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Britto draws mass appeal as businessman and celebrity artist

It’s a brilliant day on South Beach, the sun is streaming into the Britto Central gallery on Lincoln Road as media and corporate types are milling about. Beneath the colorful artwork on the walls are Romero Britto’s latest creations, colorful compositions on a most unusual canvas — strollers, baby carriers, rattles and sunshades.

Center stage in his gallery, Britto is announcing his partnership with Dorel Juvenile Group for a special edition line of Quinny and Maxi-Cosi baby products. Wearing jeans and sneakers, Britto, 48, looks like an excited teen, exuberant over the new products on which his vibrant art designs have landed.

“This is a great opportunity to create a piece of art and have it enjoyed by families,” Britto says, pointing to the sleek baby items. “I wish good luck for this collection and good things in life for the people who use it.”

In his Lincoln Road gallery with the walls covered in original paintings, some selling for more than $100,000, Britto’s announcement of his newest partnership takes him further in a nontraditional direction. It marks another expansion of Britto’s signature colors and shapes onto products that include everything from luggage to key chains to trivets to pet collars. It is this mass market approach to art that has led one critic at the event to whisper aloud, “What’s next, Britto underwear?”

Clearly, this kind of criticism doesn’t faze Britto, who has a definitive vision about the direction of his rapidly expanding business empire. “I am not like artists of the past who want their work enjoyed by an exclusive few. I want to share my work with as many people as I can.” That strategy has transformed Britto from a contemporary artist into a pop icon whose original art pieces can be found in pricey galleries worldwide, whose sculptures loom large in public spaces and whose affordable branded merchandise sells in gift shops on cruise ships, in airports, in hospitals and most recently on the shelves of the giant retailer Bed Bath and Beyond.

Behind Britto, the Brazilian artist, is Alina Shriver, the Miami businesswoman. Shriver has worked with Britto for 15 years and although she is married to Anthony Kennedy-Shriver, she jovially calls herself Britto’s office wife. Shriver is CEO of Shriver Art, the exclusive worldwide agent for Britto and the strategic thinker behind the explosion of Britto merchandise. Shriver oversees 80 employees who work from the Lincoln Road gallery, taking orders for commissioned pieces, overseeing charitable contributions and public art requests, sifting through partnership offers and handling ecommerce.

Although Britto may have started as an artist, he now has sold more than $50 million worth of licensed merchandise with 45 partners around the world, Shriver says. Miami advertising guru Bruce Turkel calls Britto “a branding genius.” His empire spans accessories from flip flops and umbrellas to iPhone cases and wallets, all the way to signature Britto art pieces such as figurines, posters and screenprints. The entrepreneur also has added “book illustrator” to his brand portfolio, producing children’s books published by Simon & Schuster.

Britto enjoys telling his rags to riches story. He was raised in Recife, Brazil, born into a large family, and grew up poor. Originally, he wanted to be a diplomat but became frustrated in that effort. He came to Miami in his early 20s to visit a friend who was attending University of Miami. He says he decided to stay and make a go of selling his paintings, which sometimes were done on newspaper. In the beginning, he sold pieces on the street, and eventually displayed his art in a shop in the Mayfair mall in Coconut Grove. Britto’s break came in 1989 when he was selected to design the bottle label for Absolut Vodka’s “Absolut Art” campaign.

Britto says it has been one small step at a time over the last 25 years — getting the work into galleries, landing special commissions, designing art for public places and making local and then international connections that led to collaborations with widely recognized brands. “You would think we would have a master plan, but so much of what we’ve done has happened in an organic way,” Shriver explains.

For example, a connection Britto made when dedicating a piece of public art in Miami led to his commission to design the pool deck for the debut of Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas in 2003. Seven years later, that relationship led to Britto scoring his own concept stores on three Royal Caribbean cruise ships including the giant Allure of the Seas.

Joe Schlipman, director of onboard revenue for Royal Caribbean Cruises, said in this partnership arrangement, the cruise line operates the concept stores and works directly with Britto licensees. The appeal, he says, is that the ships attract passengers from around the world and Britto has an international following who want his affordable merchandise. Although the stores carry sculptures and paintings priced as high as $15,000, Schlipman says what sells are items priced below $200. He would not reveal total revenue for Britto merchandise. While sales are good, he says, there are no plans for more stores on ships. “Because they are operated in-house, it’s more demanding.”

Schlipman says Britto has been strategic in creating his following, interacting with guests during the maiden voyage of Allure of the Seas, explaining to them his philosophy that “art is happy,” signing autographs for hours, and hosting a kids painting party. He says it’s this type of interaction with people at events around the world that has built Britto’s international fan base.

Shriver said she had been working on a partnership to get Britto products into airport stores for at least five years. That effort paid off in 2009 when it turned into Shop Britto, an exclusive partnership with NewsLink, which now sells an array of Britto merchandise in two stores in Miami airport’s north terminal. Raymond Kayal Jr., president and CEO of NewsLink, said Britto represents a home-grown Miami business but his appeal is global. That means the ability to ring up sales from international shoppers, who make up about 50 percent of airport visitors. “Based on the success of these two stores, we are looking for opportunities in more airports,” Kayal said.

