitioners for more than a decade; in 2008 he established Artist Support Projects, which brings together mid-career artists as part of a ‘peer critique’ network. ‘We meet up every few months and help each other out intellectually and emotionally,’ Burrows says. ‘At various points in my career I’ve organised community-based arts projects which revolve around the same principles: trust, generosity and community, driven by the idea that creativity is a form of capital,’ he adds.
Born in the Wirral, Burrows graduated from Birmingham School of Art in 1993, embarking on postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. After graduating with a Masters in painting two years later, he secured a number of prestigious commissions including a project in 2000 for Gloucester Cathedral inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy.
‘When I left the RCA, I remember thinking I needed something epic to get my teeth into,’ Burrows tells me. ‘I spent a couple of years researching and digging into Inferno [the first volume of Dante’s poem].’ But there has since been a change in how he approaches his art, which melds abstract and figurative elements (his watercolour series of 2018, 360 Series, combines definable shapes with opaque blocks of colour). ‘For the last 25 years, the work has been an exploration of the sense of connectedness to place and environment,’ he says. ‘Mythology and storytelling was a way into it but I couldn’t keep playing on those – they didn’t really work for me any more. Nowadays, my relationship to nature is less about framing it as a landscape […] my experience of landscape is by being in it and being part of it.’
Crucially, pre-industrial cultures and societies have been a source of fascination for Burrows for the last five years, fuelling his vision. ‘In the Western world, all of our economic transactions are litigated through contracts yet hunter-gatherer economies would work on cultural values.’
Indeed, the Artist Support Pledge seems a primordial way of trading with a model that is both radical and original in its simplicity. ‘It is based on sustainable societies. I gave it a modern slant but understood there is more than one way to survive in the world. It’s soft politics that is quite radical. I sometimes describe what I do as soft anarchism.’
Burrows has disrupted the traditional gallery model, sending ripples through the trade. But the £200 threshold does not pose a threat to galleries, he says. ‘Commercial gallery profit margins sit at a certain level; we’re below that.’ Part of the enjoyment is that buyers and artists communicate directly. Risley comments: ‘People buy the work because they love it. It is unlikely to gain value and is not seen as an investment.’ Meanwhile, support from Vigo, his gallery in London, gave Burrows the incentive to push the project forward.
The internet has made the pledge concept fly, with artists signing up from all over the world. Burrows is thinking big and plans to expand the platform, creating a sustainable model on a global scale. ‘It needs investment now and there are various things to think about such as how people in China might take part, as Instagram isn’t used there,’ he says. Burrows is also keen to stress that translation companies such as Anuvada and technology giants such as Google have come forward to help the project grow.
Months after the launch, the response still takes him aback. ‘The greatest honour in our pledge is to support your fellow artists. I thought people might not get that but they intrinsically understood it, saying: “I can’t wait to buy work from another artist I know.” It’s not about what you’re giving away – it’s about the fact that the whole of the community survives. We’re all richer because of that.’
Gareth Harris is chief contributing editor at the Art Newspaper.