Tom ticks boxes that (in my experience) aren’t ticked by other artists. Firstly, he works within his own formally constituted company. Secondly he costs everything in advance – workspace, costs of materials, costs of framing, costs of dispatch, costs of marketing. Thirdly he has targets of sales of his work and meets those targets consistently. Tom quoted to me the number of sales that he expects and achieves each year (but that’s not for disclosure here).
But then the artist comes through when he tells me that he feels a pang with every painting that he sells as he sees it dispatched to a new owner, which is increasingly on other continents. But that’s not surprising, because Tom’s paintings are full of energy and passion. And so we have a juxtaposition of business and art that are an unusual combination.
“Tom Burbidge Art is a brand and so needs treating and managing like any other commercial brand. Yes I love what I do, the expression that it allows me, but I have to earn a living and can’t just leave that to chance.”
Tom smiles as he tells me that at school he studied art and accounting. But painting is not the only string to Tom’s bow. We first met a couple of years ago when I wrote a piece for Manchester’s Finest on the Manchester barber, NotJust, which he still runs with business partner Nathan Haley. A barber dedicated ‘not just’ to cutting hair, but to cultural conversations in a space aimed at looking and feeling European.
Again we return to Tom’s structural attitude: “I have certain days each week when I’m a barber at NotJust and certain days when I’m a painter. Nothing interferes with that routine, I have to be productive with both.”
After leaving the fine art course at John Moores University Tom worked as a chef, which he found creative and then spent a short time in a bank, which he didn’t find creative. “I have to be active, be working with my hands. That’s if I’m painting, barbering or fixing up bikes and cars.” The John Moores art training included nine hours a week of figure drawing. That’s a rare commodity in schools of art these days and a training so often lacking. After brief experiences of restaurants and banks he took off first to Australia and then to Amsterdam, to study barbering closely. Returning to Manchester he formed the partnership with Nathan, but also began to paint again after several years’ break.
“I’d always worked figuratively, using my John Moores training, but something pulled me towards abstract art. Maybe it was influences from my travels. At first the paintings were terrible. There was no structure. I’d return to them over and over, just trying to resurrect them. But gradually things clicked into place and I’ve been selling work consistently for six or seven years now.”
Tom has built his brand through social media and overseas sales consist mainly of contact through that. “Although I do try and get to know people who buy my paintings. It’s not simply about making a sale. I want them to get to know me too. It’s a two way thing of course.”
Although Tom has a ‘commercial’ exhibition planned for later this year, he tells me that finding the right space to exhibit is very difficult. For the planned commercial exhibition, each catalogue will have an individual screened cover so that purchasers will also have a Tom Burbidge original.
“I also like to exhibit with just my work on show. I think exhibiting alongside other work is distracting. My ten year plan (yes, another plan) is to have a retail unit where the front is clean and white, with my paintings on show and my studio is at the back where I’ll be working. It’s got to look open and accessible. That way people will be able to come in and talk to me about my work whilst I’m actually painting.”
Tom smiles as he tells me that he has a notebook in his pocket with that plan laid out in five steps.
Tom’s abstracts are beautiful, energetic and enigmatic. Tom’s approach to business is pragmatic. A rare combination.