How to Start an Art Gallery

How to Start an Art Gallery

Starting any business is a nerve wracking, grey-hair inducing, marathon of stress and sleepless nights. The owners behind Massey Lyuben know this all too well; in late 2015, the art gallery opened in Chelsea – which is pretty much the fine art epicentre of New York City (which is pretty much the fine art epicentre of the world). That’s a grand stage for making a big entrance.

We had a chat with the ladies Ryan Massey and Radi Lyuben about the steps involved in starting a gallery – which turn out to be applicable for any young business…  

Gallery owners, Ryan Massey and Radi Lyuben in New York (Jon Paul & Naya Ureña Rodriguez)

First, find a passion, and one that goes deep

Massey and Lyuben share a lifelong love for art. Massey’s mother was a trained architect, and growing up in Virginia she was surrounded by mum’s sketchbooks and art history tomes. “When I was little, I’d ‘read’ the images, trying to figure out their larger context” explains Ryan. Radi was born and raised in Bulgaria, and her brother is an artist. “I honestly can’t remember a time I wasn’t surround by, and in love with, art.”

A piece from Massey Lyuben: Elly Smallwood / Maliha 48 x 48 Oil on Canvas

Next, know the business and admin side of things

Radi and Ryan were fortunate, because while many creative types cringe at number crunching, these two shared not only a passion for art but a solid grounding in business. Radi received her BA in Economics from University of National and World Economy in Sofia, before moving stateside to attend Business School at Brooklyn College (followed by an MA in Museum Studies at City College).

“I honestly can’t remember a time I wasn’t surround by, and in love with, art.”

Radi Lyuben

Ryan received great training in project managing big budget creative endeavors working at Bjarke Ingels Group, as EA to Bjarke himself. Currently, the Danish architect is designing Two World Trade Center, and his previous high profile projects include elaborate geodesic dome designs for Google HQ, the 8 House in Denmark (a 61,000 square metre mixed use residential work space that’s so innovative they made a documentary about it), and The Dryline project to redress structural vulnerabilities of NYC exposed by Hurricane Sandy. Ryan says she is really glad she was also able to work with the BIG partners based in NYC, including CEO Sheela Soegaard and director of Business Development, Kai-Uwe Bergmann. “Sheela and Kai taught me the importance of the administrative and outreach side of business, which has been invaluable”. Bjarke inspired her to be bold and go out on her own. “He started BIG when he was really young and threw himself into it 100% - I’m trying to do the same.” 

Inside gallery (Jon Paul & Naya Ureña Rodriguez)
Inside gallery (Jon Paul & Naya Ureña Rodriguez)

Test the waters

From the time they met (working at a Midtown gallery), the duo were daydreaming of opening their own gallery. While they bided their time learning the trade, they tested the waters – of both the art market, and working together – with a blog called The Art Salad. Their stated mission is one Semi-Permanent can get behind fully – “Collecting art should be fun and approachable, not intimidating or overwhelming”. 


Carve your niche

“We love contemporary art and design” explains Ryan, “but also wanted to stay true to our first passion: figurative painting and sculpture”. Staying focused made it easier for Massey Lyuben to develop a distinctive personality, and character. The duo also stick with emerging and mid-career artists, giving their roster a cohesive identity.  

Martine Johanna / My Phantom Limbs

And when developing your identity, make sure to look after the fine details. 

Radi says they worked closely with the designer on all their branding, to develop a logo, “that represents the idea of curating works”. “If you look at the ML design, you’ll see three dark gray lines representing canvases that have been pulled for installation.” For the branding work, Radi enlisted the help of a good friend, who also happens to be a very talented designer, Faiz Hussain. “He’s a Scottish designer who runs a small, transnational design consultancy, Creation & Practice” – and this brings us to our next point… 

The Massey Lyuben Gallery (Jon Paul & Naya Ureña Rodriguez)

Get good people

Ryan notes the obvious building blocks for a great gallery are, “Good artwork and artists that are eager to work… But in my case, having a really good business partner helped tremendously”. Every step of the way, Ryan and Radi were side-by-side; throughout studio visits, contract reviews, installations “schlepping odds and odds and ends to the gallery at all hours of the day, keeping each other present and clear-minded… you name it.”  

Don’t forget that as important as it is to have great people making and selling, it’s also important to have excellent people on the receiving end – work with great clientele. “We love our artists and our collectors” Radi enthuses, “so that made [all the hard work] worthwhile”. 

The first piece arrives (Ryan Massey)

Maintain great relationships 

For this to happen, “you must genuinely love to work with people” Radi points out. It’s essential to communicate clearly and honestly, especially in this industry. “Acquiring art is a very intimate experience,” Radi says. “We’re a young gallery, so trust is an essential component to the success of our business and the loyalty of our collectors is paramount.”

“We also have to maintain great relationships with the artists we represent” adds Ryan. “It’s our job to help develop their careers. We’re committed to their artistic growth, be it through private collections, public works, and future museum shows”. Radi agrees wholeheartedly, sighting female pioneer Marian Goodman as a big inspiration. “Her method of running a gallery is the standard we strive to achieve. She works with artists for an average of 15+ years and is fully devoted to their careers. She has dedicated her life to art and is now one of the most respected and influential women in the business.”

"Trust is an essential component to the success of our business and the loyalty of our collectors is paramount."

Radi Lyuben


Location, location, location

When they found a great space in Chelsea, Radi says they just couldn’t pass it up. “It’s the heart of the art world… The area has so much to offer and it’s incredibly inspirational to work so geographically close to some of the biggest names in the business”. Ryan couldn’t agree more, saying her top picks for NYC art are a Chelsea art crawl, along with the new Renzo Piano-designed Whitney, “it has an outstanding collection and their restaurant, Untitled, is phenomenal”. Radi enthuses about the Highline’s public art, as well as the galleries of the Lower East Side. 


And lastly, be prepared to work overtime 

Talk about hustle and bustle… before the space even opened, both Radi and Ryan were still doing double duty between their ‘other’ jobs and their new venture, in the city that never sleeps.  “Ha, there was about a month and a half that I was working around the clock, splitting my time between both places!” exclaims Ryan. “It was tough, but I made it work. Radi and I spent the entire first month working apart – she’d be in the gallery when I was at BIG and when I was in the gallery, she was closing up at her old position”. Fortunately – or unfortunately? – modern technology means you can keep working on your new endeavor 24/7. “We joke that Google Chat made it all possible, but it’s true – we were constantly in touch with each other about the gallery”.

 

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