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The art of consensus

Who´s dissing Romero Britto?

The Miami Herald
Sunday Magazine Tropics

By Fernando González
August 1998


 

It's a late Friday morning at Britto Central on Lincoln Road and a casually elegant couple is being led around the gallery by an attendant, price list in hand.
In the small office in the back of the gallery, the phone rings nonstop.

Sitting in a second-floor studio, oblivious to the employees frantically moving about the place, Romero Britto, 34, is putting brush to canvas. The piece, a familiar Britto composition of a cartoonish human figure and flowers, is fully sketched in pencil. His style, all bright colors, graffiti-like squiggles and figures delineated in wide black lines, evokes the pop art of Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein. Britto's brush strokes are clean, efficient and fast. In fact, he applies the paint so evenly, so precisely that the result has a nearly industrial feel.

``My work is about a combination of things,'' says Britto a bit later over lunch at a Lincoln Road restaurant. ``Color is important, the composition is important, the imagery. My art is optimistic art. It's positive art. Nice. It's appealing for people. It's something that's not a big mystery. I like it and the people like it.''

In fact some people seem to like it a lot. Romero Britto is perhaps the most commercially successful artist working in South Florida.

Still, critical recognition has eluded him.

The art establishment has largely dismissed his work as derivative fluff, wall decor. He has received innumerable commissions, but no major museum in the United States has bought one of his works. Curiously, given the attention he has received in the 10 years since he exploded onto the pop art scene as part of the Absolut vodka ad campaign, there has been no retrospective show of his work in this country, and none is in the works.
He is not bitter, he says. He believes the critical animosity ``is not about my work, but toward any artist who becomes successful.''

Perhaps, but Jose Bedia, a fellow Miami resident, is both successful and respected.
Like Britto, Bedia, 39, uses flat color and works with simple, linear drawings, clean outlines and clear figures. His neo-primitive style is informed by references to Palo Monte, an Afro-Cuban religion, Native American beliefs, cartoons and advertising.
Herald art critic Elisa Turner has written that ``You can read Bedia's drawings as if they were comic strips.''

But unlike Britto, his work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (as part of the Latin American Artists of the 20th Century show), and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; the XIX Bienal Internacional de Sao Paulo in 1987, and the Magiciens de la Terre exhibit in Paris in 1989. Bedia's work has been acquired by important art collectors and institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. In South Florida, the Miami Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and the Fort Lauderdale Museum have Bedia works.

He is considered an important artist.

As with Britto's dismissal, it is a matter of consensus.

The reasons behind such dissimilar fates for artists with so many apparent similarities are hidden, in part, in the opaque and elaborate rituals that underlie the contemporary art world. This is a courtly but ruthless dance among collectors, dealers, museum curators, auction houses, scholars and critics involving knowledge, power and money. It requires passion and ambition, and is executed in oblique steps punctuated, whenever necessary, by flying elbows. Social standing and careers are on the line and, to a degree, so is the art of our time.

A Vodka Tonic

Britto's story reads like a Hollywood-made American success fable.
Born in Recife, Brazil, Britto is self-taught.
``I paint since I was 8 years old. But art school was too expensive, elitist,'' he says. ``I couldn't afford it.''

He studied law, with an eye on diplomacy, but he quit after two semesters to concentrate on art making. He traveled in Europe, where he had shows in Sweden, Germany and England, visited the United States and eventually settled in Miami in 1986.

He began his artistic career in the States selling collages on paper on the street in Coconut Grove for $50 to $100. After knocking on doors awhile, he found the owners of a furniture store willing to show his paintings.

In 1988, Britto opened his own studio in what had been a hair salon at the Mayfair in the Grove. It was there, the following year, that Britto's brightly colored, crisply delineated neo-pop style was noticed by Curt Nycander, president of Absolut vodka, in Miami on vacation. Nycander not only bought three paintings but also alerted Michel Roux, president of Carillon, the vodka's American distributors.

Roux was the man behind Absolut's distinct advertising campaign featuring work by established pop art stars such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Ed Ruscha. Now Roux was restless.
``We started with established artists,'' he recalled. ``But then we started looking to find young and not-so-young artists to be discovered -- and we gave them the opportunity to be discovered.''

