Five years ago, childhood friends Joe Kennedy (top right) and Jonny Burt (top left) were just two lads with laptops, supposedly chasing a pipedream in a freezing room in a leafy suburb of the British capital. Fast forward to 2018, the ambitious and dynamic duo, not yet 30, have built a global art empire without outside investment, thanks to an unrelenting 24/7 work ethic and strategic use of social media. They have also just locked down a stunning 6000 sq ft gallery space—in a former Citibank building—right at the heart of Mayfair, London’s poshest district.
Their project, “Unit London”, is a collective of artists and art enthusiasts that operates on a careful combination of the digital and the physical. Joe and Jonny, who began their journey with zero connections, are on a mission to subvert the structures of an industry that is still very much dominated by elitism and nepotism. They are committed to creating mass engagement with contemporary art and culture.
Prior to founding Unit London, Joe moved to Sydney, Australia after completing his degree, where he channelled his creative flair into brand strategy at advertising agency Leo Burnett. In his role there he married his understanding of human behavior with his love for creativity, launching multiple national and international campaigns for brands like Samsung, Google, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker.
Jonny, on the other hand, balanced his two passions for acting and fashion—becoming a menswear designer for Bolongaro Trevor and later Sons of Heroes. He also embarked on a successful ongoing film career flying between his management in LA and his UK agent. Roles in Worried About the Boy (2010), 400 Boys and Una Noche (2012) soon followed. Leaving his role as fashion designer in 2012, Jonny decided to pursue his love of fine art and revert to his roots.
I spoke to Joe recently, covering a number of topics and issues—from branding to bootstrapping to emerging technologies to cultural shifts to millennials to women artists…
I’ll begin with my impressions. The first thing that caught my attention when I encountered your site was that it was not named “Kennedy and Burt” or “Burt and Kennedy”. That is the biggest thing, you know, because all these galleries—the vast majority of them—are named after their proprietors, who are trying to impose themselves on the world. I liked how you flipped that approach and made it about the average citizen, “U”. It is incredibly fresh…
That’s probably the big difference between us and other gallerists. You are saying quite rightly that lots of galleries open up named after proprietors. It’s the same as car dealerships, essentially. It’s about them as salespeople, selling either the collections that they own or works of artists that they represent. It is very much sales-focussed. For us, “Unit London” was more a brand than a sales initiative.
Dealing art, if I may be totally honest, has never really interested us. It’s not what drives us. Obviously, that is now the function of our business. But our main goal is to change the art industry, and to champion amazing talent—that’s what gets us out of the bed everyday. In order to do that we need to sell the works of the artists that we support. But Unit London has not come from a place of trying to sell or setting up a dealership because we never had the contacts or access to artworks in the first place. It has come more from a storytelling kind of perspective.
Tell me more about your background…
I guess that is also rather unique because Jonny and I are artists ourselves. We were both taking our works to galleries, at a very small scale, and getting rejected or having galleries ask us for 70% commission, which we were really frustrated with and not happy with. Also, we were going into galleries and feeling like we weren’t really welcome. The environment was quite cold, and not very human. You have to push open a big heavy door. The people behind the desks don’t smile, no one says hello. You are kind of left to your own devices. We just felt that was quite a backward way for art to be presented because it should really stimulate discussion, promote conversation and discourse. People should be allowed to be free, to speak about their works inside the space.
We also wanted to change the way that talent is identified and promoted. Traditionally, it has been very much through the education system. You go to the right schools, it’s all about who you know, which lecturers you are friends with, are your parents collectors, do they give you access to a gallerist who can then give you a show—these are factors that have decided many artists’ careers. But now, in the age that we live in, there are lots of other means for individuals to tell their stories and get their name out. That’s what we have done as a gallery really, especially through social media. That’s also what many young musicians, designers and other people are doing, with good storytelling, and a bit of oomph, shall we say.
You studied psychology, right, at university?
I got into psychology—at Manchester. I didn’t really see art as a viable career, to be perfectly honest. I didn’t trust the system. Then I went into advertising and ended up at Leo Burnett. Working for loads of very interesting brands, I learnt a lot. How to bring stories to life, how to engage with audiences. I combined what I learnt in advertising with my passion for art. Unit London is what came out of that. Jonny and I have very similar creative vision, we finish each other’s sentences, we live in each other’s pockets. We are very fortunate we have such a strong relationship and it has really helped us in our business, so far.
