For Romero Britto, luck and charm trump talent

For Romero Britto, luck and charm trump talent
A Britto-ized Mini Cooper.

On a recent Saturday, millionaire pop artist Romero Britto awoke from a terrifying nightmare. In the dream, planet Earth had lost gravity. Everything in the world — shiny cars, well-groomed children, pet hamsters, and pepperoni pizzas — swirled into the air around him. Nothing was in its place. He sat up in bed, frightened.

Other artists might have turned the vision into a surrealistic painting full of angst. But Britto paints only happy subjects: smiling kittens, dancing clowns, and polka-dot palm trees.

"There's enough stress and ugliness in the world," the freckle-faced 46-year-old artist says a few days later as he stands next to an enormous painting of an elf inside his studio. "Why would I want to create more?"

A Britto-ized Mini Cooper.
A Britto-ized Mini Cooper.
Romero Britto works inside his unmarked Wynwood studio.
C. Stiles
Romero Britto works inside his unmarked Wynwood studio.

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View our Britto slide show here.

Not a drop of paint stains his hands or clothing as he works. His studio looks fit for MTV's Cribs: There are Dolce & Gabbana shopping bags on the floor, a glittery green bicycle, and photos of the artist with Michael Jackson. There is also a Romero Britto bobblehead, an American flag, and — for reasons not entirely clear — several old-fashioned top hats. Techno music thumps. This is where Miami's most successful artist creates.

"Come here," he says with laser-beam eye contact. "Let me show you something."

The artist pulls out a black magic marker and quickly scribbles the cartoonish face of a girl. Then he dunks a paintbrush in red and makes a single dot on her mouth. The mark will signal to his assistants — who do the painting for him — the intended color of her lips.

The whole creative process takes him two and a half minutes. When the painting is completed by his low-wage workers, it will sell for about $30,000.

An international celebrity, Britto is one of the highest-paid commercial artists in the nation, netting a reported $12 million a year. He has the business of art down to a factory-like science. And people like it: George W. Bush hangs Brittos in his home. So does Whitney Houston, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael Jordan.

In Miami, a place that's still grasping for a cultural identity, Britto patterns have spread like a Skittles-colored virus. They can be found in virtually every crevice of Miami-Dade: at Sun Life Stadium, the Shops at Midtown, Miami Children's Museum, and Dadeland Station. You can see them from causeways and expressways. Car dealerships sell Britto-designed Mini Coopers. Workers at Miami International Airport wear Britto uniforms. Tourists on Lincoln Road shop for Britto luggage, dishes, high heels — even yarmulkes.

If, as detractors say, the Magic City is a shimmering veneer where people would rather read Cosmo than The New Yorker and talk about shoes instead of news, the land that brought you Vanilla Ice and butt implants has found an internationally recognized visual brand that has the color and substance of Laffy Taffy.

"Miami is still gestating — it's a fetus," says art critic and Miami Dade College professor Ricardo Pau-Llosa. "It's not a city; it's an airport surrounded by shopping malls — and we get everything that comes with that, including Romero Britto. He is Miami."

Pau-Llosa, who recently donated his Latin American art collection to Notre Dame University, calls Britto's work "phony baloney" and "hideous crap."

His opinion is in line with just about every respected artist, museum curator, and art professor in the country. Not one art publication has critiqued Britto's work. Nor has a respected museum purchased his art.

Pulitzer Prize-nominated art critic and New York Magazine columnist Jerry Saltz has an almost physical reaction to Britto's work. "Oh my God is he unoriginal," Saltz says. "It's sentimental, obvious, and empty. Let me put it this way: No one in the art world would say this is good."

After doing a Google search for Britto, whom he had never heard of, New York Sun art critic David Cohen calls his paintings simply "unchallenging."

"He looks like a sort of Liberace of visual art," Cohen says, referring to the flamboyant pianist who played schmaltzy classics under a chandelier.

Britto — who comes off like a sweet and unassuming airhead — doesn't take the criticism seriously. "It's a very small group of people who don't like it," he explains. "When you are successful, people are going to be jealous."

He might seem clueless, but Britto is actually a shrewd, calculating, and brilliant salesman. He surrounds himself with those who worship him and seeks out the rich and famous who will oil the deals that make him millions. "He is the most creative, limitless talent I have ever met," says Alina Shriver, CEO of Shriver Art. "I have never met anybody who does not love Romero Britto."

While critics loathe his work, the masses love it. If the low-paid employees who crank out his mass-produced paintings find him temperamental, sometimes even tyrannical, the charities that benefit from the hundreds of thousands of dollars he gives annually see him as a selfless saint.

Add a brand-new criminal record and financial trouble into the mix, and his nightmare about losing control might be coming true. In February, Britto quietly filed a federal lawsuit claiming a business associate in Coral Gables copied his art, forged his signature, and sold Britto fakes to galleries in Minnesota and on eBay. Other knockoffs have been spotted from Biscayne Boulevard to Japan — in roadside vans, malls, and kiosks. The rash of art fakers threatens to bring down the value of his work, maybe even topple his pop empire.

