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May 15, 2023

Joe Kennedy and Artnome on Rebuilding the Art World

As RCS collaborates with Unit London on a new show, the gallery’s co-founder shares his experience of bucking the system with Jason Bailey
Credit: LoVid, Stream Processing (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artists and Unit London
Now Reading:  
Joe Kennedy and Artnome on Rebuilding the Art World
Right Click Save is pleased to collaborate with Unit London on “The Pixel Generation,” an exhibition celebrating pixel art as a discourse and aesthetic. This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Jason Bailey: I’m a big fan of what you’re doing, and while I don’t want to make assumptions, I think we probably both feel that art should be expanded to a wider audience. Let’s start with your background — I’m always curious about how people get into art. 

Joe Kennedy: Making art accessible to a wider audience is the driver for us. For the entire team at Unit London, it’s always been about frustration with the art world. I originally came to art through my own painting at school, where I met my co-founder Jonny, and we’ve always appreciated how art fits into a wider conversation about creativity and culture. I think the majority of artists are almost martyrs to creativity, having to struggle to make a living from their work. But, ultimately, I think creativity exists in everyone to varying degrees, and that should be celebrated. 

Probably my first exposure to art was going to see an exhibition of an Irish expressionist painter, Louis Le Brocquy, with my uncle. I was a young kid and I just remember the experience of being in such a grand environment, which felt so strange and different. Back at school, Jonny and I were doing private commissions, making little sales to our friends, nothing special. 

Early on, we had no idea about the art world beyond the experience of taking our work to galleries and being constantly rebuffed. We didn’t enjoy the experience of walking into a big gallery and feeling that we weren’t welcome. 
Installation view of Unit London Digital at Art Dubai, 2023. Courtesy of Unit London

The entire environment: the architecture, the design of the space, the language of the press release, the whole experience felt designed to make you feel small or inferior. Of course, that’s how the contemporary art world builds value into material objects — by manufacturing an elitist culture through a particular kind of artspeak. That was the impetus for us to start Unit London. We were incredibly passionate about supporting artists. But we didn’t like our experience of the art world. 

The gallery grew out of a group exhibition that included our own works in a small pop-up space in West London, a tiny old charity shop that had been empty for nearly six months. We deliberated for a long time about what we wanted to achieve with the gallery, ultimately deciding that we wanted to create a brand that people could identify with based on a new set of conversations around contemporary art. We asked ourselves: how do we introduce unknown artists who maybe didn’t go to the right art schools, or didn’t come from the right families, or whose work wasn’t commercially viable for some reason? How do we give these artists a voice and introduce their work to a mass audience in a way that doesn’t discriminate and is authentic and accessible? 

We went through I don’t know how many names for the gallery, agonizing over every tiny aspect of the Unit London brand — we still do because we want to foster a culture that celebrates artists rather than something more like a dealership. When you say “Unit London,” the first thing you say, phonetically, is “you.” Our first show, “Looking For U,” was really a call out to artists and collectors around London and internationally. 

After a couple of years, we had grown quite a significant following on social media, on Instagram and Facebook in particular. We realized that we could build an online community on the shared experience of an art world that didn’t cater for us. 

We’ve always been incredibly ambitious and, between us, we’ve driven the gallery to where it is today, still fighting the same fight. But as we’ve grown up we’ve had to temper our message a little bit — we’re no longer throwing rocks at the windows of the art world; maybe we’re throwing something softer. But accessibility remains key.

Aleksandra Jovanic, Finity Pool, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Unit London

JB: For me, switching from making my own work to spending a lot of my time focusing on promoting other artists was a bit of a leap. How did you find that transition from sharing your own vision as an artist to amplifying those of others?

JK: I think we are well-suited to working for other artists. For us, there remains a huge creative component when it comes to marketing shows and working with artists to craft their own narratives and build their stories from a curatorial standpoint. A good example is Ryan Hewett, a South African painter and one of the leading artists at the gallery, who had quite a troubled past. He was in our sketchbooks when we were at school, so when we opened our first show back in 2013 we reached out and asked if he had anything that he would like us to sell. 

By chance, he had two little paintings rolled up with a photographer friend in London. He was like: “oh, yeah, just go around to Jeremy’s and pick them up. You can show them, no problem.” We were like kids at Christmas. 