How exactly did you guys get started and how many locations have you had till now?
We started out as a pop-up in 2013. We had a small space in Chiswick in west London, which was a charity shop basically. We set up an exhibition of our own works and were trying to sell pieces for like £200-£300, the most expensive one for maybe £1000. We didn’t know anybody at that time.
We were literally just standing in the gallery all day, trying to grab people from the streets, bring them in and tell them our story, what we were trying to achieve. We were handing out leaflets all around town, we painted footsteps on the street to try and lead people into the gallery. We were marketing on a shoestring budget, everything was guerrilla style…we were trying to shout as loud as we could and get as many people as possible interested in what we were doing. Alongside that we set up social media accounts, Facebook and Instagram. And we started a brand campaign exercise.
We were about six months in the first space and then we got kicked out by the landlord. We moved to Covent Garden and spent two years there, being kicked out of multiple different spaces. We were pinballing around, trying to establish ourselves. We have had around nine locations in the last five years—Chiswick, Covent Garden, Soho, Mayfair. We just opened the big new permanent space in Mayfair, the location is incredible.
So you didn’t have any formal training—educational or professional—in art business before starting Unit. I think you skipped the brainwashing, as in you bypassed the conventional conditioning. Has that been an advantage? I mean, nobody was there to tell you this is how things are supposed to be done so, in a way, you had this freedom that you could do anything that you wanted…
Oh, yeah, from my point of view that’s a massive advantage. When we started our friends would stop by, no one really believed that it would be anything more than an exhibition of our works but obviously, in our minds, it was going to be so much bigger than that. We had no right really to start a gallery and make waves in the industry but we were steadfast in our beliefs. We knew how to market the brand and tell our story, essentially, and that is how we’ve got to where we are today.
But I think if we had started out another way—worked in auction houses for two years, done art history or art business courses, studied at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, I think we would have been indoctrinated into a system that the art world wants to cling onto desperately, because it works very well for them, the people who control the industry. But we are from a different era, I guess. We have different points of view. What we value is very different from what they value. We are very forthright in our beliefs and we champion them.
What we are doing is also culturally relevant, it fits with the way the world is moving and shaking at the moment. We have been free to do what we like and we’ve done what we thought was the right thing to do. And fortunately, there’s a great appetite for change, for something new. People want to celebrate talent. People are disenfranchised and disillusioned with the art world just as we were.
We live in a very venture capital-obsessed world. Young people with bright ideas are expected to pitch to wealthy investors all the time. But somehow I am a big fan of stories that start out really, really small and then grow organically and I think Unit London is a good case study for that. So talk about bootstrapping, self-sufficiency, having limited finances. How has it helped you? Or what exactly has been the role of that…not having initial capital?
Well, I think it just forces you to be…that’s more like a business thing than anything else. In the art world, it is not easy because lots of galleries have startup capital so that they can buy a big place in a prominent location. They have capital to hire staff, buy works upfront, acquire pieces and then sell them on, things like that but obviously, we’ve never had those kind of luxuries. It’s also been invaluable, I think, and it does make us different because we know how valuable our time is. We had to do things ourselves, our own way, we had to cut corners here and there.
Operating the pop-up model for so long was incredibly stressful, and difficult. But it taught us how to run a business, the importance of things. You can tell when they come into the space, our attention to detail is paramount.
In the first two years, it was just the two of us and two laptops. We were sitting in our jackets in a freezing little shop in winter with no heating, breathing out steam and trying to get this thing off the ground. Times like those really count. You learn a lot by yourself, what you’re capable of and how much you want something. When nothing is going your way, it doesn’t seem like a viable business, all your friends are getting their first promotions, they’re stable and you are chasing this pipedream—moments like those make success much more enjoyable, they also keep you grounded.
We now have nearly 25 staff at the gallery, two locations in London, this amazing new space in Mayfair, we are working with these wonderful artists. There are lots of overheads and but we know how quickly it can all be lost. It keeps us motivated and challenged. And we have plenty of offers now from clients and collectors, people from pretty much every continent who have read about the gallery and want to be involved, want to invest. We have stayed away from all of that, we have kept it all private and have full controlled ownership over what we do. It’s exciting, we are really, really enjoying it.
