Colin Rhys has got it figured out. At 23, he has successfully launched and promoted his own art gallery, and hops planes — whenever he feels like it, really — to far-off destinations to sling art to his many clients around the globe. He’s got no boss, no bedtime, and certainly nothing better to do.
Rhys owns and operates Rhys Gallery, in Boston’s elite, artsy South End. It’s an open, airy, 2,500 sq. ft. street-corner gallery that exhibits mostly paintings and 3D installations by artists from all over the world. It’s on the far fringes of the neighborhood — right across from the biggest homeless shelter in town — but he could care less about local clientele. When you’ve got buyers and artists waiting on you from Moscow, Berlin or Dubai, who would?
Essentially, Rhys — a youngin’ by age but a cool, calculated and driven businessman by rhetoric — sells art. He’s the middleman — the guy who hooks up with artists to sell their art for them. It may seem trivial, but Rhys makes it an art. He makes it cool.
A San Francisco native, Rhys comes from humble beginnings. Four years ago, he was selling artwork out of his little studio apartment for $300 a piece, if that. Today, it’s no big deal for him to sell a piece to a collector in Los Angeles for a slim $40,000.
Kicked back comfortably in his "office chair" inside a tiny niche behind a drywall in his gallery — he hides out back there to cut costs on unnecessary additional office space — Rhys sporadically checks his email and voicemail. He apologizes profusely, and in a tone that somehow conveys that he actually gives a shit about making me wait just another two minutes or so. He’s wearing tailored jeans and a sweatshirt, and sports a 5 o’clock shadow just to tack on a few years for good measure.
We sit down together — legs cramped and nearly sandwiched by two walls over 10 feet tall — to chat about the business of art, and what it’s like to be the young guy on the block.
Are you an artist yourself?
No, I’m just in the business of slinging art. I don’t believe in dealers that make art. I think it’s a really bad, dangerous situation, because what’s your agenda, you know? What’s your motive? If you’re an artist, are you trying to get your work into the gallery? Or if you’re a gallery director, why are you making art? Why aren’t you out schmoozing, meeting clients? I get really worked up about this, actually. I’ve had a lot of friends get fucked over doing it. My agenda is to sell as much work as possible, and selling and making money is a part of that. And it’s my only agenda.
So why, then, the business of art?
Well, my background was a double degree in business and in art — I went to Tufts and the Museum School — and marketing is my life. There are actually some artists that won’t work with me, because I push their work way too hard. I push their work like you would be launching a new product for a new company. I mean, that’s what you have to do. When you’re introducing an artist, let’s push the romance aside — this is a product you are selling. The artist is the person — that’s the vision. And the combination of the two — of your vision and their vision put together — is what the collector is buying, at least in my opinion. So I think that’s how we were able to get to this point.
How did you get started?
I was living in this little loft, paying rent, and it was really stupid. So I wrote up a plan for my parents; we put 10 percent down, and we bought the place. I was working another job at French Connection to make money for the basics costs. I started the whole thing in my loft, and grew and grew and grew it. Rhys Gallery was me at that point — for 2 and a half years I didn’t have any employees. I did the hanging, the postcard stamps, all that shit! Rhys Gallery was just some kid’s loft and his name and his vision. Then I started getting, like, 350 people coming to my openings.
What, in essence, is your gallery all about?
Well, it started as a project to provide people with an experience that wasn’t available anywhere else in Boston. I learned that people were really going to New York City to have this "real" experience, not just to see small photos on the wall. So when I built this space, it was my driving vision to bring in non-regional artists, and people who are unique.
How do you make your money?
Consignment. The artist will come to me with a painting and say, "I want to get $1,000 for it." So that means I’m going to sell it for $2,000. I take a thousand and they take a thousand. Simple as that.
So how exactly do you hook up with all these artists from around the world?
Get on a plane, bro. I went to Dubai last year. I was over there for an art fair, recruiting artists. And that makes peoples heads turn, like they say, "Damn, you flew 16 hours?" Yeah, man! Fuck it. I guess that’s where my age comes in. Like if I was 60 and didn’t have a private jet, I probably wouldn’t be doing that. But I’m all about the briefcase, the suit bag, and running through the airport. I love that shit, man. Jet-setting all of the time? Hell yeah! And you get to expense it. Plus I get to bring in huge diversity into the gallery.
You’re a young guy. You’ve got to admit — it’s pretty amazing how well you’ve done in only a few years, don’t you think so?
You know, people say that, but when you look at the art world, I think its one of the only industries, beside tech, where people are in the game at this age. You don’t really need a physical space right off the bat. You just need a good personality and a vision for work. It’s a relationship business. Using the internet, you can start off a fucking laptop and make a billion dollars! Now the art world is not like that, but you can get your foot in the door. People may not take you as seriously, but it’s definitely possible.
Well, you’ve come this far. So what’s next?
I’m getting really freaked out by this U.S. economy, because what goes first? Disposable income. And what goes first from disposable income? The most expensive, non-useful goods, which, in this case, is art. People will start to methodically eliminate stuff, and mark my word, art will be the first thing that suffers. So how am I going to counteract that? I’m making more phone calls to my UK collectors and saying "Hey! You’re buying this on 50 cents on the fucking dollar! Let’s do it. Let’s do two pieces right now!" I’m international now, like I’m going to Moscow in May to sell some stuff. I’m going to have a larger international focus and highlight the fact that now’s the time to buy good art from here. I mean, fuck, there’s not enough money in the United States anymore. If I’m going to fly seven hours, I’ll go to Berlin, not to San Francisco or something.