From Concierge to Connoisseur: Carlomar Rios’s Journey

The New York-based collector explains how research, relationships and diligent list-making shape his approach to acquiring art

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BY Carlomar Rios AND Marko Gluhaich in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 13 MAY 22

While working in Miami, Carlomar Rios was gifted an art-fair VIP card and jumpstarted his journey to becoming a passionate collector. Now based in New York, Rios talks to frieze associate editor Marko Gluhaich about his most memorable purchases, the importance of making lists and why good relationships matter more than money alone.

Marko Gluhaich Could you tell me about how you got into collecting?

Carlomar Rios I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and later lived in Miami, where I worked as a pool server at a hotel while I was attending college. In 2006, I was working in a VIP section during the week of Art Basel Miami Beach. This one guest with whom I had more extensive conversations about the fair gave me his VIP card when he left because he had noticed how curious I was about that event. 

I went the next day and, oh my god, it was something new and different. All this energy, this creative output — I was hooked. I was there for a few hours and, being the type of person I am, within the next few days went and bought all the art magazines I could get my hands on. When I opened those magazines, I was like, whoa, I don’t understand this, but I love it. I thought it would be amazing to become a collector, but remembered reading that you should wait at least a year before your first purchase and do some research. I decided I was going to give myself a year to research and save some money. I bought my first piece at the end of that year, and 16 years later, here I am!

Sonia Gomes, Caracol, 2019; Photograph: Alec Vierra  ​
​Sonia Gomes, Caracol, 2019

MG Did you have an interest in art before that first trip to Art Basel Miami Beach?

CR No, because I had never been exposed to it, but I have always been curious about design and architecture. I love how art transforms when you bring it into the home: it starts a dialogue with the space.

MG How did you prepare to return to Miami the following year?

CR I did my research and reached out to the directors of galleries that piqued my interest. I sent them emails and made calls in order to start a relationship by the time I went. I thought that that way, even if they thought that I was young, they’d remember me and perhaps take me more seriously.

MG What was the first artwork you acquired? How did you decide on it?

CR It was a photograph by Walead Beshty, one of his fold pieces. What I had read about him and the abstract nature of the work itself convinced me — it being within my budget helped, too.

MG Can you tell me about your grouping process? I know that you’re an avid list-maker.

CR If I’m interested in an artist, I’ll see which other figures are exploring similar themes or issues. I was reading a magazine once about artists from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and it was the first time I came across Victor Man — I thought, wow, this work is good. But he was already beyond my price point. So, I researched other artists in his circle and found Adrian Ghenie and Ciprian Muresan, who is very conceptual but also does these great drawings. Then I asked myself: which artists are right for my collection?

I’ve always had these lists — I got this from my mother. I have lists of exhibitions that I want to go to and of what I’m interested in: emerging, mid-career and older artists, artists that I shouldn’t be collecting because their work isn’t right for my space, even if I love it. If an artist’s name appears multiple times I know to pay more attention. The Brazilian artist Erika Verzutti is one example. I saw her work in a group show at Andrew Kreps in New York in 2014–15 and also at SculptureCenter in 2015. At the time, I couldn’t acquire her work, but I kept looking into it. I knew I couldn’t collect her large or heavy bronze works, but maybe her wall pieces? Fast forward to 2019: I was on vacation in Paris and visited Verzutti’s show at the Centre Pompidou, which deepened my appreciation for her work. Frieze New York was coming up a month later. To my surprise, Andrew Kreps gallery, which I have had the pleasure of working with before, was showing a new papier-mâché wall piece by the artist. I spoke to the gallery staff at the booth, paced back and forth to see the work from different angles and had a minor anxiety attack before fully accepting I was going to go for it. Verzutti continues to appear on my lists.

MG You moved from Miami to New York in 2010. What motivated that?

CR I read, research and write notes about art every day: I breathe art. It’s a passion that makes me happy and keeps me going. Because of this interest, I decided to move to New York, where the art scene is more expansive than in Miami. I am able to visit more galleries in person and talk to staff about their projects, which I always love doing.

MG Are there places you go to often to discover emerging artists?

