My first boss: NFT art dealer and gallery owner James Ryan

James Ryan moved from selling holidays to the contemporary art and NFT space. Photo: Grove Square Gallery
James Ryan moved from selling holidays to the contemporary art and NFT space. Photo: Grove Square Galleries

James Ryan, 32, started out by working as a holiday rep whilst he was still a teenager. This was followed by short stints as a sports agent and luxury watch seller, But it was in the art world that things really got going for him. He is the founder and CEO of Grove Square Galleries. The west London contemporary art gallery netted US$10 million in revenue in 2021, while Ryan went on to co-found a second gallery, Quantus, in east London, which is Europe’s first NFT advisory, which aims to be at the forefront of a $40bn industry.

Hakan Korkmaz led from the front and that skill has stayed with me to this day.

Hakan was my boss when I was working for First Choice Holidays as a rep. I lied on my application as I wasn’t over 18 at the time but when I was invited to an X-Factor type sales day, I did well enough that they booked my flight a few months later.

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I was working in Turkey in a resort called Aqua Fantasy and they soon clocked my age, but luckily they kept me on. I was running, along with three others, the biggest hotel in Turkey at the time and managing all the guests. It was a big responsibility for an 18-year-old and Hakan mentored me in a new, daunting country for someone who was wet behind the ears.

He gave me an understanding of the culture, the essence of working hard and introduced me to important people to make my time easier. Most importantly, however, he taught me to sell. He was customer-friendly first and people would warm and trust him. He built rapport but it was never forced and that resulted in sales.

James Ryan set up Grove Square Gallery during the pandemic after shifting from the luxury watch industry. Photo: Grove Square
James Ryan set up Grove Square Gallery during the pandemic after shifting from the luxury watch industry. Photo: Grove Square

The hotel clients ranged from a newly married couple, who had a big row and wanted to check out, to people who had had serious accidents and needed somewhere to recuperate. Yet Hakan was calm under pressure, softly-spoken and inspirational.

I did presentations about excursions on stage in front of 300 people and I earned commission for every trip I sold.

I was at First Choice for three seasons. I got the travel bug and I ventured to Greece and Spain, as well as getting into mining equipment brokering in South Africa and Botswana. When I came back to the UK I worked for a sports management agency in Scotland before entering the luxury watch industry.

I was in the process of purchasing a watch shop, but the sticking point came with the huge outlay on stock, which was either through investment or sale or return.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 22: James Ryan, Serena Dunn, Jack Whitehall and Roxy Horner attend the Elena Gual: AURA Private View at Grove Square Galleries on September 22, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Grove Square Galleries)
James Ryan and art director Serena Dunn, left, pose with Jack Whitehall and Roxy Horner at Grove Square Galleries. Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images

My business partner at the time, Harry, said we should consider art for the premises. He suggested working with the artists, and taking a cut of every sale, as we wouldn't have the problem with security and premiums that comes with watches. I met a talented artist called Finn Stone and we set up a company structure and sold his work for him. That was a success and three months later we moved into Grove Square Gallery, despite it being during the pandemic.

I’m also now the co-owner of a digital art gallery, Quantus, specialising on NFTs. It’s an industry I won’t leave as I love the journey of art.

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During the pandemic we started to conduct virtual tours of the gallery, which we expanded to our database and on social media. We would never have sold to Japan, Australia, US and Canada so quickly otherwise.

Last May we hired Serena Dunn as an art director. She previously ran the Halcyon Gallery in Harrods. There were other galleries during the pandemic which didn’t have online as part of their business plan and we were able to snap up some really talented people in the space.

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Because we keep the number of artists on our books quite lean, we can give them attention and provide them with solo and group shows. As a result we are looking to put on shows every six weeks, to add to the digital foundation we have already built.

A lot of entrepreneurs have been born out of the pandemic and are willing to take risks. There are sacrifices to make along the way; it might be less family time, doubts from your close network, and the stress and the heavy workload can lead into anxiety. I have experienced all those things. It’s not for the faint hearted, but Hakan certainly gave me that confidence to survive.

Shoreditch's Quantus Gallery is Europe’s first NFT advisory service and physical gallery