To have the chance to contextualize and sell his work was just amazing. Ryan then had the first solo exhibition we’d ever done at the gallery, which felt like a huge responsibility at the time because we were dealing with his entire body of work despite only being 23 years old with no real idea of what we were doing. We quickly realized that we owe a huge duty of care to provide for our artists and to make sure that we’re presenting their work in the best possible way with a long-term vision in mind. 

In the art world, you can get sucked into going into fairs and schmoozing high-end clients, and we have to do that work in order to get our artists to the next level. What keeps me sane is knowing that the reason we’re doing it is because it is going to have a long-term benefit for our artists. I think I thrive under that pressure. But selling art is no joke — you are dealing with people’s lives and future careers. That’s a huge responsibility that we take very seriously.

Installation view of “In Our Code” (2022) at Unit London with works by Tyler Hobbs, Krista Kim, and Zach Lieberman. Courtesy of Unit London

JB: It’s probably fair to say that galleries don’t always get the recognition they deserve, particularly in the crypto art world where, at least in the beginning, we were kind of like: “well, let’s cut out the middle person.” That followed the logic of cryptocurrency, which got rid of the bank, right? But context is important. Can you speak a bit about what your gallery does to educate and contextualize?

JK: In my view, galleries are there to do two principal things. First, to help situate an artist’s practice in relation to the wider cultural landscape and history. Second, to give artists enough financial stability that they don’t feel pressured to bow to collector demands for a certain number of commissions per year. However, that involves developing their market and audience by introducing their work to the tastemakers of the industry, while ensuring that their work ends up in the right places — galleries, museums, and private collections. 

In order to sell something — a piece of canvas or linen with, in practice, the material value of $500 — for half a million dollars, requires a serious amount of storytelling around it. The old levers to do that were the big curators, museums, and maybe column inches in the broadsheets that would catapult an artist to fame. But today we are seeing a massive decentralization of communication and fragmentation of media channels. That allows artists to build communities on their own without having to rely on the same tastemakers or gatekeepers. 

Obviously, Web3 is premised on an ideology of decentralization and disintermediation, and therefore a move away from the logic of the middleman. But, speaking as objectively as possible, the role of the modern gallery is so much more than just selling work. For me, it’s about building a global community for our artists and making sure that their stories are understood and appreciated in different contexts and with different audiences. Our gallery has become well-known for our use of social media and Instagram to create a more direct dialogue between our artists and the audience. We’ve also shot films of artists talking directly to the audience from their studios. These approaches all help to turn contemporary art into something more like a peer-to-peer form of communication.

Of the crypto artists who found success in 2021 for the first time — who were getting DMs directly from collectors and wondering why they even needed a gallery — many now see the role played by galleries, especially during periods when things aren’t so great. 
Kamau Kamau, Askew III, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Unit London

JB: Back in the 1980s, art was even more of a status symbol and you didn’t have to apologize if you were collecting expensive art. You wanted people to know that it was expensive and that you were part of the 1%. Now that’s seen as pretty gross by the younger generation. There must be a tension between wanting to be hyper-inclusive and offering an experience that feels unique and exclusive.

JK: Before we started the gallery, we would always ask ourselves: “why can’t we just walk in and buy a work if we want to?” Now, as a gallerist, I understand that there is a very fair strategic reason to sell work to certain people, because the way for an artist to develop is by getting into the collections of major museums and into the consciousness of big curators, as well as collectors who can facilitate introductions to museums. As a gallery, we therefore have two duties: one to our artists, which is always going to be fundamental, and then one to ensure that works are also accessible to our mass audience. 

What I do find interesting about Web3 is the new kind of status behavior that has emerged despite the fact that access isn’t necessarily being guarded by anyone. 

There’s no one looking you up and down and judging you, making sure that you’re the right fit. It’s a much freer kind of marketplace. In Web3, the NFTs in your wallet — that everyone can see — serve the same function as a Rothko painting behind the old collector’s desk. Today, a person’s crypto wallet has become their status and their identity. 

But Web3 also involves an entirely new collector base, who might have bought a Fidenza (2021) by Tyler Hobbs on Art Blocks, and can now see him showing with us, and at Pace Gallery in New York. The fact that he’s getting acquired by museums connects people who never felt part of the art world to the industry for the first time. Of course, ultimately, it comes down to the source of the money. Right now, female collectors are becoming much more prominent, which is creating a boom for female artists, who are performing incredibly well and being acquired by museums. The collector base drives the market. 

