Despite the progressive nature of the contemporary art industry, there had never been a huge presence of these artists in the social media space. That is, until Unit London exploded onto the scene in 2013 with a range of pop-up locations highlighting a new group of diverse, unrepresented artists whose talent was to be celebrated in a non-discriminate way. Its founders, Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt, endeavoured to advance the contemporary art scene by taking a more accessible and inclusive approach to exhibitions, putting community and connection at the heart of everything they do, which has led to the gallery having a massive global following.

In today’s episode, we chat to co-founder Joe Kennedy. Joe takes us through how, at 22 years old, he took his marketing experience and applied it to an industry which tended to favour those with greater access and financial means to succeed in the art world. Joe utilised social media platforms such as Instagram to champion undiscovered artists and to allow fans to watch Unit London’s journey progress from a small pop-up in West London to a globally renowned gallery with over half a million followers.

Speakers: Cat Anderson & Joe Kennedy

[Music Playing]

Cat: Welcome to season two of Social Creatures, a podcast from Sprout Social. My name is Cat and I’m here to explore some of my favourite success stories from the world of social media. This is a space for anyone, and really, nearly anything goes.

What makes an account successful or popular? Honestly, it’s hard to know, but that’s exactly what we’re here to find out.

Throughout the series, we’ll talk to the brains behind some of the best accounts that you know and some that you don’t know yet to explore the way that these businesses, organisations, and individuals have achieved their success on social media. And crucially how you can do it too.

Today we are looking at the traditionally complex and somewhat strained relationship between the contemporary art industry and social media. Despite the progressive nature of contemporary arts and what would seem to be the obvious overlap between the two, the initial uptake of social media by leading galleries was hesitant, if not altogether dismissive.

That was until today’s guest burst onto the scene, seeing social media as the opportunity that it is, and as a result, has since gone on to transform the industry and gain global attention.

Unit London is one of the fastest growing galleries and contemporary art platforms in the UK. It was built in 2013 by Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt, age just 23. And all upon the founding belief that art is for everyone.

With over half a million followers on Instagram, social media has played a pivotal and central role to their success. The pair’s determination from the start was to take advantage of the power and reach of Instagram.

When they started in 2013, they noticed that most museums and art galleries didn’t really take social media seriously as a commercial tool. The ambition with Unit London was always to create a platform for people to celebrate genuine talent in a non-discriminate way.

And social media has been the glue since the beginning. Helping them not only connect with broader audiences, find hidden new talent, but also just to introduce more artists and their art to the world.

Genuine disruption is something that always excites me. And so, I just know this is going to be one of those conversations. I am so thrilled to speak with the co-founder of Unit London Gallery, Joe Kennedy.

Joe, so good to have you on the show today. Delighted to have you. And I guess a really good place to start is just right at the top. So, you and your business partner, Jonny, it’s 2013, and you decide to set up Unit London.

Right from the off, this was something that was a little bit special, got a bit of attention because you were doing things differently. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to set up a gallery at what is kind of, I guess, what would be considered a universally pretty young age to do so and what made you stand out?

Joe: Yeah. 2013, I was 22-years-old and one of my best mates from school was Jonny and I met up in London. I’d just come back from a year in Australia where I was working in an advertising agency, learning a lot about branding and audiences and how to communicate brand messages to people in an effective way.

Was super inspired by everything I’d learned there. And came back and Jonny was actually practising art here in London and we spent that summer basically going to art shows around London.

We’d always gone to shows before and we’d always been practising together as artists and shared our passion for art and various artists with each other. And we would go to shows and kind of analyse the experience. We’d be really excited about going to see the particular artist that was showing, but then we would arrive at the gallery, we would be met with this kind of strange treading on eggshells kind of experience.

We would get dodgy looks from the guys behind the desk because we weren’t necessarily buyers. And we found the experience to be kind of unforthcoming. We kind of felt like we weren’t welcome, or we felt like that experience could be massively improved.

So yeah, it was certainly an unconventional decision. If you’d asked either of us 11 years ago, if we would’ve been running a gallery today, we probably would’ve laughed.

But it’s driven from a passion of ours to support incredible artists to champion creativity and ultimately a frustration with an industry that has created these systems and structures that have prevented a lot of great creativity from being seen by a mass audience.