At Nycander's suggestion, he came to Miami to see Britto's work, met the artist and commissioned him.
``I liked his work and more important I liked him,'' says Roux, an art collector who now has several pieces by Britto. ``He was very nice. Usually when you meet artists you find people very self-centered. On the contrary, he was very open, and a great artist. He is just a baby. I think in 20 years from now he will be considered in the same league as Warhol, Keith Haring and [Robert] Rauschenberg.''

With his exuberant rendition of an Absolut vodka bottle appearing in over 60 publications worldwide, including five national publications, Britto became an overnight star. Before the ads appeared, his pieces were reportedly selling between $5,000 and $25,000. The year after, his prices -- and sales -- both doubled. Now, his original paintings can sell for more than $100,000.

But nearly anyone can own a Britto. He has blurred the line between his art and merchandise. His Lincoln Road gallery carries original works but also posters and postcards, Britto ties, Britto T-shirts, Britto watches -- even Britto gift-boxes.

``I have people who have very good collections and who grew up breathing expensive art,'' he says. ``But it was here in the United States, from artists such as Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and even Picasso, that I started to feel that painting is more than locking yourself in a room and doing your painting for a few people. For me the idea is to reach as many people as possible.''

Corporations liked his approach. Since his big break, Britto also has been commissioned by Disney, Pepsi, Grand Marnier and Movado.

Meanwhile, in South Florida, a combination of old self-promotion (his own publicity dubs him Prince of Pop Art) and high-profile charity work, turned Britto into an ubiquitous local favorite. He has designed everything from posters for the International Film Festival and Sunny, the official mascot of the Miami Centennial celebration to public works including sculptures at The Falls and ``Welcome,'' a half-million-dollar sculpture at Dadeland Station.

According to Britto's publicity, his pieces are in the collections of notables such as former President George Bush, action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, pop singer Whitney Houston, magazine publisher John F. Kennedy Jr. and basketball star Michael Jordan.
These are famous figures -- none of them known for their artistic acumen. But if their patronage is not getting Britto in museums, it is certainly keeping him busy. He is working on commissions by Sen. Edward Kennedy and the Miami Children's Museum. ``I am two years behind schedule,'' he says.

The Arts-Industrial Complex

Still, Britto's success has failed to impress most serious art critics.

Paula Harper, critic and professor of art history at the University of Miami, has known Britto for many years and likes him personally. But she also once said, ``His work has the same relationship to pop art as a refrigerator magnet does.

``It's not that I think he should not be allowed to do what he's doing,'' she said recently.
``I think it's great he can do his thing and make money. The problem is when it gets presented as art. Britto is perfectly successful and gets good prices and he would never be shown at the Whitney or written about in Artforum. He's of no interest. He will never get into the history books. How do we know that? Because . . . his work is not original enough, is not innovative enough to be considered historically significant. You get into the history books because you make a contribution to the history of your art form.''

Harper's sentiments are typical of the art establishment, but Nan Miller, a New York State gallery owner who has represented Britto's work for the past six years, shrugs them off. ``If you read what the critics said about Keith Haring and Warhol and Lichtenstein, they were never going to go anywhere, the designs were too simple, it meant nothing.''

In fact, some of the most prized possessions in museums today are by artists once spurned by the contemporary elite -- and recognized as geniuses years, even decades later. Given such a record, some argue, why shouldn't the opinion of the regular folks who buy vodka and T-shirts mean as much as that of critics and curators?

Because, says Fredric Snitzer, who owns the Miami gallery that carries his name and represents artists such as Bedia, Luis Cruz Azaceta and Carol K. Brown, ``Museums, art historians, good art critics and certainly serious artists have all dedicated their lives to examining and addressing the issues of art. Those are the laboratory guys. But somehow in art they are `the elite.' In every other field they are the best, the professionals. So [in any other field] when these laboratory guys form their consensus we trust them with our lives -- but when art people form their consensus we mistrust it, we denigrate it, we say it's not for us.''

Snitzer dismisses Britto's work as a shallow summation of the work of several pop artists, including Warhol, Haring and Lichtenstein.

``Those artists make compelling work, but if you skim off the top and mix it all together you have a very superficial thing people look at and think it's art,'' he says. ``Britto comes along and markets himself in a very appealing way to people who trust their own eye, who say `I know what I like' instead of `I like what I know.' So they are walking Lincoln Road and see this work and say: `It's by a Brazilian, Latin American is supposed to be good. It's colorful, it's not scary and I heard of this guy so it must be good.' The fact is these same people wouldn't go to a coin store where they sell collectable coins, look at the case and say `Oh that's a pretty green one with a nice head on it. I'll buy it.' No. They would learn about coins, they would read, find people who know about coins, ask questions.''

