Culture Whisper sat down with Unit London co-founders Joe and Jonny to talk about their vision for the gallery, their journey, social media, and future ambitions.
In an intimate gathering of art enthusiasts, industry professionals, and fans of the gallery, Lucy Scovell, Commercial and Arts & Design Editor of Culture Whisper, spoke to co-founders and directors of Unit London, Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt, about the past, present, and future of the gallery, illuminating the audience to their founding principles, brand ethos, pivotal experiences, and upcoming plans. Here are some of the highlights of the session:
CW: Unit London have come so far - from a pop-up Chiswick space to the Mayfair gallery we sit in today. How have you stayed true to the Unit London founding principles and the DNA of the gallery ethos?
Joe: I think when we started the business, we sat down and identified the key problems in the industry which we set up to solve. The first one was the elitism, basically, and our solution to that was to be inclusive, to create a space that would welcome people. We wanted to bring back a sense of humanity and make people feel as welcome as possible when they walk through the doors of the gallery - you know, just smiling and saying hello, really basic stuff like that.
We also felt a need to identify talent and judge artists based purely on the work itself, and not other factors- like whether the work was commercially viable. We just focused on work we were really inspired by and that we wanted artist we would be excited to get behind and be passionate about - artists that we believe in.
So that kind of formed the foundation for the principles and ethos that’s driven us. The need to celebrate and champion incredible talent, and make the gallery experience enjoyable.
CW: Five years ago you were both just 22, so this is a very very ambitious project to try and reform the traditional art world. Have you come across any naysayers, anyone that said ‘you just can’t do this’? How have you overcome this, and still be here today?
Jonny: I think our age was always one thing, because we are young, and the galleries we had in Soho and Covent Garden are in young, cool, hip locations - people look at us and see us as these two kids doing a pop-up thing and trying to pull up this art gallery with these cool artists because that’s the cool thing to do. We’ve always up been against the more seasoned art collectors and the institutionalised art world that will never take us seriously. Coming to Mayfair was that statement for us to be able to say, ‘we are serious, we want to be a credible player in the art industry, we want to come into a traditional territory - and Mayfair is, of course, the hub - and disrupt it with our ethos.’ Not in a reckless way but in a way that is championing how we do things differently. The criticism just comes with the territory, and ultimately we know that if we’re getting that kind of criticism that we probably know we’ve done something right.
Joe: We don’t pay that much attention to what people are saying, whether they think it’s a good thing or a bad thing - we just focus on what we want to achieve, and I think ultimately culture’s changing so much and that our attitude is not going to change. It’s happening faster and faster every day, and you can either sit there, grumpy and crossing your arms, or you can try and ride that wave and go with it, and I think we’re just focused on our own goals.
CW: Clearly social media is the new platform for storytelling - just how important is storytelling for you on digital platforms?
Jonny: Yeah, we’ve relied on it - that’s all we had when we started this business. We didn’t have any funding or investment, we’re not from this industry, we have no roots to break in to collectors or artists, we were literally just putting stuff up the street in our first shop in Chiswick, so in order to get the message out - not just of the artists but our brand and what Unit London signifies - we relied on Facebook and Twitter, and now Instagram. Social media has ultimately allowed us to connect with some of the biggest collectors in the world, museum curators, VIPs, celebrities - it’s incredible with what it’s done for startups, and obviously us too. Ultimately what we’re focused on is storytelling and marketing artists and engaging with their messages and generating conversations. And if you can get that right, and if you can carve out that propensity properly and consistently, the sales will follow, that has always been our focus.
CW: The last five years have been transformational - what do the next five years have in store?
Jonny: International is the next step for us - I think it’ll be the Far East for us, somewhere like Hong Kong or Singapore, that’s such an exciting market, such an amazing thing is happening in that part of the world, amazing artists that we want to work with in Asia as well. I think we’ve got our hands full right now - we’ve only just opened the doors with this space - we want to become an established, leading gallery in London, that’s absolutely the short-term goal. We also want to start venturing into collaboration and partnering with fashion brands, and going into music and film - because the principles of the gallery are so fundamentally applicable to so many areas of the industry, to creativity, in culture, in education, we want to branch away from the art world as well. We will always be a gallery, but we also want to take the brand further.
Joe: We’ve never actually believed that we’d sell art, it just seemed like a bizarre concept for us. By the word ‘collector’ when we started, we thought it was just a made-up, cerebral idea that a person would buy art habitually, but we’ve grown into that - what we want to do is really do something meaningful in the industry and not-not sell art — by selling art.