A lot of what we see in galleries and museums is the same small group of artists who’ve come from a very institutionalised kind of pool of talent through having great access or having the financial means to go to art school or having work that’s commercially viable or even in the most extreme cases, having parents who were art collectors or who were running galleries.

So, we were kind of frustrated with that selection process of how artists can be seen and discovered and then eventually exhibited. So, we decided to go at it ourselves. The gallery started really in a very, very modest way. We found an old charity shop that was in West London that had been empty for six months, and we decided to set up a pop-up show, basically in that space.

Not really knowing what we were doing, having no experience of being in the art world or running a gallery. We had no friends or family or contacts in the art world. So, for us it was like this kind of blissful naivety in a way of what it would take to run a gallery or what the dynamics or the structures or the business models of the industry were.

We just knew that there was a way of doing this better and there was a way of us providing a platform for genuinely talented artists to be seen and be heard and to have a voice.

I would say the voice at the beginning was very, very meek, but over time that voice has kind of amplified and grown and the gallery has now become a relatively established international name in the art world. So, social media has been a very big part of that story and that amplification of our message and our brand.

Cat: I really love that because art shouldn’t have a barrier of wealth or access to it, art is about expression and so I really love that it’s safe to say there was ambition to make it accessible to everyone. And this, as you said is where social media became a really core part of your strategy.

Could you tell us a little bit about how did social media play a part in the growth of what you’ve described as a meek pop-up shop and an old charity shop into what’s now an established gallery on the scene? And maybe particularly Instagram I think is sort of your real channel of choice, wasn’t it?

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Instagram, I think naturally became the biggest tool for us to kind of develop the brand and the gallery and discover artists and also connect with collectors.

When we started out, we didn’t have any of the traditional means of access to the industry that many people who perhaps were starting a gallery would have. Like we didn’t work in an auction house, we didn’t work in a gallery, we didn’t have family or friends who’d come from the art industry.

So, there was no one that we could really lean on to talk about us in any way. So, and we didn’t also have any resources because I was working a nine to five job to fund that initial first space and we basically had no money to make things happen.

So, social media being a free tool, at least it was at the time, we realised that we could start posting and we could start telling the story of the gallery. And as we developed a following, we started to understand that that online community that we were generating could follow us wherever we went.

So, as the gallery developed, as the months went on, we got kicked out our first space. We would then pretty much walk the streets of Central London looking for empty shops and find a shop that we liked the look of, and we’d approach the landlord and we would kind of almost muscle our way into that space, pop up there for two weeks, then get kicked out again and find somewhere new.

So, it was like the gallery in the early years was very, very nomadic and it was chaotic and stressful, and we had no sense of permanence.

And I think actually we probably found that permanence in many ways through social media because if we were to be kicked out and have to work in a cafe for a couple of weeks, just the two of us with our laptops, no one needed to know. And social could be the glue that could actually like hold our different popups together and allow people to follow our journey.

So, I think Instagram became probably the primary social media platform for us after a while and has now gone on to really redefine the whole art industry. I think the role of Instagram and the introduction of Instagram to the art world at large has probably been the biggest transformational shift that’s happened in the industry since certainly in my lifetime.

But I would say since the introduction or the creation of art fairs, social media has completely turned the industry on its head, and it’s forced galleries and forced the ecosystem into changing, I think for the better.

Cat: It’s so interesting because when you describe how you’ve used social media, it feels like that should be a hand in glove match made in heaven of like galleries displaying art and artists on Instagram in particular, it makes so much sense.

But you’ve just mentioned there that this has actually been a big shift for the art world. Why do you think you were one of the first, if not the first art gallery to really use social media in this way? And how do you think the art world’s attitudes towards social media have changed?

Joe: I think there’s a few reasons. I think primarily, if you look back over the last 20 years the art world has been very insular and closed off and it’s been kind of reserved really for a privileged few. There’s a lot of structures in the art market which we’ve really tried to rally against and challenge over the course of the last 10 years since we started.

And a lot of those barriers that have been created by the market and the ecosystem are to prevent young galleries or startup galleries with no funding to actually develop somehow.

There’s a monopoly there and the big, big galleries have been operating 50, 60, 70 years and they have their very traditional ways of doing things and they’re very happy with those business models.