For Snitzer, these inconsistencies underlie the way in which contemporary American society seems to deal with high culture in general and art in particular. ``If you went to a Heat game and you didn't know the rules of basketball it would be a very boring thing,'' he says. ``But everybody knows those rules.''

Nobody teaches kids in school the rules of art, Snitzer notes, and yet with fine art, a cultural tradition developed over centuries, people seem to expect to be able to know all they need to know instantly, without making any effort. As a result, he says, pablum gets passed off as art, and truly groundbreaking work is largely ignored.

``A million people a year go through the Coconut Grove Art Festival,'' he says. ``In all the time the museums have been open in Miami, they have not had a million people go through. We've got a problem. And Romero Britto is celebrating that misunderstanding.''
Perhaps, but age-old questions about education, what is art or the deeply rooted tensions between elitism and egalitarianism are only part of the equation.

Then there is the business of art.

Not only outsiders and philistines are suspicious of the often incestuous relationships between critics, curators, collectors and art dealers and the tangle of interests and potential rewards, behind every establishment art success story.

Cultural historian Alice Goldfarb Marquis calls this small but influential group that anoints some artists and rejects others ``the Arts-Industrial Complex.'' In her 1990 study The Art Biz. The Covert World of Collectors, Dealers, Auction Houses, Museums and Critics, she decries how ``The sedate language of connoisseurship now veils the most vulgar transactions of the marketplace. The measured tones of critics and scholars mask flagrant conflict of interest. The respected discourse of art patronage conceals within its noble folds the dull gleam of naked greed.''

The Collector

Many observers in the art world note, not many with pleasure, that collectors have become the key consensus makers in the art world -- especially after the crash of the art market in 1990 that followed the roaring '80s, where fine art zoomed in value as investors speculated on artists as if they were trading hog futures.

As it turned out, the art market collapse came at about the same time as government dramatically decreased public funding for the arts, resulting in profound changes in the contemporary art world.

``Because there were so few collectors still out there, suddenly it shifted from a gallery-driven art world to a collector-driven art world -- and then a whole group of problems surfaced,'' says Snitzer, the art dealer. ``A collector would get behind a certain artist . . . then this collector would get on a museum board, offer to finance an exhibition, pay for the catalog -- and the machine would be in motion.

``Now, that collector can be brilliant and have a wonderful eye or that collector can be an idiot,'' he continues. ``But as the funding for the arts started to crumble the museum needed money -- and there was a collector out there who had a good young artist and the money to back an exhibition. What are they going to do? There might have been somebody else the curator wanted to show but nobody was interested in supporting him or her. Not all curators succumb to that, not all institutions succumb to that, but certainly some do.''

And when they do, then the collector/museum-board-member, intentionally or not, has managed to increase both the prestige and value of his own collection.

For all the changes that have occurred in the art world over the past century, museums remain the ultimate seal of approval.

``It makes everything better,'' says Helen Kohen, The Herald's longtime art critic who recently retired. ``If a piece from my wall goes to a show in a good museum, now that piece is better, and the artist is better -- and the market recognizes this kind of movement. This is how you get raised up in the estimation of the consensus makers.''

Collector Peter Menendez, who sits on the board of directors of the Miami Art Museum and is a member of the museum's exhibitions and acquisitions committees, says he can understand how people can perceive a conflict of interest in his situation. A friend and early champion of Bedia and close friend of the late Carlos Alfonzo, Menendez owns works by them that have been shown at MAM.

``Conflict of interest is a problem I have managed to evade even though most of the things you see in my house have been exhibited at MAM at one point or another,'' he says. ``In the case of Bedia I was on the board of the then Center for Fine Arts, and when the Bedia exhibit came, it came from Philadelphia, so although my works were exhibited there I had nothing to do with it.''

He says important collectors rarely openly champion a favorite artist pushing for an exhibit or a purchase.

``It's not that these people of influence support some artist but that they not support and close doors to certain others,'' he says. ``That's how influence is used -- and it can be as subtle as raising an eyebrow at a meeting when a certain name is mentioned. That creates a negative consensus. I would like to think that is because they think these are not good artists.''

Ann Percy, curator of drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the first major institutions in the United States to buy a piece by Bedia, is not only unconcerned about collectors on museum boards, ``[I] see it as a benefit,'' she says. ``[The trustee-collectors] know the market and they are good advisers about price. We hope they are buying thing we want and eventually they will be given to us.''

