A Generous Space

Is the Artist Support Pledge revolution sustainable? Kate Reeve-Edwards investigates

Stepping from the train, I am greeted with horizontal drizzle. This is my first visit to Hastings: it’s a wintry Sunday and the town is deserted. I make my way down a steep hill until I reach the high street. This too is mainly empty: everyone driven away by the typical English weather or nursing the typical English Sunday hangover.

The only person in sight is a busker. He is wearing comedy glasses and moustache, louchely holding an old-fashioned microphone, and singing fantastically out of tune.

The seafront is filled with soggy fish and chip shops, sea food shacks, and the empty shells of ice-cream parlours; the vendors only have seagulls for company. The frantic rhythm of the waves and the clacking of the boat masts hurries me towards my destination: Hastings Contemporary, to see the Artist Support Pledge exhibition A Generous Space [on until April 18].

Stepping through the large glass doors I am met with the classic crisp whiteness of a contemporary art gallery. ‘Generous’ is indeed the right word: the exhibition features over 300 artists – the biggest mixed show I can remember south of the RA.

The walls are covered with great lattices of paintings, photographs, prints, and drawings. Neon pinks, duck-egg blues, violet-greys, magentas, and ceruleans all sing together in curatorial harmony from the first salon hang that welcomes me.

A graphic block of text placed next to the first colourful display announces: “the art is hung thematically and arranged in blocks and lines in order to echo the experience of exploring #artistsupportpledge on Instagram.” As I wander from room to room, I pick up on the subtle thematic groupings, whether of colour (the first wall’s pink and blue theme), texture (the third room’s out-of-the-box materials), or narrative (the eco-art of the fifth room). This clean and considered curation results in a polished, entirely contemporary, and – undoubtably – ‘cool’ show.

Each piece is entirely individual: from Johanna Melvin’s controlled, geometric abstraction, to the humorous gender-political photography of Marina Ruempol. But one thing ties together the artist’s disparate styles: the Artist Support Pledge.

In March 2020, when exhibition after exhibition was cancelled, artist Matthew Burrows set up the ASP to help artists continue to earn money through the pandemic. Artists were invited to post an image of their work on Instagram, charging up to £200, tagging the ASP hashtag, with the proviso that once they reached £1000 in sales, they would buy another ASP artist’s work. The movement not only sustained the artists financially (approximately 140k users have collectively generated around £140 million in sales) but fostered connection in a time of isolation.

A Generous Space is the first time a selection of ASP work has been featured in a physical space. This new ‘hybrid’ format, it appears, is the movement’s next phase. With 770,000-odd posts on the hashtag, support from Google Arts and Culture, an MBE and CBE for Burrows, the success of the Instagram-based movement has been staggering. So, as I amble slowly through the exhibition’s seven rooms, I wonder: is this new physical version of #artistsupportpledge the future of the movement?

I’d already interviewed Matthew via Zoom about the exhibition. He flashed into existence on my screen: a slim-faced man who looks much younger than his age (50). His eyes were framed with his distinctive rectangular, black glasses, and he was smiling much more than I’d have imagined, despite coming across as straight mouthed and sincere in his press photos.

I started off by asking him about how his studio practice is going. Although most of the buzz surrounding Matthew has surrounded the creation of the ASP, he is first and foremost a successful artist. He is a John Moores Painting Prize winner, and has been exhibiting with top London gallery Vigo for many years. Matthew’s colourful, abstract canvases draw meaning from his surroundings: creating structural spaces filled with marks and washes of oil paint. His work hovers between suggestion and abstraction.

Matthew created the ASP because of his experience as an artist. “In March 2020 I was constantly receiving emails about people cancelling projects. Everyone on social media was posting about exhibition closures. There was this wave of desperation throughout the art world.” Understanding what every other artist was going through, he felt he “had to act.” From his own studio practice, Matthew knew artists have small works tucked away in studio drawers, left unshown by galleries due to their low profit margin. He identified his product, fixed his marketplace (Instagram), created ‘The Rules’, and the movement was born. 

A movement that has, with this show, become tangible. ASP Shows has developed from its digital sibling, the selection process mirroring the ASP process. The artists involved in this exhibition were selected via Instagram by a committee of eight judges: Kate Bryan, Jes Fernie, Julie Lomax, Lakwena Maciver, Natalie Melton, Javier Pes, Sally Shaw and Jo Baring. Artists who wanted to be considered posted a piece priced at no more than £200, tagging #aspshows.

