UK Supermarket Giant Wants to Hire an Artist for Free, Sparks Social Media Backlash

The company has a yearly revenue of $37 billion.

Sainsbury's Supermarket on London's Camden Road. Photo: Oxyman via Wikimedia Commons.
Sainsbury's Supermarket on London's Camden Road. Photo: Oxyman via Wikimedia Commons.

The British supermarket giant Sainbury’s made a damning faux-pas last week when it launched an open call seeking an artist to “volunteer their skills” to spruce up the canteen of its Camden Road branch (i.e., work for free).

In its blurb, the company—the second largest supermarket chain in the UK—employed the patronizing turn of phrase that artists from across the world run into on a daily basis from prospective employers, offering them to get their work “recognized” and “shared,” rather than being paid for it.

Needless to say, the ad sent sparks flying across social media, with many users posting irked responses to it on Twitter.

According to Key103, an artist even re-worded the ad, which was then posted by Stefan Simanowitz, media editor for Amnesty International, on Twitter. The new version of the open call began:

Artists are looking for a well-stocked supermarket to voluntarily restock our kitchens. Gain particular experience in the good industry whilst satisfying our need to feed ourselves and live comfortably. We seek to find a diverse supermarket, so we encourage suppliers from all ethnic cuisines to apply.

What makes this open call so jarring and surprising is that Sainsbury’s—which has an annual £26 billion turnover according to the Huffington Post—is a company whose original founding family is no stranger to the qualities, pleasures, and idiosyncrasies of art.

The supermarket was founded in 1869 by John James Sainbury, the first in an illustrious dynasty that includes several well-known philanthropists.

His grandson, Sir Robert Sainsbury, began the collection of modern and tribal art that is now housed at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, which was one of the first major public projects designed by the architect Norman Foster in 1978.

In 1991, the three Sainsbury brothers John, Simon, and Timothy funded the £50 million Sainsbury Wing at London’s National Gallery, which hosts a fantastic collection of early Renaissance paintings.

More recently, in 2009, Alex Sainsbury launched the non-profit Raven Row, which has become one of the most critically acclaimed art spaces in London thanks to a rigorous, sophisticated, and always exciting exhibition and events program, which includes solo shows by Channa Horwitz, Yvonne Rainer, Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, Hilary Lloyd, and Harun Farocki.

Even if no Sainsbury members are currently directly involved in the running of the prosperous company, its search for an artist to work for free on one of its branches still strikes one as a particularly unfortunate stunt, given the respect for the arts displayed by several descendants of its founder.

More broadly speaking, it’s about time that the balance is righted, and that artists—who are so often used as revenue-generating cogs in a system where money flows in every direction but theirs—begin to receive due remuneration, respect, and support for the work they do.


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