There are many who want a piece of Britto, but Shriver says she only considers partnerships and licensing when the arrangement is mutually beneficial. By carefully choosing partners with national and international distribution channels, Britto is achieving the global recognition most brands covet.

Dan Pennacchio, general manager of international brands at Dorel Juvenile Group, said his company had much to gain from putting Britto’s designs on its high-end strollers and car seats. Having a passionate, hands-on artist with Britto’s well recognized public persona put his personal touch on the products has value, he says. “Our motivation is not the individual sale of stroller or car seat, it’s about the collection. We need special things in our collection. We’ll get the appropriate price and sell a nice amount but the bigger value is the awareness this brings to our brand.”

Pennacchio says he expects to expand distribution beyond the national market into international markets such as Korea, Germany and Brazil, where Britto has a following.

Shriver expects to see even more partnerships like the one with Dorel. She says Britto has only been licensing products for four years and it is still a small part of overall revenue, as his works of art are sold in more than 100 galleries worldwide. Still, revenue from licensing deals rose 26 percent last year and she expects it to rise another 10 percent or more this year. While that business segment represents the fastest-growing piece of the Britto empire, Shriver says the other divisions have seen improvement every year, too. “Even during the recession, it’s been modest, but it’s growth.”

The challenge now, says branding guru Daniel Rosentreter, is to avert diluting the brand. “The more you create broad appeal, the more you run the risk of undermining brand equity. It’s hard to know where that balance is, but with art you have to be extra careful because people like mystique. That’s what art is all about,” says Rosentreter, chief strategy officer with FutureBrand North America.

Meanwhile, critics and influential collectors have scoffed at Britto, claiming he is not a serious artist. Britto even has had to contend with angry graffiti on a publicly displayed sculpture and mural in Miami. But other wealthy supporters in equal numbers have continued to buy his work and give him commissions. Miami art collector Marty Margulies says, “There are collectors who think his art is too simple. His talent tends to be graphic design and color. But people buy him and those people must appreciate him. His work is popular.”

Indeed, his work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in more than 100 countries, including the Salon Nationale des Beaux-Arts exhibition at the Carrousel du Louvre in 2008 and 2010. He has also created public art installations for impressive venues such as the O2 Dome (Berlin), Hyde Park (London), John F. Kennedy Airport (New York), The Time Warner Center (New York) and Cirque du Soleil at Super Bowl XLI. “The NFL asked me to create something unique for the opening of the Super Bowl,” he explains. “It was good because it was the first time an installation was seen by so many people at the same time — ever.”

While he might consider himself an artist for the masses, Britto the businessman still panders to the art collector looking for original paintings or limited editions. If a collector calls from places such as Argentina, Italy or Germany and says he’s coming into town, particularly one willing to spend six figures on a painting, “we stop what we’re doing and all the attention is on them,” Shriver says.

Some will argue the charm of Britto is his personality as much as his cheery compositions. He’s been able to market his likeability, more typical of an actor or athlete than an artist. “When you meet the man, you understand where his work comes from,” Shriver says.

“Part of his success is that he’s such a nice guy. People like him,” says longtime Miami Beach developer Craig Robbins of DACRA “He does an extraordinary job at marketing himself, positioning himself, getting people interested in what he’s doing and producing an marketable form of creativity that people really like.”

Britto is savvy about public appearances. He’s used charity events to connect with prominent people: actors, politicians, athletes and corporate executives. He travels worldwide and has taken on the title of celebrity artist — rubbing elbows with Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark and British Ambassador to Brazil Alan Charlton. “People are critical about artists who are successful while they are alive. I think in my case, I have an opportunity to work with companies and charities who want to work with an artist who has a face.”

Shriver says businessman Britto still hasn’t learned to say no. Through his foundation, he has donated art and time to more than 250 charitable organization, particularly children-related charities in Miami and all over the world. He sits on the board of Best Buddies International, run by Shriver’s husband, and on the Leadership Council for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Most recently, he was selected as the Ambassador to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Of course, jetting around the world has taken him away from as much hands-on painting as he would like. “We have a process. It’s pretty organized,” Shriver explains. “We present the ideas to him, once he approves an idea conceptually, he doesn’t see the project again until it’s at the physical stage. That’s when he tweaks it for color or patterns.”

Going forward, Shriver says, expect more Britto concept stores in unique locations. And, if Shriver is right, expect Britto fans and customers to multiply. “There are always going to be critics but history will tell who is successful. The world is changing, museums are changing, and people have to change, even art collectors are changing.”

Britto, too, has his vision for the future: “I’d like to one day have a studio open to the public, to invite the public to come see how everything happens.”

For now, Britto creates art in a 50,000-square-foot Renaissance-style studio in Wynwood with a team of dozens of assistants carrying out most of the technical work based on his sketches. Next, he wants to build one that’s 100,000-square-feet with a giant sculpture garden. “I have my art in the hands of the most incredible people in the world. But art is not just for the richest people. I want my art to be enjoyed by all.”