The idea for an ASP exhibition was on the cards from very early on. Matthew began thinking about it within days of creating the hashtag, as a way of the movement permeating all areas of the art world: “My dream for the ASP is that it should be infectious, like the pandemic it responded to. I wanted it to affect everything we do. It isn’t merely a selling platform, it is a generous culture, and generous cultures must take every opportunity to do more than is usual or expected.

This exhibition is one of the ways the ASP is growing and adapting. It has sprouted from an online-only seedling, growing like knotweed through the art establishment. By placing ASP works in a slick gallery space, Burrows is signalling to the rest of the art world that the movement is changing gear.

I wonder, will this gear change alter the way the art market works? Will bringing the ASP into a physical space ruffle gallery feathers? On interviewing a range of galleries about the ASP, I concluded the low price point made it inconsequential to high-tier galleries. For example, Vigo and Sid Motion have been great supporters of the pledge, taking part in X Selects, highlighting ASP artists on the gallery’s Instagram pages. 

In comparison, galleries selling lower-priced work had an issue. An artist who preferred to remain anonymous, commented: “My gallery gets very cross when I sell through the artist support pledge. They see it as me taking away potential clients, even though I developed relationships myself.” Another anonymous artist adds: “I neglected being part of the ASP because I feared my gallery would feel I was undercutting them.

I interviewed Spanish artist Paula del Rivero about whether ASP Shows would make galleries question their practices. I was captivated by her vibrant Yves-Klien Blue construction Fine Threads in the second room of the exhibition.

She explained that being involved in this exhibition was especially exciting because it was the first time her work has been exhibited overseas: “It’s going to look great on my CV,” she commented, adding: “Matthew has worked so intensely to involve great art institutions like Hastings Contemporary meaning the ASP is now valued by top actors in the art industry.” The star-studded selection committee, which included presenter and head of collections for Soho House Kate Bryan, suggests that the art industry is indeed paying attention to the movement.

Del Rivero added that A Generous Space disrupted the elitism of the gallery space: “People are scared to enter galleries, worried about asking how much things cost. Due to the price limit being £200, this exhibition removed the mystery and welcomed new collectors.” In this way the exhibition is working to expose gallery elitism, even more so than its digital predecessor.

Artist Wendy-Ann, whose drawing Unreliable Topographies captured my attention with it’s fine detail and smoke-like delicacy, had this to say: “Undoubtably the pledge has turned the spotlight on the 50% commission galleries [tend to] take from sales. It has become a broader movement for a fairer art world.”

So, has it set a precedent? Even though Hastings Contemporary was used to house the exhibition, each artist directly handled any enquiries. Hastings Contemporary did not take a percentage of the sales, instead generating revenue through the £9 entrance fee. And there is no reason this museum-model shouldn’t be taken on by other art establishments. The Tate doesn’t make its money through selling the artwork it features; it generates cash through ticket sales, food and drink, and a rather irresistible gift shop. The ASP has gained enough popularity to bring in clients, as proven by the steady flow of bodies moving through the exhibition on a deserted Sunday.

Interestingly, the majority of the A Generous Space artists I spoke to had sold their pieces quickly and to new clients. Jo Baring, a selector for the exhibition, commented: “Having a physical show has meant that people who aren’t digitally savvy have found out about the movement, introducing more collectors to new artists. With this exhibition, Matthew has made an effort to engage different people and to create a new narrative around it.”

Wouldn’t A Generous Space’s model be an interesting new way of selling art? Although the £200 ASP limit is an accessible starting point, this museum-style-format could be used for any price level, where galleries keep the ticket sales, and the artists keep the commission. Of course, this would be a rocky and fundamental change to the ways galleries operate: would their client list be loyal to them if they had to pay an entry fee? Would the entry fee be enough to cover overheads such as staffing, rent, business rates, and bills? However, it is an interesting possibility and one ASP Shows will continue to explore through Burrow’s plan of more regular physical shows across the country.

I leave the show feeling buoyant and optimistic, convinced I have just witnessed a ‘fair’ way of selling art. Each puzzle-like piece seemed to stand together in solidarity: presenting a united front that demanded integrity. Instead of just a ‘show,’ I get the feeling I have just witnessed a soft revolution.

The unrelenting drizzle seems to bounce off me as I head towards the train station, I even stop to tip the tone-deaf-busker. As I take my seat on the steamy, busy train to Brighton, I wonder: have I just witnessed the future of the art market?