MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Miami, the art of Romero Britto is hard to miss. Huge cartoon-like figures tower over shopping mall entrances and grin happily from billboards. One even clambers at the side of a condo building. Britto's work is simple, drawings of children, butterflies and flowers. It has made him wealthy and famous around the world. NPR's Greg Allen reports now on the nagging question of whether it's serious art.
GREG ALLEN: In Miami, there is no artist who is better known or more popular than Britto. And developers are some of his biggest fans, developers like John Kokinchak who dedicated three Britto sculptures at a new shopping center downtown.
Mr. JOHN KOKINCHAK: Romero has managed to create contemporary masterpieces that invoke a spirit of hope.
Mr. ROMERO BRITTO (Neo-Pop Artist): Hello, how you doing? Wow, it looks so nice, this one in red. So you got the whole butterfly in red? That's going to do? What about you, a yellow? You know what, yellow is my favorite color.
ALLEN: Britto is in his element. There's a Brazilian drum ensemble and a children's paint party to celebrate the unveiling of his sculptures - a heart, a butterfly and an 11-foot tall dancing boy. The bold outlines, bright colors and simple images of Britto's art appeal to children, public officials and art collectors alike. Britto says there's a reason his work is so popular - it makes people happy.
Mr. BRITTO: Some people in the arts that - they really still believe that art is only important if you talk about something, like, disgusting or horrible or depressing, you know? But I think, you know, feeling good and I think is -happiness is not like a shallow feeling. It's a very deep feeling.
ALLEN: Being a purveyor of happiness has paid off for Romero Britto. The artist, who's in his mid-40s, employs about 70 people, many at his sprawling workshop in Miami's Wynnewood art district. Some are building and painting frames for his prints, others are working on crating and shipping his art to customers around the world. And down a hallway, behind glass doors, is his studio.
Mr. BRITTO: And here, I come up with the ideas and I put in my canvasses and I put the colors. I have several assistant to help me to fill in my colors. I try to keep this place very, like, you don't talk about anything else but creativity here.
ALLEN: It's an art business empire that stretches from Brazil, where some of his sculptures and other work is fabricated, to galleries in New York, London and Geneva. Looking around the workshop, you can find Britto's art on paintings, prints, sculptures, shoes, bicycle shirts, shopping bags. There's even a Britto cologne.
Crass commercialism or art brought to the people, it's all happened in just two decades. Britto arrived in Miami in 1987. Two years later, his career took off when he was asked to design a commemorative label for Absolut Vodka, following in the footsteps of pop artists Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. On the walls of his workshop and gallery is the evidence of the doors that have opened since, testimony from Ted Kennedy, Jeb Bush and Gloria Estefan, photos of Britto with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chelsea Clinton.
Mr. BRITTO: The vocabulary that I have is a universal one. My audience is very large. I want to reach out to millions of people.
ALLEN: Some people say if everybody can understand it, then it must be too simple, right? I mean, that you probably get that, right?
Mr. BRITTO: No, it's not because it's simple. I mean, it's simple and it's not simple. But beautiful things in life, it's really simple anyway. If you're going to get, like, an orchid, or a flower or, you know, animal, or something, it's very simple, it's not complicated.
ALLEN: And what better place to reach out to people than Miami Beach?
Ms. DAWN STONE (Sales Associate, Britto Central): Here are his sculptures and posters for sale and memorabilia.
ALLEN: Right. And here, we have some kind of reproductions of - here's the Absolut bottle, the ones that kind of made him famous?
Ms. STONE: Yes, yes. And the Swatch watch and some Tiffany's.
ALLEN: Britto Central is the artist's shop and gallery in the heart of the trendy South Beach scene. You can buy a $14 notepad or a $200,000 original painting. Sales associate Dawn Stone says many buyers come from Europe and Latin America. They're drawn by the direct appeal of his bright colors and cartoon-like images, and they're reassured that Britto's paintings have steadily appreciated, which brings us to another issue. There's no question that Britto's art is popular and that people respond to it. But will it have staying power? Some critics are skeptical, calling Britto's art derivative and decorative, lacking in emotional depth. The director of the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, Carol Damian, says pop artists have heard these slams before.
Ms. CAROL DAMIAN (Director, Frost Art Museum, Florida International University): The same thing was also true about Andy Warhol when he started to create his work, the "Brillo Box," for instance. Everybody said, but is it art? Romero Britto has just taken this 40 years beyond into his environment. It's not the "Brillo Box," it's not the Campbell's Soup can, it's Miami, and it's popular in Miami. So what's wrong with that?
ALLEN: There are signs that even conservative art institutions are starting to take notice. Last year, to commemorate the opening of the King Tut exhibition in London, Britto created a 45-foot-tall pyramid that was erected in Hyde Park. And this winter, his work will be part of a group show at the Louvre in Paris. To which, Britto says, so what?
Mr. BRITTO: I don't care if it's going to be in a museum. I want - I used to show my work on the sidewalk. I want people to see my work, it doesn't matter where. You know, artists in the time of the Renaissance, you know, you can paint the walls. If you paint the walls, you're gonna be, like, really bad. If you paint a ceiling, it would be prestigious. You know, I don't care. I mean, at this point today, people see the piece of Michelangelo on the walls and they see on the ceiling, you know, and I'm sure that people are really in awe just to see - it doesn't matter on the wall or on the ceiling. And for me, I want my work to be closer to people.
ALLEN: That's why Britto is pleased with an exhibition featuring his sculptures that's now traveling around the U.S. A real estate company, Developers Diversified Realty, is showing Britto's work in venues with which by now, he's very comfortable - shopping malls. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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