They almost have a monopoly over the market whereby young galleries can develop a young artist when the artist hits a certain critical mass or a certain point, those big galleries can swoop in with unlimited funds and be able to kind of essentially take the talent and work with that talent.

But I think because those economic models and those industry standards have been set for so long and the people who have running those galleries come from a different generation kind of pre-social, I think there was almost no need for social to be a useful tool for the art world.

And Instagram and social media for us was just a necessity. We had no other option but to lean into social and to use those free tools that we had at our disposal.

And I think, the other thing is that the art world is about subjectivity. Fundamentally, a work of art or an exhibition or an artist isn’t objectively better than the next. It’s all down to one person’s subjective opinion.

So, somebody has to be a tastemaker and the art world for a long time has kind of revelled in this ability to have a one-way conversation with this audience and basically say, look at this artist, look at this show. This is incredible. It’s this, this, this.

And it’s kind of a dictatorial format where they can kind of push out information and push out a narrative and a concept and have that be consumed by their audience. And a lot of the time the audience is invitation only anyway so that people who are already drinking the Kool-Aid at the gallery.

Whereas what social media I think presented for a lot of galleries is this exposure to a public forum and the door being opened to scrutiny into conversation from people who weren’t invited by them, but people who may have just bumbled in off the street.

And so, galleries had to become much more accountable and much more transparent. And I think that’s certainly something that we embraced massively, and we obviously still do as a gallery, but I think those values of accessibility two-way conversation, transparency are all terms which don’t really gel with the traditional operating systems of big art galleries.

So, I think there was both an ideological disconnect between the values of social media and the new social cultural norms of our generation and the ways that galleries have been run for a long time.

And there was maybe a fear to some degree, maybe a deep-seated fear from galleries that, okay, things are changing but we don’t like it. And as soon as we started to kind of build some momentum and build a reputation and people started talking about the gallery.

When we actually started selling stuff and people took note of what we were doing, we were met with a lot of resistance because we were basically positioned as the gallery who were literally to quote newspaper articles like the kids selling art on Instagram was how we were being kind of characterised.

Cat: That’s kind of quite patronising, isn’t it?

Joe: Yeah. To be honest, we were just happy to be in a newspaper at the time. Because at least someone’s talking about us.

And it was interesting because a lot of the journalists who are writing about us, there was a guy from the New York Times who did a profile on this whole thing and they were like fascinated with this idea of social media and Instagram and oh my God, you’re selling art through Instagram.

We were just like, well yeah, because we were just posting content and someone DMs us and then we start a conversation and to us it felt like the most organic and natural thing. We were just talking about the values of our brand; we were talking about our message, and we started to build a following of people who really shared our beliefs and shared maybe our frustrations with the industry.

And they had the same experiences that we did of walking into galleries and feeling like they weren’t allowed to be there, or they weren’t welcome.

We kind of found our tribe, I think, and we built this really kind of devoted, committed audience who believed in what we believed were passionate, like we were about our artists and our message.

We were met with a lot of fascination from the old guard who were like, oh, this is really interesting. But also, brought a lot of scorn and derision at the same time because they were like, well social media is this app for kids to post their breakfast and dance videos and whatever. And it’s no way to promote art. Art is an elevated cultural asset and it should never be exposed to something like social media.

So yeah, that was definitely a big kind of like butting heads in terms of ideologies and belief systems between us and maybe other artists and galleries like us. And then the old guard.

Cat: I have to say in the middle of that answer, I got a jolt of electricity and excitement in my stomach because I feel like I know the word disruptive is bandied around a lot, but truly what you were doing was super disruptive.

And as someone who also has a very keen interest in the art world, but I don’t have exclusive invites to gallery openings and stuff and I have had that experience that you’re describing where you go into a gallery and they’re looking at you like, well, what are you doing here? Sort of.

But also, what you’re talking about, I think you could be maybe the first person I’ve heard in the art world talk about how it is in fact subjective, and that all art should have an audience. And so, this concept of marrying social media with art together just makes so much sense to me.

It is interesting that you got a little bit of derision and scornfulness, shall we say, from the old guard as you’ve described them. But to me that would sort of indicate that you’re doing something right because you have actually ruffled some feathers.

