Interview with Maria Brito
By Erin Anderson.
It’s a cold, rainy Monday morning and I’m on a bus headed for New York City. It’s a trip I make often, usually on Thursdays for openings. Today is a little different; I’ll be sitting down with Maria Brito, art advisor and a fixture on the art scene. I’ll admit I have some nerves about it. She is a powerhouse: art advisor to the likes of Sean (PDiddy) Combes and Gwyneth Paltrow, curator and collaborator, entrepreneur, high end designer, book author and all around tastemaker. To top it all off, this is her second career. Before she followed her passion for art she went to Harvard Law School and worked for almost ten years in law. Talk about drive.
My bus arrives at Port Authority late and I scramble into the rain for a cab. My driver can’t find the address in his GPS (29-35…the dash confounds) and I try to tell him to just use the first number in the address. He doesn’t understand. I hand him my phone and he starts moving in the general direction, finally dropping me off after overshooting the location by about a block. Again I scramble in the drizzle, ducking under awnings to the next street up. We’ve arranged to meet at Soho House, a nondescript place from the outside, and I’m assuming that’s what they want. A place meant only for creative professionals where exclusivity and anonymity are prized.
Despite my late bus and my floundering cab driver, I’m there ten minutes early and Maria hasn’t arrived yet. I’m glad, I want to look over my notes one last time to make sure I remember everything. I look up as someone walks in the door, a chic young woman wearing black pumps with the signature Louboutin red. I look at my own heels, TjMaxx. I remember images that accompanied the interviews I read during my research. Maria always looked fabulous in edgy, colorful fashions and designer heels. I feel I’m in a little over my head.
As I sit back in my chair I see Maria walk in. I breathe a sigh of relief as she’s in sneakers and casual jeans and top. I'm glad she's the sort of normal that doesn't wear Louboutins on a rainy Monday and I can feel myself relax a little.
After exchanging quick hellos we are swept into an elevator to the restaurant to find a place to sit. I make small talk while simultaneously thinking over my first question. I had read in a previous interview that her parents hadn’t encouraged a creative career path, that they felt it wasn't stable enough. I assumed perhaps that meant she hadn’t had many outlets to art while she was growing up.
We sit down in plush seats near the back of the room and she orders an Americano, black. To get started, I ask if there was a moment in her childhood where she remembers being especially struck by a piece of art, assuming it wasn’t a regular part of her upbringing. Sensing my meaning, she corrects me immediately,
“My parents were very good nurturers of my creativity but not as something I could depend on to sustain myself.”
She describes being enrolled in art lessons, going to the theater, going to plays, and visiting artist studios. I’m a little embarrassed at my assumption, but I also have an immediate fondness for her parents who clearly paved the way for her passion of art to grow. Echoing this sentiment, she went on to explain,
“Actually I sort of got my first training with them (her parents), going to artists studios, living with art in a very different way. They had collected some works that were interesting, my grandparents had collected some works that were interesting and that had some value. But it was like a hobby. It wasn’t something they considered to make a living.”
Later she revealed that she traveled to New York with her family once a year since she was young. It is a testament to just how important high culture and art actually is to her family and I can see now how central it was to her upbringing.
“They were like let’s go to the Guggenheim or let’s go to the MET and let’s go do Broadway shows and let’s go do off Broadway and let’s go and see the nutcracker at the ballet so I had that. I’m very lucky because I have been coming to New York since I was seven and many Americans who live here now didn’t come to New York for the first time until they were 25.”
“I think the first time I came to New York I was 21”
“Yes, you see? I was very lucky in that sense and that I always knew I wanted to live here. Even when I was seven, we took a trip to see this show at NYU and it was Frida Kahlo, the wife of Diego Rivera. That’s how she was known you know, pobrecita she was like totally crazy or whatever. It was between that show, that and also Keith Haring in the subways, I’ll never forget.”
"It's incredible that you had the opportunity to see all of that!"