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4 comments
pacomartini
pacomartini

My name is Paul Thomas Martin and am an artist currently working and living in Miami Beach, Florida. I'm an academic artist with a BFA in painting. I moved to Miami at the end of 1997 to work for an art restoration company...unfortunately the company was in trouble so I had to start seeking new employment. I suddenly found myself working for Romero Britto at his flag ship gallery, BRITTO CENTRAL in sales. I was very familiar with his work from a previous gallery I worked for in my hometown of Baltimore. I already knew how people reacted to his work and was very grateful for the opportunity to work for a brilliant marketer like Romero. I knew working for him would be an education I didn't receive in college. 

After a year or so I was named as Director of Exhibitions in addition to my sales position and was responsible for designing the aesthetic of the gallery as well as curating two museum shows for him in Coral Springs and Boca Raton, Florida. Perhaps they can't be considered world class museums, but Ms O'Neill glosses right over those and the list of other museums who have found Britto's work worthy enough to invite him into their spaces.  I also have to wonder what credentials Ms O'Neill has in art?

I guess what I'm getting at is that I find it remarkable that Romero can be so easily dismissed as an artist. Is he an academically trained artist? No he is not...but neither was Grandma Moses. For some, his work may be "unchallenging" but having visited some of the worlds most respected museums, I've seen a multitude of work that I've found "unchallenging" yet they get labeled as "Masterpieces". 

This country no longer supports the Arts. The budgets of the NEA and NEH have been slashed to laughable amounts. Brilliantly, Romero has forged his own path without the help of a single government entity or grant...he is entirely self-made. So, is he an artist? As a fellow artist it's hard for me to say (there are times when i question what my own work is)...however, I've seen the man painting away until the wee hours of the morning so no one can accuse him of getting where he is from sheer "luck"...I know very few people who have worked harder at their careers than this man. 

He's only human so the accounts I've read of his style as an employer have to be thought about in context. If your boss doesn't think your doing your job, you get fired. Successful people can often be VERY challenging to work for. I sucked at sales and I got fired off of the sales floor. But Romero really respected my work as a curator and gave me control over all that was entailed in doing that job.

What I like most about Romero is his generosity. His record of philanthropy in Miami is well documented but his generosity goes beyond that. Romero knew of my ambitions to be an artist and once he saw my work he quickly deduced that there was an opportunity for the both of us to be had. He invited me to collaborate on a collection of work together. At the time, it was something he hadn't done before...sharing his "canvas". As a nobody in the art world, I was more than happy to see where this project would go. In November of 2003 our exhibition, strangely and prophetically titled "Under The Influence", opened at BRITTO CENTRAL.  Our styles aren't even remotely similar yet the way our styles were implemented in the work created a striking balance. The show sold out. This man knows what he is doing.  (you can see the collaboration on my website paulthomasmartin.com)

This article was amazingly under researched and the Media community regarding the arts is what  is truly wrong with Miami (has Ms O'Neill been to the Wynwood Art District?) ...since I have lived here there hasn't been a single credible art critic on staff at any of Miami's media outlets. That's the real problem in Miami...not Romero Britto. Miami is NOT just an airport surrounded by malls...if the success of Art Basel tells us anything it's that. You who write just aren't looking hard enough and ultimately, YOU are the one responsible for Romero Britto's success by your inability to provide real coverage of Miami's art scene. Again, you aren't looking hard enough!


authenticart
authenticart

I just wanted to let you know that I for one was more than a little angry after reading the article written by Natalie O'Neill in the New Times. One of our clients that has collected over 200K in your work from us forwarded it to me.

 O'Neill is a bad writer. O"Neill apparently did not even take the time to verify her facts with regard to Les Roberts and the forgeries that he created in an attempt to extort money from you and hurt your reputation.

O'Neill failed to interview any of the thousands of collectors and critics that find your work refreshing, interesting and important!
If your work was only popular in Miami or South Florida O'Neill could make the point that it was simply luck and charm that has made you successful. The fact that people from all over the world have responded positively to your work and have found the need to collect your artwork simply can't be luck and charm! I congratulate you on you success and I am sure that  your legacy as an important pop artist has already been established.

Jeff Koons can make sculptures of hearts and pool floats and the critics considered him a visionary. Chisto can wrap the Keys in pink plastic and hang curtains in Central Park and he is considered a genius by critics. The fact of the matter is that you are both a visionary and a genius. 
Thank you for all of the incredible, unique, and important artwork you have created for the world.
 

juststeve
juststeve

He is not an artist. He's lucky. Very, very lucky that anyone has bought is overpriced cartoonish crap. A 10 year old could be more imaginative and original. Absolute shit.

pacomartini
pacomartini

@juststeve try and recreate one of his pieces...they are deceptive in their simplicity...creating the perfection he achieves in the execution of his work is very, very difficult.


 
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