From Nightclub Owner to Tech Investor to... Pop Artist?

There are some people whose lives seem too awesome to be real. Asking them the tough questions is particularly satisfying. 

Shawn Kolodny once ran Pink Elephant which, for a time, was one of the hottest nightclubs in Manhattan. Then he became a tech investor. And then he became a professional artist, paint-covered jeans and all. 

And he's no amateur. His colorful pop pieces, some of which feature the same celebrities he used to throw parties for in his club days, sell well in New York, the Hamptons, and Santa Barbara. His work appeared alongside Baldessari and Ruscha at a show in Los Angeles, and he is currently an artist in residence at one of the hottest art venues in the country, the Wynwood Arcade in Miami. 

How does this happen? Everything we're supposed to believe about successful artists revolves around the idea that they are born, not made. They must struggle. They must be poorly adjusted. They can't live awesome rockstar lives in some other field, then voila there they are being a successful artist. What gives?

The truth is that Kolodny has struggled. Having everything can be just as much of a burden as having nothing, it just depends on how you handle it. Here, Kolodny tells us a little about his path, his careers, and the regrets that almost brought him down.

You once ran Pink Elephant, one of the hottest clubs in NYC, and are currently managing Provocateur. Question from the proletariat. How does somebody get into a hard door?

The same as its always been! Spend a bunch of money, be socially relevant in some capacity, or be absorbingly beautiful.

Some things never change. Why did you get burned out on nightlife?

Today hospitality is becoming very corporate so there’s more governance now, but back in the old days, it was filled with not-great people, morally and ethically. I just got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying my life—being unhealthy, bad things for myself—and it wasn’t fun anymore. It was just not what I wanted. So, I took some time away and went to school, got an MBA, thought I was going to get a real job. I started playing around in a bunch of different worlds, investing in tech, and only now am I just starting to figure everything out. It’s great. It’s all coming together, and life is good these days.

Shawn in his club days

Shawn in his club days

I always hear people in certain industries say that their industry is filled with terrible people, but they never think that they are one of the terrible people.

I do acknowledge it! I was one of them at a point in time! I wasn’t this thing of flowing white goodness. I was horrible person, and it took me a while to not be a horrible person.

Why were you a bad person and how did you stop being one?

Tough questions. Was I really a bad person? I don’t know—I was a selfish prick who drank too much with an ego too big for my own good. What did I do to fix it? It’s been years of self-introspection, lots of reading, and evolving my habits. These days I’m much more cognizant of my habits and the kind of person I want to be. I’m pretty rigorous in seeking discipline with freedom.

I’d say the catalyst for me was putting my brother through rehab a few years ago. It made me reevaluate what I was doing in my personal and professional life. More recently, with my art, it’s just getting behind it and doing the work, and sharing that gift with the world. It’s amazingly rewarding,

"I was horrible person, and it took me a while to not be a horrible person."

Is there anything you’ve read that you found particularly impactful?

I listen literally every day to The Philosopher’s Notes. I know it’s a big cheat, but it’s been one of the best things in changing my life. It’s by a guy named Brian Johnson. He went out and read every self-help, psychology, philosophy book and beyond—he basically boils them down into a 6 page PDF or a 20 minute audio book. I think he’s done over 300 at this point. I listen to one every day as part of my routine, and the ones I really love, I go out and buy. It keeps me from getting distracted. It’s the best $10 a month you’ll ever spend.

I don’t know. As someone who’s written a book I’d be pretty pissed off if someone was making money summarizing my work.

It’s totally Cliff Notes, right? But let me tell you, I wouldn’t have found these books if not for him. I feel like the more people you have out there talking about your stuff, the more of a net-positive you have.

Fair. As somebody who once lived an amoral life, how do you deal with people who still have that mentality? Who think people like you give it up because they can’t handle it or are too weak to be dominant?

I don’t know if I look at it that way. Look, I don’t know if I’m a good guy. I know my choices and my behavior are much more focused on “good” than they used to be.  I used to be very pleasure-seeking even knowing full well it was bad. Now, that has changed. I take the harder, more difficult trail and do the work instead of seeking instant gratification.

But is it still just a means to an end, the end being personal happiness?

In some ways, yeah, but I’m also enjoying the process of my art. Those good things you’re talking about are the offspring of the work. I’m really not making art to become this famous artist. I enjoy it. Even when I don’t enjoy it, I still am going to do it. Whereas my motivations used to be the goals, secondary and shallow.

Tell me about your art.

I have two major series of work that I do simultaneously. One is called The Formula. Basically, I find iconic figures—think A Beautiful Mind, like a crazy person looking at these figures—and I try to boil them down to math.  

In terms of the art game, who do you love and admire?

