Q&A: Alex Reuben, independent art gallery owner

Alex Reuben is the owner of an independent contemporary art gallery in Manchester city centre, called Contemporary Six. He launched the business, age 24, in 2010. Since then, he has now moved to a larger, more prominent, gallery space and regularly shows exhibitions of both established and emerging artists.

  1. Tell us about making that decision to set up an art gallery?

From a young age I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, I would regularly get excited with new business ideas and start exploring them only to conclude the idea was probably not going to work. At university while studying Fine Art it became apparent quite quickly that being an artist wasn’t for me (due to a lack of talent!) and at that point I started playing with the idea of making a business out of my passion.

After leaving university I struggled to find a job in the art sector and worked in retail, selling men’s clothes, and I was quickly promoted to assistant manager. During those years I researched my business plan excessively and decided that there was an opportunity to do something I loved that was economically viable.

In some ways it was an easy decision to start the business and to take the plunge as I was 24, living with my parents, with no mortgage or serious bills and no family to support. If I had to make the same decision today now that I’m a father perhaps it would be much more difficult to take the risk. I also knew that if it didn’t work I would have plenty of time to start a new career and repay any debts.

  1. Tell us some of the challenges of setting up your own gallery in the first few years.

Where to start! Initially getting people to visit the gallery proved difficult, the psychology of dealing with the knowledge that my much-considered sales forecast was almost instantly out of reach, working with some problematic artists and finding it difficult as a young-looking 24-year-old to persuade customers to trust my knowledge, especially when selling expensive artworks.

Most worryingly I had paid for a stand at a local art fair which started days after signing the lease for the retail unit. The stand looked great, the customers were there and… I sold nothing. At the first hurdle I lost my confidence.

  1. What were the most important things you learned from that first year?

I knew immediately that this was going to take some serious hard work and commitment. As previously mentioned attracting new customers proved to be a problem so my initial response (due to a lack of advertising budget) was to make sure existing clients felt that they were given superb service and felt confident to keep returning in the knowledge I wasn’t interested in the hard sell but in creating long-lasting relationships with clients.

I think the most important lesson was realising that I would have to adapt to situations and react quickly to opportunities even if it meant moving away from my initial business plan and leaving my comfort zone.

One of the joys of owning a small business is the freedom to make things happen. If an opportunity arises I can make a quick (and considered) decision to move forward with a plan. Larger businesses might need to get the agreement of several people, if I feel an opportunity is beneficial I can act decisively.

  1. Who inspires you in business?

It’s a bit of a cliché but I would have to say my dad. His work ethic has always been inspirational as well as his considered approach to problem solving. 

  1. What are your goals as an entrepreneur and business owner?

I’m very ambitious, I would like my gallery to be considered the number one independent gallery in the North of England. I would love the gallery to be people’s first port of call when deciding to buy a painting of quality and substance. One day I would also like to open a second gallery in London and my ongoing aim is to relax and enjoy the journey.

  1. Do you have business plans, and how often do you go back and adjust them?

Every six months I hold a business meeting with my parents. As I don’t have a boss, I believe it’s important to assess how things are going and to look at future opportunities with people who you respect, who will also be honest and have no direct vested interest. Monthly I re-assess the major projects, as I can’t afford to waste time and to see if there are better opportunities available.

  1. What would you tell yourself eight years ago, when you were just about to set up the business. What would have been the most important advice you could give yourself?

I would have told myself to enjoy the journey, not to sweat the small stuff and to be bold with my decisions.

  1. What is the gallery’s ethos?

My ethos has always been to sell artwork of quality and substance by serious artists at the correct price. Many people have a perception that original art is unaffordable. That is nonsense. Of course we sell high-priced paintings, but we also sell original art by award-winning artists from a few hundred pounds. We are also proud for being known for giving a high level of service and for being open and honest with our clients.