I am curious because obviously you’ve spoken about how you want to promote artists who don’t have the connections or the finance to get into the larger galleries, but did social media help with the consumer access as well?

Because again, you’ve alluded to how the other galleries are very exclusive about who they let in and presumably social media sort of works on both sides of this relationship.

It’s about getting artists who maybe don’t have the platform exposure, but also maybe someone like myself who’s like, I’m interested in art but I can’t maybe afford to go into these other galleries or go to a gallery opening all the time. Was that part of the strategy as well?

Joe: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because even just the word strategy, strategy is something that we talk about a lot now, but when we started there was no strategy. It just kind of evolved very naturally for us.

But the impact, I think that social horse had really dovetails perfectly with our mission of the gallery. We wanted to essentially create an art world that could allow everybody to access and enjoy great art.

And there’s two sides to that. There’s the artist side where how can people have access to great art if the great artists aren’t being seen and platformed, because our fundamental belief was Jonny and I are both really creative people. There’s no chance we could have made it as professional artists because of the structure of the industry.

We took our work to galleries, we went to shows, we interacted with the industry. It didn’t work. And we knew of all these other artists like Ryan Hewett, one of our leading artists now at the gallery is a great example, we followed him online and was based in Cape Town, self-taught artist, incredible raw talent.

But if we hadn’t gone onto social media and discovered him through that platform, we would still be none the wiser. And our fundamental belief is that great creativity, great artistry can sometimes exist in the most surprising places.

And we wanted to kind of cast the net wide and social media really allowed us to kind of discover these artists who previously would never have had access to the industry.

So, it helped us discover and connect with artists first and foremost. But then also it allowed people who, as you say like yourself, maybe aren’t necessarily comfortable with going to Mayfair and pushing open a big heavy door and exposing themselves to maybe being looked down upon or feeling like inferior because they can’t read this ridiculous over intellectualised press release.

And actually, I think that experience is a huge barrier. Just pushing open that big door and taking the courage maybe even to walk into a Mayfair gallery actually prevents a lot of people from engaging with the industry.

Then you kind of couple that with the design of the spaces that make you feel very vulnerable and exposed. All of these little triggers prevent people from thinking that art is for them.

But the reality is that fundamentally art is the most basic form of communication and creative expression, and everyone understands art. You don’t have to understand it. That’s the beauty of it.

Everything is art, everything is good art, everything is bad art. There’s no right or wrong. And I think what social media has done is it’s allowed people to kind of discover that for themselves in a way.

They can just be on the train flicking through their phone and discover this incredible artist that might have this amazing emotional reaction in them, which then inspires them to DM that artist and start speaking to them. And it can spark this incredible journey of discovery and then education, then ultimately even collecting.

That’s probably one of the biggest, transformational impacts that social media’s had, is it’s allowed new collectors and new artists to enter our industry. And that’s had an amazing effect, not just on the volume and the scale of the art world.

But also, in terms of changing representation and create a more diverse industry where voices like female artists or artists of colour, or even digital artists or artists who aren’t from the western hemisphere to be able to build careers for themselves and participate in the market, which for a long time hadn’t been allowed to happen.

So, I think I actually credit social media for so much of the good change that’s happened in the art industry over the last 10 years. It’s helped us massively and it’s also helped both artists and new collectors who’ve discovered it off their own back.

Cat: I completely love this. This is such a brilliant narrative. I feel like it’s so exciting, it’s so inclusive, it’s embracing of different people. I definitely would push those heavy doors open in Mayfair, but I would be pretending to be someone that I’m not. That’s the thing, I was like, “Would I not do that?”

But yeah, it’s like I wouldn’t be interacting authentically. And it’s so interesting to hear you describe how even the spaces are maybe designed in a way to make you feel vulnerable. That’s kind of crazy when you think about it.

I’m curious though, like we are talking to you now and you’re in a very different position than where you were from those early days. So, you’re bopping about social media is the glue that’s kind of keeping the narrative of Unit London kind of going with your audience. It’s starting to grow.

Was it just a really continual slow growth? What did that journey look like? Where did the growth come from?

Joe: I think there’s a couple of big shifts that happened. Our first permanent space, which is the Mayfair space, we moved in there in 2018 and first six years we’ve been sort of bumming around, opening pop-up spaces and getting kicked out and doing everything in a very fun but very chaotic and just insane way.

