Aged just 23, two recent university graduates, Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt, decided it was time to set up an art gallery. More important than their initial 300- square-foot pop-up space in Chiswick, London next to a butcher’s shop, was the pair’s determination to exploit the power of Instagram.
Three years on, they have developed an online network of young, international buyers from Hong Kong, the Middle East and the US and they have a 4,000-square-foot gallery in Soho, London. They now have plans to expand internationally and turn The Unit into the first major art gallery franchise.
“Most museums and art galleries still think of social media as a plaything for narcissistic teenagers who want to take photos of their breakfast. They don’t take it seriously as a commercial tool,” Kennedy told Business Insider.
Burt and Kennedy take social media very seriously. Their last show Paintguide — “the first Instagram curated art exhibition” — brought together 61 artists from around the world who had all built their reputations on Instagram. Savvy almost the point of cynicism, the duo recognised the “huge PR value” of the exposure that comes from an exhibition featuring artists that have hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. Joe and Jonny even have celebrity support from the likes of Jude Law, Bob Geldof, and Jean Paul Gautier.
Since they are doing a good job of dragging the fine art world into in the 21st century, Business Insider decided it was time to interview them, while having a look round their Soho gallery.
After the school friends graduated from different universities, Kennedy took a job with ad firm Leo Burnett, while Burt focused on his art. Neither was happy with a conventional 9-5 job, so they rented a tiny room in Chiswick on a pop-up basis, where they slowly began to sell artworks.
'When we started the business, we had no contacts to lean on, we did not know any journalists and we had no funding.' They were losing money initially and knew that they had to try something very different to make the business a success.
So Joe and Jonny decided to harness the power of Facebook and Instagram, in a radical break from how other galleries do marketing. Kennedy explained, 'Most galleries have marketing strategies that are based around newsletters and adverts in art magazines, but the everyday affluent young person does not buy art magazines. Young people are all on social media, they're all on Instagram, Facebook.'
They pursued an aggressive social media strategy, making deals to promote individual artists both in-store and on Instagram. It worked. The reputation of both the gallery and the artists they were featuring quickly grew and buyers from all over the world started to flood in. Kennedy said: 'The buyers are coming from everywhere: the Middle East, the States, loads from Hong Kong, and of course there are lots of young British collectors.'
They have now got nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram, which is almost unheard of in the fine art world. Burt said: 'We're in so many networks around the world that when we post something to Instagram we'll potentially sell it there and then. It's a very strong foundation for our sales. About 50% of our sales are online.'
Innovations like the Paintguide show -- 'the world's first Instagram-curated art exhibition' -- have helped the gallery become profitable. In what could be an industry-first, each piece of art curated from Instagram had a QR code underneath, supposedly necessary for the 'full experience.'
Celebrity endorsement has also helped The Unit London from an early stage. They said: 'David Bailey is a big supporter, Jude Law is a collector of ours. Jean Paul Gautier and Bob Geldof both like our stuff. Professor Green actually messages us on Instagram, he's discussing buying a piece to add to his collection. Being in the heart of Soho you attract that sort of crowd, a lot of the time they'll just be walking past.'
But it has not been at all easy, Kennedy said: 'We've had some points in the last two years where we've been so low. We've been sitting on the street without a space and all our artwork is in a van somewhere. And we're like: 'What are we doing with our lives?' The lows make everything else so much better when you start doing well.'
'We work very long hours. A lot of the time it's hard to leave the gallery. There's so much to do and at the same time its such a nice place to be. It can be addictive,' said Burt.
'The plan is to open a bar downstairs and, if that happens, we'll probably just never leave. Maybe we'll sleep here,' Kennedy said.
But with the help of Instagram, the hard work paid off. Burt said, 'I don't think there is any other app that could be as powerful as Instagram for what we do. It's so good exactly because its not all focused on art; people stumble across the art.'
Despite their massive online presence, the pair recognise the importance of having a real, physical gallery. 'Art is so tactile. Apps like Instagram are just a marketing tool, rather than a replacement for a physical space. Collectors will not be satisfied just seeing art online. You have to appreciate art live, in situ. Social media will never replace the physical space in art, but it can support it.'
The pair are shy when discussing financials, despite the massive Storm Trooper helmet, 'The Dark Side of the Dollar,' exhibit in their window. But they did reveal that their second year turnover was more than £1 million ($1.4 million) and that their third-year projections are nearly double that. 'We're growing so fast all the time, sales are flying,' Kennedy said.
So what's next? 'We do have plans to go overseas, that's the next frontier. We're considering turning The Unit into an international franchise. So a pair of artists in Hong Kong, for example, could set up a Unit gallery there. I don't think (franchises) have really been done before in the art world,' said Kennedy.
As well as building more galleries with their 'bare hands,' the hands-on business partners want to build the profile of the artists they currently promote: 'It's not really about getting household names, it's about building household names. Ryan Hewitt is an artist whose profile we've really helped develop. We've increased Ryan's market value by 300% in the last three years. The Ryan Hewitt solo show coming up is probably going to be the biggest we've ever done.'
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