“A lot of the art world has always pissed us off”: Meet the young gallerists shaking up London’s art scene

Unit London founders Jonny Burt and Joe Kennedy on their remarkable success story, and lifelong friendship...

Unit London is a contemporary art gallery in Mayfair’s Hanover Square, counting Vogue House and Sotheby’s as neighbours. So far, so supercilious. But walk through the gallery’s glass doors, and any assumptions you might have made about its owners will be swiftly stripped away. Unpretentious music plays and no one casts a surveying eye to assess whether you might be here to invest. Oh, and you can expect to be enthusiastically greeted by an old English sheepdog called Raffa.

Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt are the pair shaking the dust from London’s antiquated gallery scene — because, as they put it rather frankly, “a lot of the art world has always pissed us off.” The duo met at school, where they say they were “always talking about doing something creative,” and reunited over a “huge, shared energy and desire to do something for ourselves.” 

"The industry wasn't serving artists who didn't have the right credentials..."

Their key objective with Unit London has always been to tackle the elitism that they saw stripping young, talented and emerging artists of their rightful opportunities. “The industry wasn’t serving those artists and giving them a platform, because they didn’t have the credentials or validators that the industry looks for,” explains Joe. “We wanted to offer that space.”

The beginnings of Unit London read like the stuff of modern folklore, as the two friends set out on their project with very little experience and were funded entirely by Joe’s 9-5 office job. “We had no staff, no car and no space. We must have looked very suspicious, carrying huge artworks in our tracksuits and hoodies at 2am and taking them to a warehouse,” Joe remembers, laughing.

“A lot of the art world has always pissed us off”: Meet the young gallerists shaking up London’s art scene

But the pair have always remained convinced that they were doing something important. “There have been times when we’ve been so down on our luck — kicked out of our space when we had 50 artworks and no way to wrap them — but we’ve always believed that our gallery was going to change things.” 

"There have been times when we’ve been so down on our luck, but we’ve always believed that our gallery was going to change things...” 

Their conviction proved well-founded — it has taken less than a decade for the pair to go from putting on shows in a charity shop to getting their own W1 postcode. Their strategy for success appears twofold. First, they have been a breath of fresh air for a new generation of art enthusiasts. As Jonny puts it, “walking into a gallery and feeling unwelcome is nonsense. Whether you’re a fan, collector or artist, you have the right to enjoy it.” Second, they really do seem to get along.

“We’re lucky to be working as a team, and we realise the value of that more as we grow...”

“I get to do all this amazing stuff with my best mate,” says Joe. “We are sounding boards for each other and we can vent. It sounds simple, but there’s no one else who can understand what you’re going through.” Jonny nods. “We’re lucky to be working as a team. We realise the value of that more as we grow.”

This Tastemakers interview was published in the June/July issue of Gentleman’s Journal. Get your copy here…

Further Reading