It seems every art gallery has responded to exhibition cancellations during the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown by launching virtual galleries and online experiences for audiences missing an art fix. But Unit London, a contemporary art gallery with locations in London’s Mayfair and Covent Garden, had a digital head start and is now building a sense of community for artists and art lovers who can no longer exhibit, view and socialise in person.

Artists Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt met in school art class and went on to found Unit London in 2013. The gallery uses new technologies and pioneering approaches to digital media and artworks to diversify and expand contemporary art audiences. While it welcomes tens of thousands of visits through its physical doors every year, it boasts an estimated digital reach of 12 million worldwide and 498,000 Instagram followers.

Kennedy explains: “Since we started we’ve always been championing the power of online having a transformative effect on the industry, the importance of social media, and creating content and building stories and narratives online around the artist in the shows. We’ve always been viewed as these digital kids who are coming in trying to disrupt the industry.

“As millennials, we’re used to social media and know that people are on it the whole time to the level of addiction. The way that we communicate and behave and share content and even exist; a lot of it happens on those platforms now and if you’re not bringing art to those platforms, then you’re missing an opportunity to widen the audience base for contemporary art.”

Unit London coronavirus art virtual gallery
Artists Jonny Burt (left) and Joe Kennedy, who co-run Unit London

Social media and virtual galleries driven by the coronavirus

Kennedy says it took a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic to make more traditional outlets see they should be putting more focus on social media.

“It’s not just about the physical space and traditional art fair system anymore; you have to have to place real importance on social media in your digital strategy because otherwise, you’re missing out,” he says.

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“But it’s just so ridiculous that it’s taken this situation for these galleries to suddenly all open up online viewing rooms and start doing discussions on Instagram and Q&As and live-streams when we’ve been doing it for so long. But it’s a great thing for the industry because I think it’s going to open up the doors for new collectors and new audiences to get involved.”

Unit London: Breaking elitism amid the coronavirus

Kennedy and Burt went their separate ways after school but met up through shared frustration at trying to break into art careers and being rejected by galleries and a community they saw as being ruled by elitism. They realised some great artists don’t get the chance to show their work because they simply don’t have the contacts or the right connections to get into the big galleries.

“Most galleries are not set up for like mass engagement,” says Kennedy. “The public sector is great; museums are brilliant because they’re attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year and there’s a big focus on the public. But commercial galleries set themselves up by using language and gallery designs and formats that alienate people, especially poor people.

“We wanted to turn this on its head and be anti-elitist; to be welcoming, be human. Give people an opportunity to have direct contact with the artists whether that be through video, podcasts and all the tools that are available to us now to create that direct link between artists and enthusiasts or collectors.”

One way Unit London is helping break that elitism is through Unit Drops, which offers limited-edition print releases starting at £80 by artists, whether represented by the gallery or not.

“It’s this idea of being able to kind of get out into people’s homes at a lower price point and start them off on that journey of collecting. Oftentimes it will be big collectors who want to buy a limited-edition print they have it somewhere else at home and they want a print to give away or put in the loo.”

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Day 3 into Quarantine…

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Creating a sense of community through art

Unit London was already set up for an easy transition to online browsing and purchasing, but is now additionally using Instagram to provide something else artists and art lovers are missing at this time; a sense of community. The first initiative, #LivingWithArt, was created for people who are at home under lockdown to celebrate the art that they own and love.

“We had the insight that people stuck at home are living with art on their walls,” explains Kennedy. “It doesn’t have to be by an important artist; it can be just something that inspires you every day.

“We asked people to take a photo of a piece of art that inspires them at home and tag the artist, tag the gallery and hashtag #LivingWithArt and nominate five friends to do the same and we repost it. Off the back of that, we had thousands of people like mega collectors, huge international art dealers, as well as artists, enthusiastic people at home families, who were sharing stuff that’s on their walls. It’s a really nice way to underline the importance and the role that art has to play in these times, which is about community and bringing people together.”

The other campaign, #HereforU exposes Unit London’s Instagram followers to emerging talent and artists who do not have a gallery.

“We identified a problem for artists that might have had shows cancelled or have lost that infrastructure and exposure as a result of people not being out and about,” says Kennedy.

“That could be just not engaging with the artistic community, not getting feedback on their work, not getting the validation that they need. Giving them that platform by us posting on our social channels will drive a huge amount of traffic to their page to give them a shot in the arm and nice feedback from collectors, fellow artists and people in the community.”

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Tonight, we launch our new quaran-time initiative, #LivingWithArt. The aim of the project is to encourage as many people as possible to share and celebrate the artworks that they wake up to each day at home, which inspire, challenge, soothe or move them. There are no criteria; it could be a doodle from your toddler, a sculpture by an old friend, or a painting from an artist you collect. We want to see the art that makes U smile. It’s easy to get involved. Simply share photos of your art at home as an insta story, and be sure to tag @unitlondon and hashtag #LivingWithArt, challenging five friends to the same! We will repost as much as we can on our stories over the coming days and weeks. To kick things off, here‘s our favourite furball @bearofmayfair, posing in front his favourite painting by American artist Les Rogers. #LivingWithArt

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Hybrid online lectures, dog included

The team has also launched a one-of-a-kind hybrid online lecture initiative checking in with artists and asking them “How Are U?”

“The really great thing about this time is that we can connect our audience directly to our artists and they can speak about their day-to-day lives” explains Kennedy. “When you go to a gallery and see a show, it’s all perfectly hung on the walls and it’s completely definitely silent. It’s a different context to where the artwork was created; often you’re experiencing and understanding the work through the mouthpiece of the gallery.

“What we’ve been doing is trying to connect people with the artists by getting into their studios doing video interviews. When you understand the artist in their day-to-day practice, when you know what they have for breakfast, when you know their views on current world events and politics, when you know their thoughts on this situation and how it has affected their families, you then understand their work so much better.”

The only real-world experience art lovers will have to wait for is meeting old English sheepdog Rafa, Unit London’s adorable gallery dog.

“Rafa is basically in charge here. He sits in reception all day and brings people in. He’s just the loveliest guy,” says Kennedy. “It’s funny because in all the depictions of big old salon galleries in the 17th and 18th century there were always dogs around and there was a convivial atmosphere you just don’t get in big galleries these days. When you walk into Unit London you have Rafa bounding up to you saying hello, it makes people feel comfortable.”

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