- James Ryan is the founder of Grove Square Galleries, an art gallery that champions social causes.
- Ryan talked to Insider about carving a space in the exclusive industry without any experience.
- This is part of Insider’s entrepreneur series “Star, Rising,” which highlights early entrepreneurs.
Name: James Ryan
to Age: 32
Location: London, England
Business: A contemporary art gallery that champions social causes like climate change and food insecurity.
But as people were laid off, he was able to rapidly hire because of the UK job retention scheme, in which struggling businesses could furlough employees without having to let them go and the government would pay 80% of their wages temporarily, up to a maximum limit. “There were a lot of people being made redundant, let go from competitive places, even auction houses,” he said, adding he was able to hire those workers who were furloughed.
Launching an online gallery helped Ryan acquire customers throughout Europe and the Americas, and as lockdowns eased, in-person opening events helped bring back the ritzy flare of the art world.
Seeking to do something “worthwhile,” Ryan said the gallery wants to champion and advise artists who are often unnoticed or dismissed. The gallery also donates a portion of its sales to the charities of the artists’ choice, such as Fauna and Flora International, the world’s oldest wildlife conservation charity. Now, Ryan — who doesn’t have a background in art — is part of a rising crop of entrepreneurs redefining an industry long known for being exclusive.
Growth: The gallery netted $10 million in revenue in 2021, according to documents seen by Insider, and aims to double that number by the end of this year. Since the gallery’s inception, Ryan has signed six artists exclusively, including Jim Naughten, Orlanda Broom, and Elena Gaul. The gallery also hosted six exhibitions in 2021, the latest one by Emma Thynn, who is Britain’s first Black marchioness, which is a noble title given to the spouses of British aristocrats known as marquesses. Proceeds from the event went to the vegan charity Food for Life Global.
Before Grove Square Galleries: He worked for a property business where he helped homeowners rent units on booking platforms such as Airbnb. “It just didn’t fulfill me,” he said. He never went to college and worked as a bank teller before becoming a travel agent at 17. He had stints selling luxury watches and looked at being a sports agent. “I’ve always tried different things,” he said.
Challenges: Ryan had to build a reputation for the gallery fast in order to find artists to represent. Additionally, he had financial troubles in the beginning, as the venture was self-funded. “Everything’s been done on being very frugal,” he said.
Business advice: “Believe in what you’re doing,” he said. “You really have to have a huge amount of passion for it; really believe in that vision.”
Business mentor: He admires investor Peter Jones, saying he likes the way Jones conducts himself in board meetings. Ryan described him as calm, cool, and calculated, in addition to being passionate about the projects he funds.
Why now is the best time to start a business: Ryan believes it’s an especially good time to start a digital business, because there’s a massive amount of opportunity and access to resources that make doing so easier. “We’ve gone through this pandemic. You’ve had a job that you haven’t enjoyed doing,” he said. “What else have you got to lose?”
On hiring: There are 20 people working at the art gallery full time right now. He hasn’t had trouble getting people to work for him, as the government’s furlough scheme helped him find young talent in need of work. That ended in September, and he’s still planning to hire more people this year.
On managing burnout: Ryan takes time to do sports and leans on his support network, including his fiancée and children, to get by. In the gallery office, there is table tennis and music playing all the time. “We’re always talking, always having a laugh,” he said.