CR Commercial galleries are one route. Maxwell Graham shares my interest in conceptual art: I don’t think anyone’s doing what he does as a gallerist here in New York. After so many years of collecting, I have learned that everything goes back to the relationships you have established, where you can have open conversations about who the new artists are in the gallery program and what shows are coming up. Sometimes, the best places to find these new voices are non-profit spaces. New York has so many wonderful non-profits: Artists Space, SculptureCenter and The Kitchen, to name a few. One of the best shows I saw at Artists Space was by Cameron Roland in 2016: I still get goosebumps. And I remember The Kitchen’s 2018 show “A Recollection. Predicated.”, which displayed one of Sondra Perry’s early video pieces next to a work by Carolyn Lazard.

On wall: Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2019; Photograph: Alec Vierra
On wall: Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2019

MG What’s your most recent purchase?

CR There are two: a piece by Adriano Costa — which is challenging and full of references, it pushes you as a viewer — and a sculpture by Sung Tieu, which I had a strong gut feeling about. I sometimes like to follow my gut instinct and acquire pieces by artists who I find very interesting but who maybe haven’t been working for long or are new to me. Those purchases keep my “collecting spark” alive. I try to balance them with more thoughtful acquisitions by established artists to have a more focused collection. With Costa, a contemporary Brazilian artist who I’ve liked for a long time, it was important to me to find the right piece.

MG How do you decide which works are right for you?

CR I remember reading advice from the art dealer Philippe Ségalot, who said that collectors should ignore the question of space and simply buy the best work, without setting any limits on size. In a way, I agree with him, though I try not to acquire too many large works, as I won’t be able to display them all at home. If I buy a big painting, I want to be able to live with it, to have it on my wall.

A while back, I went to Maxwell Graham gallery and saw this amazing work by Park McArthur. I didn’t understand it completely, but I knew that there was something special about the piece. I figured that something so important belonged in a museum, and not in my collection. That same work was later acquired by a New York museum. A few years later, I saw another piece, by the artist Diamond Stingily, and thought the same thing: it should be in a museum. It was large and tough, but this time I felt that I could be the custodian of a museum-quality work. I was mature enough — I could do it. That process was part of my evolution as a collector.

Another time, I was researching artists including Jordan Casteel, Eric Mack and Jennifer Packer, who were all coming out from Yale. I found a beautiful, large drawing by Packer at Sikkema Jenkins; I loved it, but it was too big — even for storage — so I had to turn it down. Saying no is very tough, but it’s important to stay focused and be realistic about what you can and cannot collect. A few months later, Packer was showing a painting at a group exhibition in Los Angeles. It was a new work, not too large, and I was able to acquire it. Even though it was above my budget, I took out a loan to cover the amount I didn’t have and made it happen. Sometimes, you attract the things that you really want. It’s those experiences — journeys that seem to be connected by a common thread — that are the most fun.

Erika Verzutti
On wall: Erika Verzutti, Headlines, 2020

MG Your journey could be instructive to both young collectors and those who think that buying art requires a high income. What advice do you have for those with an interest in collecting?

CR I’m just a normal, 9-to-5 guy who became a collector. My own journey is a great example that you don’t need to have a lot of money to build an art collection. It’s about cultivating relationships, meeting with gallerists in person or calling them on the phone and showing genuine interest. Gallerists know when someone is truly invested in knowing why an artist works the way they do or what a particular show is about.

It also takes time to train your eye, but if you are dedicated and have the curiosity to learn you can become a great collector. I think the most intriguing collectors, and the type of collector I try to be, are the ones who take the time to research and study the artists they are interested in and think about which works are a good fit for their collections. They mix works by top artists with pieces by lesser-known ones. Not all works need to be fit for the Whitney Museum or Museum of Modern Art. During a panel discussion in 2014, the art-market specialist Amy Cappellazzo had amazing advice that I try to follow: “Buy something you love, followed by something that terrifies you and makes you uneasy [...] You should be forced to grow.”

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2022 under the headline “Sentimental Education”.

Main image: Carlomar Rios in his home in New York, 2022. All images courtesy: Carlomar Rios; photographs: Alec Vierra

Carlomar Rios is a professional concierge and art collector. He lives in New York, USA.

Marko Gluhaich is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

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