T O M W I L M O T T
P A I N T I N G P R O B O N O
Painting Pro Bono is an impartial, universally accessible project through which I exchange my paintings for donations of £25 to my selected charities (The Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation and Youngminds) or, from time to time, give them away for free. In January 2020 I chose to remove my work from the commercial art world entirely, leaving my representative galleries in London, Barcelona and New York, and adopted Painting Pro Bono as the sole method of distribution. You can read about my reasons for doing so by clicking here.
If you would like to know when new work is made available, either in exchange for donations or for free, please sign up here.
Painting Pro Bono is the alternative to selling paintings for personal financial gain. There are a number of considerations that have lead me to pursue this course of action, but in order to simplify the explanation, I have narrowed them down to three basic categories:
Quite simply, without a route out of the studio paintings would become an ever increasing storage problem. Ultimately work would have to be destroyed and materials recycled or, in the worst case scenario, disposed of. Aside from personal inconvenience, I feel this would be wasteful on various levels, so it really isn’t a viable option. The only other practical solution would be to stop painting entirely, but I only mention this in the interest of acknowledging the logical. Realistically, such a course of action is not considered.
Exchanging a painting for a direct donation to charity (that is, a transaction that occurs only between the recipient of the painting and the charity, rather than coming through me first) is a way to ensure that my practice is having an ongoing positive effect on society and offering support to those causes that seek to do good. It is fulfilling to me - I dare say more so than selling paintings for personal gain ever was. I like to think that each time I make a painting available I am offering someone the opportunity to perform a small act of kindness by making a donation, with the painting being reward for doing so.
I would like to think most people find some satisfaction in performing an act of generosity. Giving paintings away for free, as I do from time to time, offers me a regular opportunity to increase those enjoyable moments for myself and possibly offer the recipient a little happiness as well. I find satisfaction in the act of giving, and in perceiving the positive response it engenders in another person.
I also hope for this project to contribute to the expansion of my network in a manner not influenced or restricted by the idea of financial gain. The group of people I regularly converse with is predominantly comprised of artists and arts professionals – those with whom I share interests and enjoy communicating. In the past, when I was still seeking commercial success for my practice, I must admit there were conversations and contacts I maintained, explicitly or otherwise, based on what I thought they might be worth to me on this basis. This never sat well with me. It felt dishonest, even manipulative, and certainly not a healthy way to conduct any personal relationship. Removing this layer of grime from my interactions with others has been a great relief and I dare say has opened conversations up to territory they might not otherwise have explored.
I am uncomfortable with the idea of making personal profit from selling my paintings. I get all I need from making them and have little desire to make monetary gain on top but, more than that, I don’t feel I have any particular right to do so either. For me, painting is a passion, not a job. I am aware that just the opportunity to make work is a privilege and I am in a tiny minority of people fortunate to be able to indulge themselves so. I live in a developed, prosperous, peaceful country. I have a good day job directly related to my interests, a home, and the support of a loving family and on top of all this I am able to find time and space to make paintings. Cast in this light, there is no way I can justify seeking further personal benefit from something I am already very lucky to have at all. Just because my paintings could provide financial benefit, doesn’t mean they ought to.
However, I am of course aware that a painting I make could be desirable and, because of what they are, how they’re presented and the status bestowed upon them by the history and culture in which they exist, they are bound up with a certain perceived or implied value. They have the potential to do something more and have a life and purpose beyond me, and so as far as I’m concerned the best way for them fulfil that potential, and for me to ascribe to them a value that exceeds a pounds and pence label, is for them to be of benefit to other people. In this way I believe my paintings are doing a little good, and that is worth a lot to me.
The potential for my paintings to do good holds a further personal importance. A small, everyday pleasure improves one’s experience of life a little bit - I feel it when surrounded by my art collection at home. Seeing the work of other artists, many of them contemporaries and friends, is a ubiquitous contentment I consider profound to my experience of life and contributes to my ability to improve as a person. I believe this sort of improvement to be fundamentally important for us all, as individuals and as a species. Whilst I understand that positive effect this project could have may only be measured in the tiniest increments, in some cases perhaps not even perceived at all, it is positive none-the-less, and therefore worth pursuing. I hope that my paintings might provide a similar experience to other people that my art collection does for me and so it is important to me that they be as accessible as possible through affordability (relative to the market - I am aware that the figure of £25 will mean very different things to different people) and by eschewing the culture of exclusivity that the commercial art world is built on.
The existential aspect of the project stems directly from conclusions I came to when working on Object Meditation, a group exhibition of abstract painting I curated at After Nyne Gallery, London in October 2019. The catalogue text I wrote for the show, which explains these ideas in detail, can be downloaded here. It has come to shape my understanding and approach to my work and offered me a renewed belief that following my own creative path and indulging my practice has a value that extends beyond the deep enjoyment I derive from it, and makes a small but important contribution to the world.
Painting Pro Bono is my own awkward carve-up of pro bono publico, a latin phrase commonly used by legal professionals waiving their fee for working on cases they consider to be of social value. The direct translation of "pro bono publico" is "For the public good". Although clearly gramatically incorrect, I ascribe to Painting Pro Bono the meaning Painting For Good because I intend for the gesture of giving, be it my own in gifting a painting, or that of another, donating to charity as part of this project, to be indiscriminately beneficial.
This is not the first iteration of the project. For about a year, between 2015 and 2016, I did something very similar and, having read back through my various notes from that period, I find the conclusions I drew then to be very similar to those I have come to now:
My hope is that (giving paintings away for free) will make others happy… in a small way give them the opportunity to own a thing they might not otherwise have expected to and maybe offer a little bit of materialistic fulfilment. I also expect to feel happy that my paintings are going out there and 'doing' something rather than sitting in a box their whole life. And finally, by eliminating any misplaced residing concern about making painting a financially viable pursuit, I can further shore up my oft repeated assertion that this is an activity undertaken purely for enjoyment and is not qualified by any other marker of success.
I am happy to return to this way of thinking now, with the experience of what it is (was) to exist as an artist in the commercial art world and a deeper, more complex understanding of the value of the project and the paintings themselves. This journey, circular as it may be, has been of great value. It's true that that I have wound up, more or less, back where I started, but what I have learned along the way has lent a weight, commitment and assuredness to my thinking and has cemented my confidence that this is the right thing for me to do.
How it works
Painting Pro Bono is open to all. Whilst I would love to be able to make paintings available to everyone that wants them, regrettably that is not practical and so recipients are selected in two ways, depending on whether I am giving a work away for free, or offering one in exchange for a charity donation.
P A I N T I N G P R O B O N O : C A R I T A S
The recipient is selected on a first come, first served basis. The recipient will be required to make a one off donation to the charity indicated and, where necessary, cover the costs of postage and packaging, but again, this can be avoided if personal collection from central London is feasible.
P A I N T I N G P R O B O N O : G R A T I S
The recipient is selected through a free to enter, impartial, randomised draw. The only costs potentially incurred are postage and packing, although this too can be avoided if personal collection from central London is feasible.