The artist who created a ‘new economy’ built on trust and generosity

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It was the beginning of lockdown in the UK and like millions of people across the country, artist Matthew Burrows was feeling anxious about the impact the pandemic was likely to have on his industry.

“I had been getting messages from friends and colleagues saying their exhibitions were closing,” he recalls. “Most artists work in gig economies and are reliant on the sales of their work – and if that stops, that’s it.”

Burrows felt compelled to act and, while out jogging near his home in East Sussex, he hatched a plan to help artists sell work during lockdown.

“I thought it has to be able to shift work quite quickly and it has to work within a culture of trust and generosity,” says Burrows. “The idea I came up with was simple: you post work on Instagram for no more than £200 and when you reach £1,000 of sales you have to buy another artist’s work.”

Burrows tested the water by posting some of his work on the social media platform one night. “By the next morning I was one sale off making my pledge to buy another artist’s work,” he says. The Artist Support Pledge was born.

Other artists signed up to the initiative and Burrows says what followed was a “tsunami” of positive feedback. “People were messaging me saying they were reaching their pledge in 24 hours,” he tells Positive News. “[Initially] I thought if they could reach that in a month that would be good going – at least it would take the sting out of having no money during the pandemic.”

Three months on and what started as a sticking plaster for a gravely wounded industry has evolved into a kind of global microeconomy estimated by one consultant, says Burrows, to have generated around £48m in sales.

“It’s guesswork, though,” admits the artist, who claims he knows some artists who are making £1,000 a day through his initiative. “These are people who [before coronavirus] were making not much more than that a month. They have gone from having no work to being strangely prosperous.”

The Artist Support Pledge was only supposed to last three months. But the initiative has proven so successful that Burrows announced yesterday that he is launching it as a not-for profit company with support from the Crafts Council, which will help relieve him of the burden of managing it.

“I’m currently working on it 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, which isn’t sustainable,” he says. “I need to get back to my day job.” Burrows wants to keep the pledge “as a movement, rather than a formal body” and intends to prevent it from being exploited commercially, though that in itself, he admits, is a full-time job.

“The egalitarian, democratic market that Matthew has created, is a wonderful platform for makers to promote, share and sell their work to a market hungry for meaningful objects at affordable prices,” says Natalie Melton, creative director at the Crafts Council. “We wanted to support this brilliant initiative and encourage even more craft makers to get involved.”

One artist who signed up to the pledge is Aly Helyer, who once shared a studio with Burrows. “It has been quite an amazing experience for me,” says Helyer, who teaches part-time to support her art. “It has potentially given me the opportunity to reduce my teaching next year, which is something I have been wanting to do for a while.”

I went out of my way when I started this to make sure everyone was welcome – there is no judgement, no discrimination

The initiative has also afforded Helyer the luxury of buying other artists’ work: “That is one of the biggest rewards of it I think.”

Burrows believes the Artist Support Pledge has made the art world more approachable to regular folk thanks to the accessibility of Instagram and the low price point for works. “It has generated a wave of collectors who feel empowered to buy stuff,” he said. “No gallery would charge [so little] because there isn’t any profit margin for them.”

The initiative is open to all artists and will continue to be, stresses Burrows. “I went out of my way when I started this to make sure everyone was welcome,” he says. “You can be any level, in any country and any age – there is no judgement, no discrimination.”

Reflecting on the success of the Artist Support Pledge, Burrows admits it has gone beyond his wildest expectations. “When I set it up, I thought if I can help a few friends and colleagues sell a bit of work that would be great,” he says. “I thought it might help pay the rent and put food on the table. I didn’t in any way expect to create a new economy, which in a way is what it has done.”