Installation view of Unit London Digital at Art SG, Singapore, 2023. Courtesy of Unit London

JB: I’m a big believer in the Web3 NFT movement as a space that allows everyone to participate. However, sometimes that inclusivity comes at the cost of the presentation, and folks feel they can just throw stuff together and call it an exhibition, or chuck a bunch of images on a website with no context. For that reason, I appreciate what you guys are doing in Web3, and I’m really excited to be collaborating on an exhibition together. But I’m also mindful of the risk that the young rebels grow to become the very same people they were originally rebelling against. How are you making sure that you stay, sort of, punk rock? 

JK: I mean, no one wants to be the punk rocker still playing gigs — still trying to be down with the kids — when they’re past it. Honestly, that keeps me up at night, because I can see that, as our gallery grows and as our network becomes more closely intertwined with the art world, we need to retain our focus and remember why we’re doing all this. 

The question is: how do you develop your artists without pissing off the entire industry? Because it is a game, and if you really want your artists to get to the next level, you have to maintain your relationships with the gatekeepers. 

That’s where a publication like Right Click Save is so important in providing context and giving recognition to artists historically ignored by the art world. That principle carries into our show, “The Pixel Generation,” which presents work by 14 artists who use pixels to explore digital images as operating systems. Many of the participating artists haven’t been able to participate in the art world until now because of its lack of accessibility. But Web3 has offered them a safe space in which to find their identities and establish a community and a collector base. 

Pixel art has been around for a long time, and it’s an essential backdrop to this new generation of artists and collectors that has grown up with pixels as the building blocks of digital imagery and video games. From our perspective, it’s really important to show people that Web3 is more than empty hype, and that it actually builds on a number of historical movements, including generative art, that have often gone under the radar. Half of the artists in the show produce both curated and long-form generative art, so we’re very excited. 

Kristen Roos, SOLID-STATE, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Unit London

JB: I’m excited too. In fact, the last time I was in London, in 2018, I gave away 300 NFTs with the artist Robbie Barrat as part of Christies’ Art + Tech Summit. Those NFTs ended up selling for a million dollars each or something like that. Maybe, next time, we can make some history together at Unit London, that would be fun. But out of interest, how collegial do you find other galleries today? I imagine it was frosty at the start.

JK: When we first started, obviously, no one knew who we were. Then, as the gallery became more reputable, the prevailing narrative around us was our use of social media. For many years we actually didn’t go to art fairs and we were just selling to people we’d met on Instagram or off the street. As the gallery started to grow, there was a lot of pushback, I can’t deny it, with people basically dismissing us as kids with social media.

I remember doing a talk at The Art Business Conference back in 2015, talking about our journey as a case study. I could feel the tension in the room after my talk. People were throwing bombs at me from the audience — they hated it. 

But now, every single gallery has an Instagram account because they realize how important it is. I’m seeing exactly the same resistance to Web3. But if you don’t adapt and change, you get left behind. 

Installation view of “In Our Code” (2022) at Unit London with works by Casey Reas and Sofia Crespo. Courtesy of Unit London

These days, we still feel like outsiders, but we are also at the dinners and the parties, and participating at art fairs. But we still feel like moles in the industry, seeking to change it. A lot of the people that we’re hiring at the moment have come from blue-chip galleries and they’re just disillusioned. I feel the same sometimes, but that’s when I think of the artists and the history that we can create for them. Because if you’re only in the business for the money, there are so many easier ways to do it. 

Back in 2015, someone broke into our pop-up space in Covent Garden at around two o’clock in the morning. The most telling thing for me was that they stole the computer and left all of the art. I thought to myself: “if I can’t sell it, then they sure as hell won’t be able to sell it.” Sometimes, I have to remember that we’re not selling things that people need, we’re storytelling. Without the story people just don’t get it.

JB: Maybe the thief was just ten years ahead of their time, and they thought there would be a bunch of generative art on the computer. They were thinking: “maybe there’s some Tyler Hobbs?”

JK: That’s exactly what it was. 

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Joe Kennedy founded Unit London in 2013 with Jonny Burt, based on the realization and first-hand experience of the elitism and restrictions of the art world. Today, the gallery has its headquarters in Hanover Square, London, while it also runs a program of exhibitions dedicated to Web3. Joe serves as a patron and committee member of several UK museums and institutions, including Tate, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Serpentine Galleries. In 2019, he was named as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs for his contributions to the global art and culture industries.

Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO.