Britto's Republic

A "but is it art?' debate looms as a developer ties his civic largesse to patronage of a favorite sculptor

Because the artwork of Romero Britto makes him smile, developer Jeffrey Berkowitz says the City of Miami Beach has but two choices for the future of the northeast corner of Fifth Street and Alton Road: 1) three huge sculptures by Romero Britto, a shopping mall, and a public parking garage; or 2) three huge Britto sculptures, the mall, and a private parking garage. mall concept: a 75-foot-tall building with a ground-floor supermarket and the likes of Bed, Bath & Beyond and Linens-N-Things on the upper levels. The sculptural concept: two 30-foot-tall aluminum palm trees painted with brightly colored stripes, flowers, and polka dots, plus one 12-foot-tall beach ball to match.

Why the browbeating for Britto? Because Berkowitz, age 57, is a Britto nut. "Number one, Romero Britto is my friend," Berkowitz explains. "Number two, if you walk into my office, there's a Romero Britto at the front entrance. If you walk into my home, there is a Romero Britto at the front entrance. If you walk into my Dadeland Station shopping center, there's a Romero Britto at the entrance. If you walk into Kendall Village, there's a Romero Britto. And we're going to put a Romero Britto at our expense on our property in Miami Beach, and Art in Public Places has nothing to do with it."

Nothing, that is, until Berkowitz and his partner in the Fifth & Alton shopping center project, automobile dealer Alan Potamkin, agreed to build a 1000-space parking garage and sell it to the city at cost, which Berkowitz estimates will be $9.2 million. The addition of the governmental dimension (the Miami Beach Parking Department would operate the garage) triggered the city's Art in Public Places ordinance. Unlike Britto, the AIPP law does not make Berkowitz smile. For one thing, it requires developers to pay an AIPP fee, in this case about $500,000 (1.5 percent of the construction cost of the Fifth & Alton mall and garage). For another, it means the city's Art in Public Places Committee gets involved. The six-member committee advises the Miami Beach City Commission on the placement of art in public, and it met last week to discuss the specter of a Britto beachhead at the southern aperture of the city.

But the battle over Britto was finished before it began, largely because all the land in the Fifth & Alton project is private. Under the AIPP law's rules of engagement, the committee could only make recommendations, which are nonbinding. Besides, the developer could always quash the garage agreement in the unlikely event that anti-Britto forces gained political traction. Thus, the only weapon in the AIPP committee's arsenal was to approve a plea to commissioners: Make Berkowitz and Potamkin pay the half-million-dollar fee. (At press time, that matter had yet to be placed on the commission agenda.)

"I can understand he's a businessman and he's trying to increase his profit margin in this project. Fine, but he's not going to do it at my expense," exclaimed Maria Bonta de la Pezuela, a vice president at Sotheby's Coral Gables office and an AIPP board member.

"I'm there!" responded Merle Weiss, who attended the meeting on behalf of Miami-Dade's fifteen-member Cultural Affairs Council. "It would be a terrible precedent, it really would. Then every developer with a gazillion dollars in their breast pocket would come and say, öOh, I can't possibly pay that money, but my sister-in-law does fabulous sculptures just like what you see in the park in Aspen and you're going to love them and I'm putting them in my project, and they're worth $750,000." The council also is urging the Miami Beach commission to insist on the fee.

After the meeting, some members were reluctant to articulate their beef with Britto. "This has nothing to do with the work. It's about the [Art in Public Places] process," Bonta proclaimed. But for some it was about the work. "There is so much of his stuff around," complained Pola Reydburd, the AIPP committee chairwoman. "He has a shop where he sells things. He sells ties, he sells dinnerware. When you have that commercial focus in your work, it's hard to separate the work itself from the commercial value. You don't want an advertisement for his shop in such a prominent place."

While groaning privately about the naive, superfluous, and ubiquitous nature of the Britto ouvre, and accepting they are virtually powerless to stop its spread to Fifth Street and Alton Road, committee members resolved to seek a curatorial influence over the sculpture project. Britto says he would entertain their suggestions, though they are but a small faction alongside his adoring fans.

"I'm not authoritarian. I want to work with people. I'm an artist. I'm not like a dictator," the 41-year-old artist says sweetly. "I would love to have my art in Miami Beach. I'm honored that Jeffrey Berkowitz has asked me to do that. I'm open to work with people basically.

"There's a very small group of people who don't understand and maybe don't appreciate pop art, [like] if I do a project with a designer like Nicole Miller, or if I've done a project with Absolut Vodka, or if I've done something for Pepsi-Cola, or if I design a watch for Swatch, or if I did a Movado watch," Britto continues. "It's like a small number of people [so] it doesn't mean so much. They say whatever they want to say, but the bottom line, I have millions of people out there who support my work, not only in South Florida but everywhere."

It wouldn't matter if all the curators and historians in the world sat Britto down and explained that colorful, smiley, cartoonlike creations that are reproduced and aim solely to please the masses are one thing, and unique works of pop art that strike a meaningful, illuminating dialogue with art history are quite another. Because, short of an anti-Britto uprising at city hall, it is the shopping mall developer's vision that will prevail at Fifth & Alton. "If the city wants to tell me that it needs an Art in Public Places contribution, then I'll kill the deal with the city. And I'll keep the parking, and I'll build less parking and more retail," Berkowitz assures. Or he'd be happy to add the AIPP fee to what he charges the city for the garage. "If they want to absorb that additional cost, that's fine with me," he adds. "But I'm not going to sell them parking for less than it costs me. I'm already giving them the land."

Unlike his friend, Berkowitz only scoffs at the pretentions of the AIPP committee, which he refers to as "art snobs." "They would probably prefer to see a giant snail or a big apple," he ventures. "Mr. Potamkin collects pre-Columbian art. So we could put a 4000-year-old bowl in front of the shopping center. But I don't think that would represent what we think about Miami Beach. We think it's young and vibrant and exciting, and we think it's consistent with Romero's work."

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