Artists Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt started Unit London in 2013 with a pop up gallery in a disused shop in Turnham Green before working their way via several spaces in Convent Garden to a 4000 foot space on Wardour Street. They now represent an international roster of artists and have a growing following. They try and promote their shows a bit differently like making trailers and artist films to spread the message about their artists as far and wide as possible, and we thought we’d say hello.
Hello gents, how are things with you?
All good here. Thanks for asking! It’s been an exciting and busy summer here at the gallery and preparations are now in full swing for an extensive programme of exhibitions for the second half of the year. Each year there seems to be more and more energy around the gallery and our artists, which is a feeling we thrive on.
How did you go from a pop up in Turnham Green to a 4000 foot space on Wardour Street? That’s quite the leap…
It’s really a combination of ambition, hard work and steadfast belief. And a good idea of course! When we started in Turnham Green in 2013, we wanted to make a change and catalyse a progression in the art world – to create a gallery that is welcoming and inclusive. We believed, and still believe, that things can and should be done differently. It’s what drives us. It has been a revelation to discover that this appetite for change is shared by so many, including collectors, art lovers and the artists themselves. Since our childhood, when we were friends at school, we’ve always been ambitious, forever dreaming up grand plans. Even though visions of a global gallery empire can feel a little far-fetched when you are on your hands and knees sanding the skirting boards of an old charity shop in the suburbs – with no prospective clients, press or collectors in sight – we have always been clear about our goals and what we need to do to achieve them. The goal is, quite simply, to bring a culture of celebration back to art and to champion talented artists and showcase them to the widest possible audience.
You’re doing things a bit different to the usual West End art gallery aren’t you? Who’s idea was it to make trailers and artist films?
We’re both artists, so I guess we’re a little different to many gallery owners. While we are committed to building a successful and sustainable business, it’s never been just been about selling art and making money. We are just as driven by the impulse to tell stories and to create compelling narratives through our exhibitions. We always try to bring a sense of theatre and spectacle to everything that we do. It’s where we believe the future of the industry lies. In a world so mediated by digital culture, we have to give people a reason to drag themselves away from their screens and smartphones to come to a gallery. Galleries should offer unique experiences – a narrative, a show or simply the life enhancing pleasure of enjoying great art up close in the company of other people. That intimacy can’t be replicated by your smartphone. While the experience of visiting the gallery is at the core of everything we do, we have used social media extensively from the outset to help spread the message about our artists far and wide. We want to encourage dialogue with those who are interested in our artists and in what we are doing. We’ve always believed that artists and art exhibitions could be promoted like music or films, so creating trailers and artist films has become part of what we do for each exhibition.
What other ‘different’ things have you got up your sleeves?
It’s funny because we didn’t set out to be completely different for the sake of it, but there are a few things that tend to single us out. We started the gallery when we were 23 years old, which put us on the map alongside some of the youngest gallery owners in London. Neither of us are formally trained or had ever worked in a gallery, which means we’ve never followed any formula. We’ve just done things our own way, building a gallery without any existing contacts in the industry or any prospective clients, by harnessing the broadcasting and networking power of social media (follow us on Instagram!) and progressive online marketing techniques, including the content creation side of the gallery. We don’t tend to keep much up our sleeves as we never wear suits!
Tell us about your show with Jake Wood-Evans. His work looks both old and new at the same time!
It’s our biggest and most ambitious show to date. While Jake has previously drawn inspiration from the great artists of the Renaissance, for this exhibition he has looked to 18th Century masters. He finds perfect, polished portraits of proud Admirals and idyllic families, the sentiment of which he believes are “too good to be true”. Jake explores these paintings, and peels away the veneers of the subjects and their surroundings, revealing the figures in a ghostly new light, giving them an unsettling and authentic sense of vulnerability. He’s an incredibly gifted painter and this collection is truly impressive. Jake was the first artist that we showcased at the gallery when we first opened in Turnham Green three years ago, so this show has been a long time coming and the response has already been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve had collectors from all over the world contacting us to acquire works from the exhibition before the doors even open to the exhibition in two weeks.
Interview: Josh Jones