Matthew Burrows is an East Sussex based abstract painter. However if you regularly post your artwork to an Instagram account you may recognise his name as the founder of the Artist Support Pledge. When the Covid-19 pandemic started to affect the UK in the first half of March, Matthew Burrows had the idea to start posting works for sale for £200. When he had sold £1k worth of artwork he pledged to buy some art work himself for £200, and encouraged other artists to do the same. 95,000 posts later the #artistsupportpledge is playing a vital role in keeping the visual arts industry alive, as well as helping to build a community and promote generosity. In this interview I wanted to find out more about the man who has inspired thousands of artists to buy and sell contemporary art; and take a closer look at his paintings, and find out exactly how he’s managing through Covid-19 lockdown.
Lisa: First of all, can you just summarise how the artist support pledge started – what gave you the idea, how quickly did you then put it on Instagram and how quickly did it grow?
Matthew: The project uses social media platform Instagram, which is a popular platform for artists to post images and share their work. Artists post their images using #artistsupportpledge giving details of their works and price. If people are interested in buying, they message (DM) the artist. Anyone can buy the work and artists don’t need permission to join.
Every time an artist reaches £1,000 of sales, they pledge to buy £200 of work from other artist(s). I’m encouraging donations too, made to particular concerns such as @_hospitalrooms and Accentuate, screensouth.org
There’s some incredible work available to buy and it becomes addictive. And you know you are doing a good thing and supporting others, so they can do the same.
We are moving fast and with other people’s generosity, we are constantly evolving and have been able to make some financial awards to artists.
#artistsupportpledge has become a movement. It grew out of my own practice as an artist and my work as an artist mentor (Artist Support Projects); and the spirit of generosity in which that operates. Saddled with debt and working in the gig economies, emerging artists often take huge risks and display a generous spirit to do what they do. In the build up to the Covid-19 pandemic I could sense the likely impact on artists. 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 sat at my dining room table a few weeks ago, having 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 shortly after when I went out for a run (I’m a bit of a running addict and have been training for the South Downs Way 100 mile ultra-marathon). The ethos of generosity is so important to this, because it is something I have always fundamentally believed in.
The pricing structure (up to £200) 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 I know it’s working.
Lisa: Can you describe the response the pledge has received – how diverse has the work for sale been?
Matthew: There’s over 98k posts now and rising… and each can have up to 10 artworks! Both the volume and the quality of the work posted, by both established and lesser known artists has surprised me. I’ve been overwhelmed with incredible feedback from many emerging and established artists from all over the world – America, Brazil, Italy, New Zealand, Philippines, Russian, Taiwan, Malaysia and Japan… the list is endless, but the feedback is consistent and profound.
Perhaps the greatest surprise was the overwhelming success of the message – of generosity. This gift economy is bringing income to thousands of artists globally and self-perpetuates. It’s an amazing virtual gallery and network and for the first time, allows artists to be patrons. That’s really powerful.
Lisa: I have found these past weeks that there has been a real surge in social media activity, and as someone who lives and works largely in isolation, the connectivity online has at times felt overwhelming. Do you have any tips on how to regulate the amount of time you spend online to ensure you still have time to paint and draw?
Matthew: Speaking as someone who has now spent almost every waking hour on Instagram for the last few weeks, I’m learning the hard way how to have a healthy relationship to it. Although running Artist Support Pledge has been a privilege and honour, it’s also a huge responsibility, as such I have to treat it like work or it becomes overwhelming. I give myself time in the morning to get prepared and don’t turn my phone on till 9am and I turn it off at 8pm. I also timetable slots into the day for press, checking messages and making posts. I go for my daily run around 5pm to clear my head. I don’t take my phone with me anymore.
Lisa: How are you coping with the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus crisis – has it affected your creativity and are you taking each day as it comes, or have you made any plans to help work out what to do with your time?
