How Two Young Entrepreneurs Used Instagram to Build an Art Empire From Scratch

Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt

Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt

Having a conventional 9-5 job is a luxury to many, unless you are two young dreamers looking for something more. Two recent college graduates, Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt, had the dream of opening an art gallery and selling their artwork. Granted it is not easy market to break into, let alone be successful, Joe and Jonny were determined to leverage the power of Instagram to build their reputation. In a short 3 years, the duo, which originally had no contacts to lean on, successfully developed a network of young, international buyers from Hong Kong, the Middle East, and the U.S. To compliment their expanded network, the young team moved from their initial 300-SF space in Chisick, London to a 4,000-SF space in Soho, London. Joe and Jonny’s business strategy was simple: Do what other art galleries aren’t. In this case, it was social media.

Understanding Their Weakness As Young Entrepreneurs

Two friends that graduated from different universities started their post college careers off with working at an ad agency and working on art. Unhappy with their 9-5 jobs they decided to open their first art studio in Chiswick, London where they began to, slowly but surely, sell their artwork.

“When we started the business, we had no contacts to lean on, we did not know any journalists and we had no funding,” the two entrepreneurs said. The odds were stacked against them. They were losing money and know that they needed to try something different.

Taking Notice Of The Art Industry’s Gaping Hole

In an interview with Business Insider, Joe Kennedy found that, “Most museums and art galleries still think of social media as a plaything for narcissistic teenagers who want to take photos of their breakfast. They don’t take it seriously as a commercial tool.” Both Joe and Jonny recognized an untapped area of the art industry they could capitalize on. By doing so, the two were able to do a good job of dragging the art world into the 21st century.

“Most galleries have marketing strategies that are based around newsletters and adverts in art magazines, but the everyday affluent young person does not buy art magazines. Young people are all on social media, they’re all on Instagram, Facebook.” And so, Jonny and Joe found their target demographic.

Jonny and Joe do still understand the importance of having a physical gallery space as well. “Art is so tactile. Apps like Instagram are just a marketing tool. Collectors will not be satisfied just seeing art online. You have to appreciate art live, in situ. Social media will never replace the physical space in art, but it can support it.” That being said, the two used Instagram simply as a marketing tool rather than a replacement for a physical space.

Promoting Young, Talented And Unknown Artists

Putting an aggressive social media plan into action, they began making deals to promote individual artists both in store and on Instagram. The combination of their marketing strategy and promoting talented individuals quickly grew their reputation. Within three years their follower base grew to 50,000 on Instagram. Joe said, “We’re in so many networks around the world that when we post something to Instagram we’ll potentially sell it there and then. It’s a very strong foundation for our sales. About 50% of our sales are online.”

The Paintguide show was the cherry on top for their social media strategy. It was the world’s first Instagram-curated art exhibition where each piece of art had a QR code underneath, supposedly necessary for the whole experience.

Instagram Curated Art Exhibition

Rising With Celebrity Endorsements

Relocating the gallery to Soho, London made a huge difference. So much so that all of their endorsements came through a simple strategy: foot traffic. Jude Law, Joe Kennedy and Jonny BurtThey said that, “David Bailey is a big supporter, Jude Law is a collector of ours. Jean Paul Gautier and Bob Geldof both like our stuff. Professor Green actually messages us on Instagram; he’s discussing buying a piece to add to his collection.” With the introduction of celebrity endorsements, this was any entrepreneur’s slam-dunk for a successful business. They went on to say that, “Being in the heart of Soho, you attract that sort of crowd, a lot of the time they’ll just be walking past.”

Sticking With Their Original Brand Values

What is really interesting of the two business partners is that they are really trying to build their foundation from the ground up. They prefer to build the profile of artists they currently promote rather than getting household names. “Ryan Hewett is an artist whose profile we’ve really helped develop. We’ve increased Ryan’s market value by over 300% in the last three years. The Ryan Hewitt solo show coming up is probably going to be the biggest we’ve ever done.”

Ryan Hewitt

Never Losing Confidence

Although their journey may seem perfect, the two entrepreneurs say that it hasn’t been easy. Joe said, “We’ve had some low points in the last two years where we’ve been so low. We’ve been sitting on the street without a space and all of our artwork is in a van somewhere. And we’re like: ‘What are we doing with our lives?’ The lows make everything else so much better when you start doing well.”

Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt

Moving forward, the now 26-year-old’s journey hasn’t stopped here. The young duo plans to open a bar at their Soho, London gallery location. There are also plans to go overseas. The Unit could even eventually be an international franchise. “I don’t think franchises have really been done before in the art world,” said Joe.

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