For independent creatives, lockdown has been tough. With stores and galleries closed, spending on non-essentials in freefall and artistic opportunities stifled, thousands of small businesses, studios and artists have found themselves fearing for their futures.
But away from the admin of self-employment support schemes, benefits and grants applications, a grassroots movement that started on Instagram is now helping many of them through the worst, generating an estimated £20 million in sales so far.
Set up by artist Matthew Burrows, the concept behind #artistsupportpledge is simple. Artists post a picture of an item they are willing to sell for under £200 using the hashtag on Instagram. Then, every time they reach £1,000 in sales, they pledge to buy £200 worth of work from other participating artists.
“In the build-up to the pandemic I could sense the likely impact on artists,” Burrows explains. “The art market is global and dynamic, yet art fairs and galleries were closing, which I could see would inevitably impact on the movement and sales of artworks.
“I had to cancel forthcoming projects and income streams, thinking ‘This is an impending global crisis, how should I respond to this?’ The specifics of #artistsupportpledge came to me after when I went out for a run, and the pricing structure is deliberately low – it’s an act of generosity to take part, but that makes it exciting and accessible to so many. It’s a real leveller. It’s also a gift economy, as artists selling work pledge to give back, to buy another artist’s work. It’s a moral contract and it’s working.”
Launched in March as a UK-wide initiative, and quickly attracting the backing of Creative Crafts (UK), the scheme has since gone global. Having attracted 9,800 artists in its first week, it has now reached more than 200,000 posts, with sales attributed to the scheme recorded across Europe, North and South America, Australia, Russia, Taiwan and Japan among others.
“I am a little awestruck yet completely delighted by the momentum and viral take up of this campaign,” Burrows admits. “It is not just an important network and survival mechanism for artists: it has become a global movement, a generous culture, and a gifted and egalitarian micro-economy, perhaps even a new economic model.”
“The feedback from artists and buyers taking part has been profound,” Burrows continues. “It’s been really humbling, hearing how Artist Support Pledge has literally transformed the lives of so many at such a difficult time, and has helped sustain livelihoods. The spin-offs from this are amazing too: posting work on the hashtag has, for some, led to bigger and more expensive artwork sales, and even offers of international gallery representation.
“When I made my first post on the 16th March I could not have imagined that it would grow so rapidly, but I’ve come to terms with that now and am working to expand to new communities around the world.”
The scheme is a clever way for makers to reach new audiences too. In a retail market in which consumers are looking more closely at their spending, #artistsupportpledge offers an easy link to new, up-and-coming artists and creators – and a guarantee that the money spent will contribute towards keeping the sector alive. For those seeking to liven up their lockdown walls, it’s a win-win, and the price limit on participation ensures items found under the hashtag are priced accessibly.
It is also proving a popular way for those with a keen-eye and a bit of artistic knowledge to snap up items from acclaimed artists for well-below gallery prices, while a number of those successful participants are using the scheme as a way to raise further funds for charity.
British painter Issy Wood created two lockdown-inspired paintings which raised £8,165 for the Trussell Trust, Royal Academy alumni Matt Ager is donating ten per cent of sales to his local food bank, and emerging artist Nicholas Cheveldave collaborated with Emalin gallery to release a £200 print of one of his collages to raise funds for the Hackney Foodbank. The scheme also encourages donations to charities such as Hospital Rooms, which commissions art for mental health units.
“There are artists of every level and media, it’s a real leveller,” Matthew says. “I love the diversity and opportunity to discover new talent. Because the concept and platform does not discriminate on any level and is growing every day, you do have to spend time looking to find the work you like. This model helps push finance across the network as supporters discover new work.
“Many established artists report that it has been creatively freeing, there’s no hierarchy and therefore no pressure. Those that know what they are looking for can get some real bargains and those that are just starting to collect can enjoy the experience of searching out work that interests them without pressure.”
For Crafts Council (UK), the initiative is also well-timed, coinciding with the release of the organisation’s most comprehensive consumer survey in a decade. The Market for Craft, released last month, reveals that 73 per cent of adults now consider themselves potential craft buyers, valuing the market at around £3 billion a year.
“Clearly attitudes to craft have shifted, with more and more people appreciating the importance of having objects that have been handmade in their lives,” reveals Natalie Melton, the Creative Director of Crafts Council.
“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. We wanted to support this brilliant initiative and encourage even more craft makers to get involved.”
For Matthew, meanwhile, his ambitions for the project as we emerge from the pandemic are high. “I’d love us to be an example to the world of a sustainable global culture and economy for ALL artists, that respects both our diverse ethnologies and ecosystems. We must start to see that we need both for a culture and economy to work and call itself successful.”
All of the items illustrated in this piece are currently for sale under the #artistsupportpledge umbrella. To buy, follow the hashtag on Instagram and, once you’ve found an item you’re interested in, simply contact the seller directly on DM.