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Upstart | Alex Tryon, Artsicle

Upstart | Alex Tryon, Artsicle

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Many novice art collectors don't have big budgets. That's not an issue for this 20-something entrepreneur's affordable art rental site, Artsicle.

Although she places artwork on other people's walls for a living, Alex Tryon believes the last reason anyone should invest in a painting, photograph or other piece of art is for the potential resale value.

The dirty secret of the art business is that less than 1 percent of all contemporary art is resold for profit.

"Don't think of it like an investment, think of it as something that will bring you joy and improve your life. When it's served its purpose, it's served its purpose. It's OK to move on," says the 26-year-old co-founder of Artsicle, an Internet startup in New York that rents the work of relatively unknown artists to both individuals and (more recently) corporate clients looking to add dimension to sterile office spaces.

With her fresh-scrubbed complexion, wavy brunette bob and casual, prep-school wardrobe adorned only with a simple marcasite owl necklace and discreet nose stud, the self-described tomboy seems an unlikely art dealer.

And that is one reason Artsicle has gained notoriety so quickly on the New York art scene – it doesn't seem threatening. Its Netflix-like rental model could actually benefit traditional galleries because it helps build visibility for the artists they represent. At the same time, it makes art collecting far more accessible for amateur art enthusiasts who might otherwise be priced out of the market.

"We are certainly not competing with Chelsea," Tryon Says. "And Sotheby's and Christie's see us as building out new collections, so that we are doing the hard work of getting people to start collecting in their 20's and 30's."

We chat surrounded by pieces being staged for shipment to clients in Artsicle's modest headquarters space located south of Union Square. Many are smallish canvases rendered in oil, charcoal or pastels, although the small sculpture adjacent to the table where we sit makes use of brightly colored LEGO pieces. Several computer workstations are nestled near the bright light of the unadorned windows. There, the company's small staff huddles, debating a technical change.

As is the case with many entrepreneurs, Tryon's tale is one of a new business built to address a personal frustration. As an entry-level employee at American Express, she frequented the flea market scene and even won a silent auction. But when she took to visiting galleries with specific purchases in mind, few took her seriously as a potential collector, turning up their noses at her budget. That got her wondering how new work was actually finding its way out of showrooms into real living rooms and hallways.

"My art history degree for me became a history degree. It became a lens through which I could see the world," she says.

She and co-founder Scott Carleton - Tryon's long-time personal partner who shares her passion for art - began toying with the idea for a microfinance site to help new artists fund their work. That idea morphed into Artsicle, which aims to benefit both new artists and novice collectors.

The couple launched the venture with money Tryon was saving for her MBA and pretty much everything else they had saved, short of their retirement savings. Technical guru Carleton (trained as a nuclear engineer) built out the site's interface and database system, while Tryon assumed business development responsibilities, quitting her Amex day job just one day before the site launched in December 2010.

Two years later, there are now more than 3,000 works in the online inventory – representing approximately 150 artists personally chosen by Tryon and the company's half-dozen full-time employees.

There are no rules for picking new artists – no quotas, no preferred media, no exclusives - other than this: these are not weekend hobbyists.

Here's part of the Artsicle mission: "We believe in artists. Real, hard working artists who put their souls in to their artwork everyday. Artists who can't imagine being anything but an artist, who would paint or sculpt or photograph no matter whether anyone paid them - but who create and who deserve to make a living. We believe artists are valuable members of our community and work to support them."

Tryon adds this caveat: there must be a potential audience. "We don't try to bring on work just because we love it. We bring it on because 'Yes, we love it,' but more importantly because we can place it."

The terms Artsicle uses are straightforward. The monthly rental fees are determined by size: $25 for a small work, $35 (medium) and $65 (large), plus a $5 insurance fee that covers everything except "mysterious disappearance."

Artists receive a cut of that amount, and up to 50 percent of the fees can be put toward an eventual purchase. Indeed, about 20 percent of the art rented off Artsicle winds up being bought, usually within three months, Tryon says.

"Sometimes people need to live with a piece of art," she explains, in a voice that does little to betray her Fort Worth, Texas, roots. "You can grow into it or grow away from it. I've personally bought things very spur of the moment and reconsidered. On the flip side, there are other things that I have grown more attached to over time."

Because browsing 3,000 pieces of art can be pretty overwhelming, Tryon created a "curator" feature that helps visitors pick potential pieces for their limited wall space by having them rank a series of images. This process is an amazingly accurate predictor of personal taste, says Tryon, who describes herself as an eclectic collector with a preference for vibrant colors and black-and-white photographs. You can view her dream collection (as well as those of the entire team) on the company's Web site.

"[Scott and I] have really similar tastes and didn't realize how unusual that was among couples," she says, explaining the motivation behind this feature. "We have couples that come to the site all the time and put together separate collections, and that sit and compare or rent things and kind of battle it out."

With little prior management experience to draw on, Tryon looks to other startup founders like her for situational advice. She meets for breakfast regularly with a group of four or five who are struggling with many of the same growth challenges as Artsicle - how to hire, whether or not to hire an outside financial planner, and where to find the best marketing campaign ideas.

Although she describes herself as naturally shy, the former Alpha Phi sorority girl is bold enough to reach out to successful entrepreneurs (often unsolicited) to ask for meetings.

She shrugs: "The worst thing that could happen is you could be told 'No,' but you are never told 'No.' You might be told, 'Not now,' but most people are impressed that you asked."

With a relatively new creative director now on board, Tryon spends less time scouting galleries and more of her 12-hour days on traditional CEO tasks such as fundraising and meeting with existing backers including 500 Startups, Quotidian Ventures, Great Oaks Ventures, PKS Capital and a handful of angel investors. She's also developing Artsicle's budding corporate service, which arranges rentals for companies rather than individuals.

That business was born after Tryon noticed lots of "strange orders" for multiple pieces of art – unusual for residents of small New York studio apartments with limited wall space but less odd for startup firms or Fortune 500 companies trying to make their offices look more respectable in the eyes of potential customers or investors.

"In the 1980s, the thing to do was to have a corporate collection, and companies spent fortunes on building their collections and show them off. Times changed and the buying has stopped," she says. Many of the collections that have survived, on the other hand, now seem dated.

Tryon also is eyeing a much larger following outside New York. When Artsicle opened up the site nationally in 2011, the staff noticed an immediate difference in the types of works being selected.

"I love my New Yorkers, but I love my clients outside New York, because this is so novel for them," she says, with a grin that reaches her dark brown eyes. "When someone orders from Little Rock, Arkansas, I get really excited. I am sure there are galleries there, but not a lot. Certainly, there are not 3,000 pieces to pick from."

And while Tryon once bristled at competition from newer art rental sites such as California's Artify It, she now welcomes the rivalry. "We're creating an alternative, and the only way to reach our goals is to have that competition in the market, to have people all over the country and world be able to rent art," she says.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure