Not yet 30 but making millions from art. How do they do it?
A new London gallery is using Instagram to bring art to a whole new generation
Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt opened a new gallery in Hanover Square in London last week.
The new gallery opened to the public with an exhibition of work by South African artist Ryan Hewett.
This 1,828-metre space in Mayfair – the bosom of the London art scene – is Burt and Kennedy’s second. They have another 1,524-metre space in Soho, which they’ve been running successfully for two years, selling million-pound paintings. What’s more, they’re only 28. Who are these kids? And what on earth are they doing?The story begins in 2013, when Kennedy and Burt, friends since the age of 10 (they bonded during art lessons at Latymer Upper School), met up in a pub garden after Kennedy’s year away in Australia, working for an advertising agency. In the meantime, Burt had been trying to launch a career in the art world, without success.
“We were both sick of the art world,” says Burt. “So many good artists don’t get a voice simply because they don’t have the contacts. And galleries are alienating and exclusive – the way most of us are treated when you walk in is just nonsense, because everyone has a right to enjoy art, no matter who you are.”
Their solution is Unit London: part gallery, part digital platform, part think tank. “Our driving force has been to be disruptive; to flip the way the industry operates on its head,” Kennedy explains. “We want to make everything we do accessible, celebratory and outward-facing. Big galleries aren’t serving our generation. Young people expect transparency but traditionally galleries are all smoke and mirrors – you can’t speak to the artist, you can’t know the price. We’re here to be the opposite: an open conversation, an enjoyable experience.”Since the pair took on a long-term space two years ago, they’ve nabbed several artists who were formally attached to more established galleries. “They like working with us, because we call them every day, we help them make decisions, we’re with them every step of the way,” says Kennedy. “Artists really need feedback, and most of them are used to their dealers not even returning their calls.”Today, Unit London has around 20 artists. With each new signee, “we define concisely who they are, what their practice means, how have they developed it. Then we tell their story creatively, either via an exhibition, or a video on our website, or on Instagram, making that narrative attractive to a global audience,” explains Burt. “Our goal is to make them superstars. We believe visual artists deserve the same recognition as musical artists and film stars.”
Bar a few graduate show finds, the pair have discovered most of their artists on Instagram. Indeed, it’s telling that, the day we meet, while the entire rest of the art world is gathered 800km away, for the VIP opening of Art Basel, Kennedy and Burt are in London.
Instead, they use Instagram to see what people at the fair are looking at. “Everyone geotags themselves [adds their location to a picture], because they want their artists or collectors to know they’re at the fair,” he adds. “So you get to see what’s good at the touch of a button. We used it at Frieze, too, to connect with collectors. You can get really granular about it.”To date, Unit London is the only commercial gallery on Instagram permitted to use the new “shoppable” feature, which allows certain, verified accounts (the ones with the coveted blue tick) to sell direct. It has been rolled out in the fashion industry over the last 18 months, and the transaction takes seconds, your print or painting delivered three days later.
“We always encourage people to come into the space,” says Burt. “You can’t replace standing in front of an artwork. I guess we’re using Instagram as a hook, to get people interested and into the physical space, to open conversations. And people travel from Hong Kong, America, Europe to see us. A huge percentage of our footfall is people who’ve discovered us online. You can see they’re already engaged when they arrive and that’s great – it’s why we started.”
With 230,000 followers and three million unique impressions a day under their belt, understandably, the rest of the art world is beginning to sit up and take notice. “I’ve heard stories of notable dealers in the [Mayfair] area suddenly putting a lot of money into digital marketing,” says Kennedy, “but the fact is, we started digitally. With every idea, it was: ‘How does this look online?’ as opposed to trying to bolt the digital on.”
“It’s about future proofing,” adds Burt. “Making sure that those people we’re speaking to now, and people in their teens, are engaging with our content, so that in 10-20 years’ time, we have existing relationships in place that can grow alongside us.”
– © The Daily Telegraph