And we’d been saving up and saving up and saving up everything for those five years with the hope of one day being able to get a permanent space somewhere. And we got kicked out of our Soho space. We were there on Water Street for like a year and a half.

We really started to develop the reputation of the brand there because in Soho, people from media and TV walk in and we had Jude Law and Bob Geldof and we started to develop this really great client base and these amazing relationships.

And when we got kicked out of there we were like, “Right, okay, enough is enough.” I think we had like 15 spaces in five years. And we were just knackered. And we wanted to also book shows with artists who needed a year to produce an exhibition and it just felt so disingenuous of us to be like, produce a show for us when we didn’t know that we would even have a space in two months, let alone a year’s time.

So, it was really kind of preventing us from doing the serious things that we wanted to do. So yeah, we found the space in Mayfair. It was a bank, and the bank were moving out and it was off market.

And Jonny and I walk in as these two kids, I think we put suits on for the occasion. We walked through the bank and these lot were just looking at us like, who are these kids and why are they walking around our bank? And we looked at it and we were just like; this is way too big. It was too expensive; we couldn’t afford it. It was a complete pipe dream.

So, we got onto the street, and we’re surrounded by all these big intimidating Mayfair buildings, and we just looked at each other and thought, this has to be it. If we want to really make something of the gallery, we have to go for this.

And so, we spent the next couple of months kind of charming and fighting and clawing our way into the landlord’s reckoning. And somehow, we ended up with this gallery at Mayfair, which really kind of elevated everything to the next level.

But we put every single thing that we’d saved up into this gallery. So, it was a huge Hail Mary move. It was like risked everything. If it didn’t work out, we’d basically be back to square one.

We got the space, nothing in our bank accounts and just thought, this is where the hard work starts. And I think from there the gallery just came on leaps and bounds and the international reputation of the gallery developed, our credibility developed wildly.

And of course, the people who were walking in through the front door weren’t just your media types and your TV personalities and whatever. It was people who kind of looked at art in a much more serious way.

So, turned out to be the best decision that we ever made moving into that space. And what I would say also is like 85% of our sales happened online. So, we would sell the paintings to people in Hong Kong and New York and all over the world. People who’d never been to the gallery before physically, people who’d never seen the gallery or seen the artworks in person.

And 15% we would sell from people coming to the shows. But actually, it’s the fact that we had the gallery, the fact that we had the skin in the game that probably gave those collectors the faith and the trust in buying from us and taking that punt with us because they knew that we were something serious.

And naturally social media was really the tool that allowed us to communicate how serious that space was and how serious our message was and how serious we were to our audience. And I think that allowed us to kind of really scale things.

Cat: That growth to Mayfair is unbelievable and congratulations on that. I can’t imagine the nervousness of risking everything into something like that and just sort of being like, this has got to work or we’re in some hot water, so I can only imagine how nerve wracking that was.

But I’m interested now, how do you use social with the gallery in Mayfair that you were talking about, and at the start of this conversation you’re like, we were not like that.

And how do you present yourself as a gallery that is open to everyone to come in? Do you do stuff in your space to make it feel different from those other galleries? How do you still keep that distinction from the old guard?

Joe: It’s a challenge that we talk about every day at the gallery with the team because how can you be continually accessible and what does accessibility look like in an industry which is predicated on the idea of exclusivity? Like how does that work?

And for us it’s always been about broadcasting our artists to the biggest possible audience and our communication style, our language has always been very conversational.

And when you say Unit London, the first thing you say is you phonetically and the you logo is a big part of our brand makeup and a big part of our entire communication strategy. Because we felt the galleries were not really talking to the public, they weren’t talking to you, they weren’t talking to me.

They were talking to their collectors or the people who they wanted to speak to. So, having the gallery in Mayfair, it was us looking at our artists and wanting the best for them.

We knew that in order to really achieve success for our artists, we needed to be there at Mayfair. We needed to be able to connect with the taste makers of the industry and the people who were really influential.

So, a lot of our ambition and our growth in that sense is driven by the responsibility that we have to our artists to develop their work and build their careers and make an impact for them.