Contemporary and street art are more my wheelhouse these days. The cliché people—Damian Hurst, Mr. Brainwash, etcetera—and I’m also fascinated with this extending of the Andy Warhol thing. They’re really just factories. A lot of these guys don’t even make their own art. They’re idea guys, then they have this prolific creation through the machinery of a shop. Koons had like 180 employees or something. I think there’s something interesting and amazing about being able to create art at that large a scale. I know it when I see it.

In being an artist after doing so many other careers, have you finally found yourself?

That’s a really interesting question because only recently have I begun to find myself, so to speak. I think I’ve always been an artist, even when I was doing my hospitality projects—I was always involved in the design and creation, be it more conceptual or running the business. It’s just taken a long time for the artistic side to come out and manifest itself. To just have courage to say, “Hey, this is what I’m working on.”

Speaking of, I’ve always been fascinated by how they come up with the names of nightclubs. How did you come up with "Pink Elephant"?

We approached it from a different angle. What we wanted was a name where the logo was iconic, and was the thing the name said. Like, I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Black Dog in Martha’s Vineyard—that was kind of our template. You see that black Labrador and go, “Oh, I’ve seen that black dog before. It’s in Martha’s Vineyard.” We thought if you just saw the image of the thing you knew what it was without needing to say what it was.

So we went around and came up with The Pink Elephant. It was one of those things where when you say it you can’t get it out of your head. The second part was that in the 1930s and 40s, “seeing pink elephant” was a colloquial symbol for “people are drinking too much/partying too much.” It’s actually still used in the Netherlands in that context. You look up Dumbo and the Dance of the Pink Elephants you think, “oh he drank too much.”  We felt those two things would go well together.

Why was Pink Elephant just a flash in the pan? It seems like most great nightclubs have a few great years, then they’re sort of forgotten.

I believe that’s actually starting to change. One hit wonders or short-lived clubs are actually giving way to much longer and successful businesses. If you look at New York now, most of the major nightclubs have been around 6-12 years. The industry has become very Vegas-ized—super, super generic, and that’s because there’s three major players in NYC who control all the nightclubs. There’s literally three companies. In Miami there’s two companies. In L.A. there’s probably two or three. In Las Vegas there’s probably four. And, they all overlap with each other in all the other cities. Because of that, it’s become super generic, which is a pity.

Why does that hurt the quality of the clubs?

I guess it depends on what you think “quality” is. It’s just—everything feels a little canned, a little forced. Nothing feels organic and natural—because it’s not; it’s all staged and controlled. I think that at some point the pendulum will swing the other way. It’s also just become very hard to compete financially, as a new player against all the companies.

It’s kind of like what’s happening everywhere, in all industries.

For sure—without a doubt.

Isn’t that fucking depressing?

You bet it is. When we built places like Pink Elephant, it was a $1 million buy in: now it’s $3 to 12 million. The capital outlay to get a place going is insane. It’s funny, I talk to a lot of my friends in tech all the time about this. In the tech world, you have an idea, push it out there, and see if people are into it. In hospitality, you have to come out with a perfectly finished product day one. The curve is much steeper if you blow it.

So, where do you see the industry going?

You wanna know something? This is probably one of the first times in a while that I’m not sure. I usually have a pretty good feeling or idea of where it’s going, but I don’t really know what’s going to take off and control the space. I do think people are going for experiential outings, tangents from the festival type of entertainment. The good thing is that the industry is still so filled with passion players, the guys who control it all have always loved it. So they care about it being good more than anybody.

"In the tech world, you have an idea, push it out there, and see if people are into it. In hospitality, you have to come out with a perfectly finished product day one."

Were you a passion player?

I loved the culture, I used to drink a lot so that was part of it, I like the interesting “democracy” there is in New York where you never know who you’re going to bump into—there was a kind of homogenous dynamic that didn’t take place in many parts of society, but in nightlife there it was all crammed together. I always found that juxtaposition really interesting. Nightlife for me was a calling, man. I drank it, slept in it, did everything. Now, it’s probably more of a career than a calling for me, and at this juncture in my life art has become my calling. That’s where that raw, unbridled passion is, and I’m super fortunate now to be able to do both.

But beyond the passion, there’s also a certain power benefits to being in nightlife, right?

I used to joke and say that there was only a small group of people who could date supermodels: millionaires, billionaires, actors, athletes, and nightclub owners. It was the one category that didn’t seem to fit to me.

It's true! Why is that?

You’re selling alcohol for a living. It’s all the things that go with that, both good and bad. A lot of bad decisions have been made.

Do you think you’ll miss some of those bad decisions?

Of course. Some of my stupid decisions have been some of my favorite ones.

By Isaac Simpson

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