Smith, a Cuban-born 63-year-old, likes to sit in the Shops at Midtown park, surrounded by Britto sculptures, and listen to Latin Christian radio. He is missing a few teeth but smiles anyway.

Smith is a typical Britto fan. He likes the art for the same reason people like fast food: It's accessible. And it doesn't take refined taste to enjoy.

For every art critic who calls Britto tacky and shallow, there are tenfold the fans — from suburban mall moms to high-powered celebrities — who adore him. Gloria Estefan is a Britto freak. So is Shakira, Norman Braman, and Prince Albert of Monaco.

But ask people of influence what they like about Britto's artwork, and they talk mostly about his personality. "He is a unique and special character," says Anthony Kennedy Shriver, John F. Kennedy's nephew. "He is constantly giving back."

It's for this reason Britto is a marketing wizard, says art consultant Alan Bamberger. "People have confused the artist with his charisma," he says. "They are buying his personality. And for somebody like Romero Britto, that's very convenient."

In 1994, while designing a T-shirt for the nonprofit Best Buddies International, he met power couple Alina and Anthony Kennedy Shriver, the David and Victoria Beckham of the philanthropic set. The couple has links to just about everyone with clout in South Florida. And they instantly loved Britto.

When it came to hookups, it was a lot like winning the friendship lottery. Once again, the gods seemed to be smiling on Britto. With the Shrivers' help, he used charity events to connect with prominent people: actors, politicians, and developers. As he grew rich, he dined with royal families and drank cocktails with mega rock stars.

In the mid-'90s, photos of Britto — generally at fundraisers with his arm around a star — began to pop up in magazines such as People and Ocean Drive. Readers associated the artist with celebrities and assumed his work must be good.

By 1998, large Britto paintings that once sold for $10,000 were now worth $100,000. He moved to South Beach and was commissioned by Pepsi, Disney, and Grand Marnier to design ads. City officials in London later asked him to handpaint a 40-foot yellow pyramid in Hyde Park. Soon galleries from Singapore and Dubai to New York were selling his art.

Then came the merchandise. Like Hello Kitty and Paul Frank, Britto sold watches, handbags, luggage, and teapots. In 2002, he even launched a perfume called Britto for Women, which was marketed as "the perfect fragrance for the contemporary, youthful, vibrant women of the new millennium." Fanatics rushed to order the stuff faster than Beanie Baby collectors.

As his fame grew, so did the pressure. "I think he always felt like there was quicksand under his feet," friend Tom Abraham says. "The way he grew up haunts him every day."

By 2005, to escape constant visitors in South Beach, Britto set up an unmarked studio in Wynwood. Guests were buzzed into the 30,000-square-foot building — which included sections for retail packaging and shipping — by appointment only. His creative space now operated more like a Gap Kids than Warhol's factory.

Britto's workdays were spent signing his name onto bright aluminum sculptures and adding squiggles onto lithographs with Sharpie pens. Like a wand, a stroke of his hand would hike the cost of a piece by thousands of dollars. His commissioned works soon sold for as much as $250,000. Eventually, he no longer had time to paint his own art.

"People don't understand that when you become successful, you need help," Britto says. "Michelangelo had ten assistants."

Britto intentionally hires employees who are not educated in the arts because he tolerates no creative input, says one former assistant who worked on the artist's sculptures for three years. By her account, he was temperamental, controlling, and even slightly paranoid. He would fire dozens of people on a whim. Assistants were paid as little as $10 and, at times, felt like they were slaving in a sweatshop.

"Those were dark years," says the former assistant, who asked not to be named because of Britto's influence. "With him, you never knew which way the wind was gonna blow."

But to friends, family, and charities, Britto remains as sweet and loyal as ever. Reached at home, 18-year-old neighbor Armani explains, "He was always a great neighbor — sincere and genuine — and I'm not just saying that."


Shopping mall developer Jeffrey Berkowitz, a well-spoken 62-year-old, laughs and says, "Art purists want to hit me in the face."

The former lawyer and self-proclaimed Britto nut takes credit for Miami-Dade's Britto epidemic of butterflies and kitty-cats.

Berkowitz installed a 45-foot statue of a dancing clown named Mr. Happy at Dadeland Mall. He pushed for a 30-foot striped palm tree/beach ball combo at his Fifth & Alton shopping center in South Beach. And at his Kendall Village project, he paid for a sculpture of a boy with a goldfish.

"I may not have the finest taste," says Berkowitz, whose oceanside home is lined with Brittos. "But it's shared with kings and queens and heads of state."

At least 20 other huge cartoonish Britto installations can be found in the county's public spaces. City of Miami parking meters are designed by Britto, and his piece at Dadeland Station is the world's largest aluminum sculpture.

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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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