But then there is this kind of like antithetical thing which we’ve tussled with for a long time of Mayfair is that snooty elitist space. We’ve combated that in multiple ways. I mean, even just if you walk up to the gallery, we have an automatic sliding door.

So, even if you’re not planning to come in and you’re just going for a stroll past, the door will swing open. And we have extremely friendly staff behind the front desk who always get up when you come in and show you around the gallery.

We maybe just apply kind of different principles to the gallery experience. We know that the physical gallery is no longer just like a sales showroom, maybe like it was 20 years ago. It’s actually a space for creating experiences that people will share.

And I think where lots of galleries have always perhaps missed the mark is we place so much value on the experience of people walking into our gallery, and we don’t discriminate as to whether somebody might be a huge art collector or whether somebody might just be off the street and could have some positive onward impact on talking about our brand or talking about the experience to somebody else.

But as our artists have gone from selling for 200 pounds to 50,000 pounds, obviously a very big jump. We have built other kind of aspects of the gallery, like an editions program where we’re creating prints and limited editions, which are much, much lower value to allow people to still buy something and leave with something from the gallery.

But also, I think just our communication strategy, the fact that we’re open seven days a week, the fact that we’re constantly asking our audience to contribute and participate in our events, in our social channels and conversations.

For us Unit London is putting you at the heart of the experience. And I think that’s something that really kind of differentiates us from lots of other contemporary art galleries.

Cat: It’s so interesting hearing you talk because I feel like everything you’re saying is stitched with intentionality, with inclusivity and also sort of removing the elitism around the art world for both artists and for consumers of art.

But there’s no doubt as well that Unit London feels so absolutely 10 steps ahead of everything else that’s going on. This is such a fast and exciting narrative.

Do you see yourself in that way? Do you see yourself as being a pioneer in the industry or is it just that you are trying to just be intentional and inclusive? Or do two things coexist at once for you, do you think?

Joe: I don’t think we’ve ever seen ourselves as pioneers necessarily, just because we’ve always just done what’s natural to us. And like I say, social media was something that was just available to us and something that we had an affinity with. And then maybe an intuitive understanding of.

It’s kind of turned out that the use of social media has pioneered the industry because it’s allowed brand new artists to come to the fore and get represented by the huge galleries and be showing in museums, it’s allowed brand new collectors to enter the space.

So, it’s radically changed things, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen ourselves as pioneers in that sense. And I don’t think we’ve necessarily pioneered anything.

But for us, conversation is really what we want to try and achieve. And I think lots of galleries have for a long-time kept conversation between themselves or kept conversation between them and their collector base or the people that they want to speak to.

And a lot of the time exhibitions or shows are kind of communicated through the mouthpiece of the gallery and everything is very adopted and carefully curated to fit their narrative.

But for example, we have an artist her name’s Helen Beard, and her work is very bright, bold, colourful, and she paints very sexual paintings. And a lot of the time they’re female bodies and her work and her message is all about as a female artist, taking back ownership of sexual imagery and taking back ownership of body image for women.

And when we post her work on social media, the response that it kicks up is just fascinating because some of the work is quite explicit, some of the imagery is quite explicit. And you have this incredible debate on social media of some people who are just kind of, this isn’t art. How can this be allowed to be shown in a gallery?

Others supporting it and explaining it to other people, even in our comments. And a lot of the time these will go viral and there’s all sorts everywhere from trolling to real kind of evangelism.

But those conversations are exactly what we want to create. And we feel like it’s our role and our job as a gallery to provide the context for artists to be seen, to be validated, to be discussed, to be debated.

That should really be the core function of a gallery, is to stimulate those conversations and drive those conversations. That’s what should be happening online and that’s what should be happening ideally within the galleries as well. We want people to come into the space and be free to express themselves and be free to have an opinion on the work.

They don’t have to like it. No one has to like all the work. For us, if they feel something from the work, then that’s job done.

I think that kind of conversation, that discussion is something that we always try and foster. And going back to kind of how we differentiate ourselves from other galleries, I think in many ways that’s how we build our programming.

We really listen to our audience. We feel a sense of duty and responsibility to make sure that we’re constantly challenging our audience’s expectations and opinions.

We actually want to understand the sentiment, understand the cultural discussions and ideas that are kind of floating around in the community. And then, yeah, that two-way conversation is fundamental to our gallery. It’s what’s probably propelled us and carved out a more unique position for us versus our peers.