Matthew: I’m pretty good with uncertainty, in fact I’d say I thrive on it. Fear can either be something to hide from or an opening to make change. My question has been what works, what doesn’t? Then it’s just a matter of finding a solution . My time has been 100% ASP. As such, finding space to make art again has been a real challenge. I now have some PR and Admin support from the Crafts Council plus a steering committee who I speak to every few days. They really help me think through problems and appropriate responses. I’ve been slowly building time in each day to make drawings and prepare for my return to the studio full time. Trying to find time to reflect is really important in assessing what I’m doing and how I might more effectively move forward.
Lisa: Tell us about the Isolation Art School as well, and any future plans in the pipeline to help with the Coronavirus crisis?
Matthew: Isolation Art School was set up by the artist Keith Tyson. He drives its content direction. Keith is a friend. I contacted Keith to talk about the artistsupportpledge and Keith loved it and supported it, generously donating £5,000 to enable 25 artists to receive a £200 award. We both had a vision for a virtual art school but Keith really made that happen. I was wanting to generate an immediate micro culture with its own economy and Keith took the lead to develop an affiliated learning platform. It’s a fabulous resource for everyone. Artists are well practised in social isolation, often working that way on a daily basis in their studios and so have plenty of creative solutions to share. There are live sessions as well as pre-recorded video content. The same spirit of generosity prevails as artists share tips and tutorials for both adults and children alike.
Lisa: There will be a lot of artists out there (myself included!) who cannot access the place where they usually make their art work. Do you have any advice for those struggling with this?
Matthew: As part of my practice I run an initiative called Artist Support Projects which creates support networks, mentoring and opportunities for working artists. It’s something I’ve been quietly doing for 12 years now and is the culture and network that allowed me to do Artist Support Pledge. Through doing this I’ve learnt that building good habits is essential. What we do is the result of our behaviour. And our behaviour is a manifestation of our values and habits. We need to be constantly nurturing them and creating new ones as our context changes. Even good habits turn bad if you take your eye off the ball. Given the current context, I would suggest the first thing to do, is create new habits of behaviour, by making space, making time and learning to look. I mean really look, at what is there not what you think is there. Even if that space is just your sketchbook or box of materials that you get out onto the kitchen table a couple of times a day. I think creating boundaries so you can work and live effectively really helps. On learning to look, there’s always a temptation to think that the grass is greener, that over there the world is more interesting and profound. I think a lesson we learn from great art is that all things, places, and times are interesting and profound. We just have to have the eyes to see. One thing I like to do is to look at where I am, and keep looking, and looking again until I start to really see.
Lisa: Are you managing to spend any time making your own work, or has the pledge taken over?! If you do have some time, what are you working on currently?
Matthew: The pledge has certainly taken over. I’m slowly building time in to make work, just drawing for now. I’m also busy ordering materials so I’m well stocked. My studio is next to the house, so I’m hoping to be able to start making work again soon. I have a new series of sculptures and paintings to make, which I’m really excited about. I’ve had one of my best years. It all started about 18 months ago with one of those epiphany moments we all dream of. I’m sure I couldn’t have done ASP if I hadn’t been in a strong position, it needs a certain confidence to go out in the world and say ‘this is it’.
Lisa: What would you like to say to any artists feeling panicked or worried about how the Coronavirus might affect the whole industry and the livelihoods of practising artists?
Matthew: Covid-19 has and will change the way we think about art and how we make a living from it. Last year the art industry was worth 10 billion in the UK alone, but the average artist earns less than £10k per annum. I don’t think the old system shared it’s wealth well. It’s going to be challenging as we move forward, but those with the most imagination and agility will thrive and create new opportunities. I try not to think, will it be good or bad, but rather, what needs to be done and how do I do it. Purpose matters more than judgement. Do something that matters to you and get good at it.
Lisa: Where online can we find out about your work, the artist support pledge and the Isolation Art School?
Matthew: My website is http://www.matthewburrows.org/
I am represented by Vigo Gallery www.vigogallery.com
Artist Support Pledge: https://www.instagram.com/artistsupportpledge/
Isolation Art School: https://www.instagram.com/isolationartschool/