But having the money to buy art does not necessarily mean having the knowledge. That, says Kohen, is a problem: ``You've had all these people stroking the ego of the collector for so long . . . they think they do know about art. They have been flattered all along by everybody: the museum flatters them because it wants their things eventually, the dealer flatters them just like the guy who sells you shoes is going to tell you you have a great foot and on and on.''

Collector Don Rubell, who with his wife, Mera, have been active with the museums in New York, especially the Whitney, says collectors wanting to advance their views is perhaps an inevitable human impulse -- but one that institutions must resist.

``We are all crazy enough to believe we are right, so it isn't all pure mercenary -- although pure mercenary factors into it I'm sure,'' he says. ``Collectors are convinced -- we're all victims of it and I'm probably worse than most -- that what they like is really good. But I'm not a professional. And to allow someone like myself or someone who may know even less than me to come in and convince the curator to show certain art because of the collector's agenda is a travesty.''

But in these days of diminishing public support for the arts, museum curators have to negotiate a shrinking middle ground between public service, scholarship, marketing, public relations and sales. And whatever else they do, they must please their directors and their boards and romance local collectors. A museum does not grow by collecting pieces but by collecting collections.

That money sets the tone and the rules of the art world is not news. To a degree, says Amy Cappellazzo, former director of the Wolfson Galleries at Miami-Dade Community College, this is how it has always worked.

Centuries ago, she says, ``if the king hired a painter to paint a portrait of him and in the royal family that person was known to be an excellent painter. That's the long and short history of consensus.
``The kings have changed, patronage as we know it has changed but art has been dependent on patronage for a thousand years and it will always be.''

The alternative, fine art supported by the masses, is unlikely. ``I don't see any chance soon that viewers would line up to pay $20 or $25 for tickets to a museum,'' says Cappellazzo.

Kohen puts the situation in a contemporary context: ``Follow the money. When the king called the artist to be the court painter you didn't have to ask if he was a good painter,'' she says. ``The same thing happens now when a Marty Margulies buys an artist in Miami: He's giving an imprint. This is a famous collector, he has a very important collection, I'm in that collection that means I'm a good artist. The celebrity [collector] today was yesterday's king.''

The Old-Fashioned Way

In the art world, there are as many paths to success as there are artists. Romero Britto got his break on a whim of a vodka manufacturer. Jose Bedia, who refused to be interviewed for this story, seems to have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. His work first drew attention with Volume I , an independent show featuring work by 11 artists in Havana in 1981. The exhibit drew thousands of visitors and has been credited by some with sparking a renaissance in Cuban art. It also helped establish Bedia as the star of what came to be known as the '80s generation in Cuba. Luis Camnitzer, an Uruguayan artist, author and professor at State University of New York, Old Westbury, befriended Bedia in Cuba in those days and later arranged to bring him and two fellow Cuban artists to New York in 1985 as part of an exchange program. The visit produced a traveling show. The work was very well-received, ``and at some point it entered in the galleries,'' recalled Camnitzer.

In 1991, George Adams, at the time a partner at Frumkin/Adams Gallery in New York, read a feature on Bedia's work and became intrigued.
``I called [Cuban painter Luis Cruz] Azaceta and asked him if he'd ever heard of this guy,'' recalled Adams recently. ``And he said he was the best young artist in Cuba. Then I called another friend, [art consultant] Cristina Delgado and I asked her if she'd ever heard of Bedia and she said she certainly had and that he was very good, so I asked her if he knew how to reach him because I wanted to do a show. I had never done that before.''

When Adams finally got hold of Bedia's work, he felt amply rewarded. ``I saw these drawings -- which were completely unexpected, there were no reproductions of anything like that in the article I saw -- and I fell in love with them. My response to the work was: This is not normally the kind of work I love, but I really like it and I don't know why. You can say it was a bolt of lighting kind of thing.''

By 1992 the excitement about a young generation of Cuban painters working out of Mexico City and Miami reached a fever pitch -- and the mainstream. The feature The Next Wave from Havana, in the November 1992 issue of Newsweek, opened with a simple announcement: ``Here come the Cubans'' and went on at length to call attention on the work of Bedia among others.