Starting with nothing does give us a weirdly unique perspective on things. The art world, as you know, is very elitist and there are lots of more privileged upstarts, shall we say, people who don’t really need to make it work. They don’t put the focus on detail, they are not under pressure. Whereas we have that pressure everyday, so if I walk in the gallery and there’s scuff on one of the walls, I will completely lose it.
Our ambition is to make Unit London the best and biggest gallery in the world. For that, everything needs to be perfect and the standards need to be very, very high. We have a great awareness of not just the financial responsibilities but also the social responsibilities. When we started we didn’t represent any artist exclusively because it is such a huge commitment to be able to say right, I’m going to take on this artist and support their entire family, making sure their kids go to private schools and are fed and watered, living a comfortable life—that’s a huge responsibility in terms of sales, which we have slowly moved towards.
Also, for the first year, I was doing my full-time advertising job which was funding the rent for our pop-up spaces. I was working 9-5 and then from 5 until 3-2 in the morning would be at the gallery, and then I’d repeat the cycle. This work ethic that drives us forward—it’s something a lot of galleries lack.
Do you come from an entrepreneurial family?
I do, actually. My dad started a photo printing business probably what…forty years ago? He grew up in Ireland on a farm and he moved to London and set up his own business when he was a similar age to me.
Makes perfect sense to me. Elements of risk-taking and initiative-taking in one’s domestic environment do matter a lot. I’m always curious about this thing. Because you have grown up with such a father figure, on some level, you were ready to apply the same principles…
Yes. I’ve never really thought about that but subsciously, very true.
Next—technologies. We have so many things coming up—AR, VR, AI, blockchain. What do you think will be the effect of these on the art world? What do you see happening ten years from now? How will art be experienced? What new forms will emerge?
Right now I think a lot of technology is really being used like a tokenistic thing. Parties are rushing to do something new in AR, VR, AI. Things are happening but the technology I don’t think is good enough yet or has been applied well enough yet. People are saying, “We’re are the first in the world to do this”—but it could actually be a pretty rubbish experience. But lots of artists are using lots of innovative technologies like Google Tilt Brush, 3D printing.
We’re actually testing a VR experience here at the gallery for our current exhibition on Chinese artist Jacky Tsai. We’re sending headsets to collectors around the world so that they can walk through the gallery and experience the show without having to come to London, which is incredible as it can increase access and visibility.
In terms of blockchain…cryptocurrency is around and it will affect every market the same way, art slightly more because it is unregulated. That will have a huge effect on the industry, to be honest. Again, there are some galleries that have launched shows using cryptocurrency but it’s more just the press headlines than any actual, real, strategic, functional reason.
For me, the biggest change in the art world, hands down, has been social media and Instagram. That is what has had the most profound impact on the way artists are being discovered, the way they are connecting with commercial dealers and galleries, the way art is being consumed and engaged with. It is completely changing the industry. I don’t see AR or VR having as big an impact as that.
You’ve said somewhere that “culture has moved forward”. Could you expand on that?
Sure. Really there is this new age of digital media that has completely changed people’s ideas about the world. The access to other cultures, countries, languages, people and ideologies has never been so free-flowing. The way we communicate now is so fast and so simple that this culture of sharing is bigger and better than ever before. That’s changing how people are viewing the art industry. For example, we started our gallery five years ago. If we had started it twenty years ago, we would never have connected with collectors in the way we are now able to. We could broadcast ourselves from a small charity shop in west London to people in the US, the Middle East, Southeast Asia.
Also, there has been a shift in terms of what people want today. The traditional gallery has been predicated on this idea of smoke and mirrors, withholding information. It’s all based on status, who you are and how much money you have. But I think more and more, the people with money now aren’t the leisure class. They are not the kind who expect or who’d enjoy that elite treatment.
It is now people who work for their money, people who run hedge funds, people who are really time-poor, super busy but who probably come from less and understand the value of human experience and transparency. They don’t want to walk into a gallery and find a snobby and snitty kind of atmosphere. They want somebody to explain the works to them, they want to be educated and culturally enriched. They don’t want the pretensions, engineered messaging and all the rubbish. This is a huge cultural shift and we are certainly catering to it.