Cat: Yeah, that sounds so exciting because I feel like it inverts a lot of what the gallery experience traditionally is where you’re walking around looking at paintings, reading the blurb on the side, which tells you what to think about it.

That’s so fab that you can watch in live time people having maybe a really heated discussion in the comments and as you say, having the people who totally hate it versus the people who totally love it, which is all a reaction, it’s all a response and it is all valid.

I feel like that must be extremely educational for the people in the comments to read. It must be a complete joy for the artists to read and also just extremely useful data points for you as a gallerist to go, “Okay, this is the reaction that this got. This is so interesting. We can actually see the true authentic reactions to the work.”

Because I do wonder, again, as someone who would go into a gallery, I’m not having conversations like that with strangers around a piece. I have not yet been to Unit London and maybe that does actually happen there.

Joe: Have to change that soon.

Cat: Definitely. But I feel like the comments in a social media post actually is such a brilliant place for that where people also maybe sometimes have the anonymity to say, I don’t like this. Which they might not maybe feel like they can do in real life because I think so often it is sort of heralded as being so wonderful and untouchable. So, I think that’s such an exciting application of social.

Joe: Absolutely, yeah.

Cat: You strike me as an ambitious individual. What is next for Unit London? What do you want to continue to do with this? Are you going to expand globally or how is the vision going to develop?

Joe: We do always try and track back to our original mission of the gallery and thinking about how we can increase opportunity for artists, how we can champion creativity in our communities and our audiences, how we can get more people involved in understanding and having access to great art and great artists.

We have had opportunities over the last 10 years to open up spaces internationally, and I’m sure that would happen. I think 10 years ago if you’d asked me what success would look like for the gallery, I would’ve said, yeah, we want to have like a hundred galleries all over the world, in every big city and have this huge workforce and la, la, la.

Actually, I think as we’ve kind of matured somewhat, our goal isn’t actually about scale, it’s much more about impact. And I think we can have impact now in ways which don’t necessarily equate to lots of physical spaces and a huge team.

It could just be creating impact in other ways through initiatives like residency projects, residency programs, grants, prizes. We are looking at partnering up with art schools in the UK to develop scholarships for young artists from non-traditional backgrounds, let’s say, to be able to access art education, social media training courses.

Because our story is really, we’re so indebted to social media and the tools and the opportunities that it’s afforded us. We want other artists to be able to kind of take the same tack and use it to their advantage.

So yeah, our next project is a residency project, a space where artists can kind of disconnect even from social media and the pressures and the cycle of having to produce work for galleries or collectors, a safe haven where they can go and focus on being creative and making work. That’s our next immediate project and it’s 10 years of the gallery this year, so-

Cat: Wow.

Joe: So, we are currently focusing on a big sort of campaign project and exhibition where we’re taking something like 150 artists and we’re doing a 10-day exhibition in September, where each day we are focusing on a specific artistic discipline and launching a decathlon of events.

We are incredibly ambitious, and we do want ultimately to change the art world and to allow our artists to become generation-defining and reach as many people as physically possible.

We’re constantly looking at how we can adopt new technologies or new ways of communicating to tell our artist stories, basically to the widest possible audience.

Cat: Talking about pioneering new ways of connecting with people. Can you maybe tell me a little bit about your Web3 program that you’ve set up?

Joe: Yeah. So, Web3 is quite a scary term still for a lot of people. And when we started with social media, I mentioned the art world were kind of up in arms and there was this knee jerk reaction to this technology because they thought that it wasn’t serious, and it couldn’t have a place in the art market.

And actually, when NFTs kind of exploded on the scene a couple of years ago, there was a similar reaction from the art world. There was this kind of huge uproar, this is no way to promote art. This is a technology that’s just bad for our industry.

And I just saw all the same things. It was like Groundhog Day of what we were experiencing back in 2013. And the beauty of Web3 and Blockchain is that it allows for artists to be paid royalties automatically on every secondary market sale.

So, when an artist currently is showing at a gallery or sells a work, they generally will sell the work and the commission will be split between the gallery and the artist.

When that collector who owns the work in five years’ time sells the work often for a massively inflated price, oftentimes the artist doesn’t get any payment from that increase in value and from that secondary sale.