Bedia's work, with his references to Afro-Cuban religion and Native American culture, struck at a time when issues such as multiculturalism, cultural identity and spirituality were in vogue. His timing was also felicitous in other ways. He was a fresh new artist at a time when the art market was exhausted, looking for a charge and interested in issues such as primitivism and other-ness -- and he came from, of all places, forbidden Cuba.
``There were all these elements -- cultural politics, economic politics,'' recalls Adams. ``But the work has to be good, as well. It's possible to have a really good artist and nobody's paying attention, but in Bedia's case people were aware of him, had seen his work and were talking about it. Once you start exhibiting in New York, regularly -- then curators knew where to find your work, and it starts appearing in a lot of shows around the country and then the buzz says: `You gotta go look at his work.' ''

Bedia arrived in South Florida in 1993. By then, he had shown in more than 20 countries.

His first solo museum show in the United States was at the Institute of Contemporary Art of Philadelphia in 1994. In a very positive review, a critic for The City Paper said, ``We can't assume that we have clearly grasped Bedia's intentions . . . Nevertheless, something is shared which is mysterious and profound.''

Still, for all the glowing reviews, it took the work and connections of his dealer for Bedia's work to finally make it into the Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, his first American museum.
``I've known Townsend [Wolfe, the museum's director] for years so I can call him and say, `I got somebody you'd be interested in' and usually I'm right, not always, but usually.
``Townsend came up right after the show opened, looked through it, turned to me and said, `Yep.' It's all he said. It was wonderful. He pointed at one of the drawings and said `That's the one we want.' ''

That very same year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art became the first major institution in the United States to acquire a work by Bedia.

``We had a special grant from a local art supply manufacturing company to buy work on the cutting edge, work that has not quite gone though the critical process,'' recalls Percy, curator of drawings at the museum. ``We saw the group of drawings by Bedia at the Frumkin/Adams Gallery in New York, decided it was very interesting work and we bought one.'' If it were not for the gallery exhibit, she says, it never would have happened -- neither she nor her colleagues at the museum were aware of Bedia's work at the time. As it is with every artist, the ripple effect of news of a Bedia purchase by a major museum is significant in his market value because it ``is reassuring to some collectors or some museums that might not have the confidence to move,'' says Adams.

Then again, it doesn't guarantee instant acceptance elsewhere. The Hirshhorn Museum acquired a work by Bedia last fall -- after seven years of persistent effort on the part of his dealer.
``The director of the Hirshhorn was one of the first people I contacted [back in 1991],'' says Adams. ``But the director kept saying, `Well, I still don't understand it.' So literally every time I did a show [with Bedia] I would send material to the director and ask him to come by and he would and would look and say, `Well . . .' Finally they found a painting and said, `Wow, this is the one' -- but it took seven years. He hesitated because it had to be the work itself not the buzz.''

A Simple Message

For all its faults, almost everyone believes that, while it might take awhile, the system works. Fredric Snitzer's response is typical:
``I don't think for one minute that a great artist can be overlooked or that a bad artist doesn't eventually get washed out,'' he says. ``Eventually. In the interim, the disgusting and complicated play of agendas, the boards of the museums who influence the trends, the people who want to make a name for themselves, it's all in there. But when those laboratory guys of art turn their eye toward young artists the odds are that what filters out are going to be good artists.''

Helen Kohen is not quite as certain.

``We get the best artist we uncover. It's like politics: Do the best men run? I don't think so -- but the best man wins,'' she says. ``So we don't know. On the other hand, it's unlikely at this day and age that some unknown artist is doing great anonymous work hiding in an attic.''

Romero Britto hasn't visited an attic in decades. Nan Miller, his dealer, says she ``periodically'' tries to have pieces of Britto acquired by museums. ``We do everything we can to try and assist and have things happen, but it's a slow process. Museums are very picky, they look at reviews and sometimes they can be very biased.''

As the art world turns, Britto finishes his lunch. His work requires no need for knowledge of art history, no middlemen, experts agreeing or complex explanations. Britto himself says ``my art is not a big mystery.''

As for being in museums, Britto, unassuming but confident, shrugs it off.
``You know what I care about? -- being in people's homes, being part of people's lives,'' he says softly. ``Knowing that people wake up in the morning and have my art around. That's what I care about. Being in a museum is great, but right now I am not looking for validation. Eventually everything is going to happen. I'm very young. People like my work. My message is very simple and people like what I do. They come to an opening and boom, they buy it, and every time somebody gets one of my pieces I'm voted in. They say `keep painting.' ''






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