What are your plans regarding expansion? Have you seen venues in other countries?
Expansion is always on our minds. We wake up everyday, thinking about how we can grow and how we can build. We’re growing everyday, really. For now the focus is very much on Asia, where we have an emerging market, and specifically on Hong Kong, as a first step. We are doing our first formal pop-up there in March during Basel. We are speaking to some really interesting parties, influential private collectors and institutions in the city that want to help us set up there. Beyond that, we are hoping for a permanent space.
You have this inclusive approach, you are community-centred. So a lot of artists might be constantly pitching to you. How do you handle that? What when you can’t accommodate somebody because you expect higher standards? Is it a struggle for you to say “no”?
That’s a really good question. We get around 200 submissions every week now. Obviously, when we started we wanted everyone to submit, we were constantly looking for artists, and we still are very much but it is difficult to process the number of submissions that we get. It’s impossible because we are so busy. We have set up a formal process, we have a submissions email and we review that every single month. We reach back to the artists when we find something interesting and unique.
We use our Instagram platform to shine a light on emerging talent, through an initiative called #lookingforU. If we find an artist whom we think deserves the opportunity to be shown, we do a couple of posts on them, and drive our traffic to their page to give them a little boost. We might not necessarily be able to take them on and represent them in our roster but we can at least give them some recognition. It might result in sales or a gallery or dealer might end up approaching them. So that’s how we are managing submissions and keeping the core audience of artists engaged, as a “united collective of artists for artists”.
I have a question on millennials. There are lots of negative stereotypes floating around about our generation—they’re lazy, entitled, live on superficial connections, cannot really forge deep and meaningful relationships. What are some of your thoughts on the cohort? Do you see any particular positivities in this generation that they could capitalise on in life and business?
That’s really interesting. Yes, I have seen those stereotypes lots in the media. I can’t identify with any of those. Plenty of my staff are in the millennial generation as well. Don’t get me wrong, I have actually had staff in the past who are kind of lazy and entitled and don’t appreciate how hard it is to run a business. There certainly are people out there who have those qualities and I think social media hasn’t helped that because everyone’s tied into their screens all the time and they are not looking up and experiencing and enjoying the world and forging those relationships. But I don’t really see that too much. I wonder whether it’s appropriate to call millennials lazy or entitled, broadly speaking—you have that with any generation. Everyone has different values. My only concern about this generation is that it is always on mobile. The idea of just texting someone as opposed to meeting them for lunch or coffee—that’s quite scary and it might have some repercussions down the line.
Personally, the people I identity with—from artists to suppliers to staff to friends and family—with them the focus is always on good human relationships, hard work, good work ethic, good ideas. These are the main things that I value both in business and outside of it. Everyone I know has those qualities…but that’s mainly because I surround myself with them? I don’t know.
Finally, are there any themes that you are interested in exploring? Any social issue that’s really on your mind that you want to do a show on and highlight?
There’s certainly the underrepresentation of female artists currently in the industry that definitely needs to be highlighted. That’s a really important topic. We just used our Frieze slots at the gallery to showcase “21st Century Women”, which is exactly that. It included 18 of them, from unknown ones likes Michaela Yearwood-Dan to Jenny Saville, now the highest grossing female artist. There are not enough female artists getting solo exhibitions. Collectors drive the galleries, and they prefer to invest in male artists.
It’s not easy to be a female artist because motherhood takes its toll on the body and the mind and women are not always able to invest the time and energy needed in art. Women don’t get recognition in society but so many also don’t get support at home. I speak to them all the time and this is the big problem they face…
Yeah, yeah, it’s very difficult. For us, what we want to do is provide a platform for all these issues to be raised. We value individuals regardless of who they are, where they are from, whether they are male or female, black or white, whether they are old or young. The cultural background is important but we don’t discriminate based on anything other than the quality of the work and the ability of the artist and the original message. We want to create as broad a platform as possible for these artists that we want to support and give them a chance to tell their stories in whatever way they want to tell them.
We never constrict artists, we never say you have to do this or paint this because it sells very well, you have to make this size because it will be more convenient, you have to speak about this subject because it is hot in the press right now. It’s really liberating for them to work with a gallery that is not just trying to push a commercial message and is actually allowing them and encouraging them to develop their practice and come forward and say whatever they want to say…