But Blockchain actually allows, through a smart contract, it allows the artist to be paid royalties on every single future sale in perpetuity. And I think what that will do is just create a much more equitable system for artists.

And a marketplace that actually becomes a lot more fair and gives much more autonomy to the creators and the artists who are actually responsible for putting the work out into the world. So, that’s what initially attracted us to the space.

And then those crypto cats and crypto frogs and dogs and every other animal in between which kind of basically scared everybody off the industry because people just thought, well, Web3 and NFTs is just this kind of token trading cars and avatars that have no real artistic merit. And 90% of that is totally true. A lot of it was just pump and dump moneymaking schemes.

But there are digital artists who are creating work using Blockchain and using generative art practices, algorithms, artificial intelligence, and other software programs to develop really, really interesting super complex, incredible artwork who are basically now able to make serious money and be kind of validated as artists through this technology.

But we’re getting lumped in with the whole NFT Crypto Bro conversation and we decided to create a Web3 program that could actually identify the small number of artists who were creating fascinating, meaningful, interesting work in the digital space.

And we decided to start representing those artists and giving them an introduction into the contemporary art world, started to introduce their work to collectors, started to contextualise their work in meaningful ways. And that program has developed into something really, really special.

And we now regularly host Web3 based exhibitions at our gallery in London. So, physical exhibitions of digital artworks.

And it’s become a massive part of our programming. We have an entire Web3 team at the gallery who are dedicated to working with those artists and cultivating collectors within that space.

Again, it’s an uphill battle to convince people who are fundamentally ideologically opposed to the idea of Web3 and Crypto, at a top line level they just shut off from the conversation.

But I think, if you find the common denominators between the believers and the non-believers, when you focus on the quality of the work and the artistic merit of the stuff that we’re showing, that’s something that at least people can agree on.

And then if you bake into that, the idea that important historical art and radical artistic movements are always seen as somewhat crazy or stupid at the time they’re introduced. And it’s only through the future lens where we can look back on it and see that actually the people that were pioneering those technologies or pushing these ideas forward may actually have some serious historical relevance.

And I think that’s what will eventually happen with artists in the Web3 space. And I think, as we move into a way more digitally integrated world and our lives are just much more wrapped up in the idea of digital, how are digital artist not going to become more prominent.

And I also think the traditional archetype of an artist is this kind of crazy creative character who’s maybe a bit useless with business or anything rational. And they’re super wacky, whatever.

A lot of these artists in the Web3 space are some of the smartest people that I’ve ever encountered. They’re coders, they’ve written software programs, they teach computer science at big universities and they’re kind of using programming and coding languages in a way that’s actually not goal or product oriented, but in a way that’s open-ended and creative.

And when you actually really kind of pay attention to what they’re doing. It’s genuinely fascinating.

And I think as we kind of develop and as coding also becomes a more kind of constituent part of education and a skillset set that more and more people are up taking, I think it’s only natural to see that that particular form of communication or language, because coding is ultimately a language. I think that language is going to be used in more and more creative ways to create art.

It’s something that we’re really passionate about and really invested in. It comes down fundamentally to the ethos of the gallery, which is, it doesn’t matter who an artist is, where they’re from, what their background is, what their practice consists of. It’s about identifying and championing talent, however that exists. And our job is to then create the context and tell the story of that artist to the most people that we possibly can.

Cat: Joe, your excitement is palpable, and it is contagious. I cannot wait to go and do a massive deep dive on your Instagram, but if anyone else who’s listening wants to do the same, where can they interact with Unit London online? 

Joe: Just And then our socials are at Unit London.

Cat: Perfect. Joe, this has been such a joy. I really, really love the work that you’re doing, and this conversation has been so brilliant. So, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Joe: Thanks so much, Cat. Lovely to meet you.

[Music Playing]

Cat: You’ve been listening to Social Creatures with me, Cat Anderson. Many thanks to Joe Kennedy for joining me today. And you can find all the links to Unit London in the description of this episode.

And of course, a special thank you to Sprout Social for making this podcast possible.

If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to let us know on social at @Sprout Social and subscribe to hear other episodes like this wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks very much for listening, and we’ll see you again in two weeks.Contemporary Art and Social Media: Unit London’s