"It’s a thing that I treasure, a lot of people didn’t even know who Frida Kahlo was when they were seven no matter how much art history they studied. Even nowadays not that many people go to see the shows at NYU at the Grey Gallery and at the time it was very, you know, the village was not like it is today. It was funky, drugs, Washington square park was selling a lot of drugs. That whole village area where NYU was, I mean the university was good, but the area itself was not as clean and sanitized and posh as it is today. It was bohemian, for sure, it was beautiful, but it was not as nice as it is today. My parents took those kinds of risks to see things that were special and unique."
I am filled with incredible admiration for her parents while simultaneously feeling struck with just how deep that vein runs in her family. She goes on to explain that they valued art tremendously, but they considered it their pleasure not their livelihood,
“It wasn’t forcefully, but it was like “Ohhh, that poor girl who went to Graphic Design school...”
“Got that degree and makes no money...”
“Yeah exactly, that kind of thing. It was actually kind of a vile way of doing it either way but I think that it was like inception right? Like you plant a seed.”
I nod remembering my own mother’s not so subtle recommendations to look into the field of psychiatry as a career option. My mother came from blue collar Detroit and so practical career paths were the only valid ones she considered.
We talk some more about early education, art classes and her love of the process. I ask her if the creation of art was something she was still interested in. She said yes but that the hardest thing for her was her lack of patience. Laughing, she recalls, “I would go in and say ‘this is how I do it’ and the teacher would go ‘no, no there’s a process to doing this!’ I also took graphic design although that was the hardest because you have a lot of rules to follow.”
This insight into her early approaches to art making and creation are telling. It’s clear she has always had the ability to feel inspiration acutely and her “impatience” was perhaps her haste to capture the moment, to manifest her inspiration immediately. As artists, we can relate to this feeling. It’s why we do what we do and that impatience is something most of us grapple with. It's clear to me that creativity and intuition are fundamental aspects of who she is. Interestingly, a big reason why she’s achieved the success that she has is because her intuition and creativity is balanced by logic, process and structure. I don’t know a lot of people who have such an equal balance; a lot of us either have one or the other.
“Art history was a big thing for me. I took electives and then advanced courses throughout school because it was super important for me. To this day I think I know as much as people who have degrees in art, but I don’t say that because they get very offended.”
I tell Maria I assume her interest in art history has helped her immensely with her business to give collectors context to the work. She sits back and I can tell she’s digesting an answer that comprises of so much more. She does this often throughout the interview, reviewing the scenario in 4D, evaluating every aspect, and quickly! Superficial processing doesn’t seem to be a part of her makeup. Recognizing and dissecting complex elements is another strength that speaks directly to her success.
“I still get people who did two years of Sotheby’s special training who call and ask me how I made this business. ‘I dedicated my life to this and now I’ve opened a bakery because I couldn’t find my way through being an art advisor the way you’ve done it.’ And I think the important thing is you can’t really be too theoretical. This is a business of intuition and so there are artists who are terrible no matter how many big guns they have behind them and there are artists who have something really special in them. There are also artists who combine, not the highest degree of talent, but talent with business savvy. If you don’t have all those things… I’m sorry, we don’t live in a bubble. It’s not all about academics and museums. Even museums are trying to do things differently these days because they’re seeing their levels of attendance going down so much.”
Again, I see how balance and well-roundedness is imperative, not only to the success of her business but in most businesses in general.
Now I’m interested in her law background. Initially I had assumed she’d had very little exposure to art during childhood and law was something she pursued at the encouragement of her parents and maybe also just because she felt like there weren't any other good options out there. Now that I realize how wrong my initial assumption was, Harvard Law School seems like more of a blip and I’m trying to understand how life took her in that direction. Going with another assumption, I ask Maria if law school was a misery because it fostered very little in the way of creative outlets.
“At that time I believed my own story and the story of my parents so I thought it was amazing. I’m here! This is such an opportunity and it’s so unique and I feel so great about this. So I kind of like fooled myself into this idea of well maybe all the courses were amazing and my teachers were incredible and the people I met were absolutely brilliant. But yeah…it’s a very dry place and it doesn’t really foster that much creativity, right? I mean, there is a lot of creative thinking, but I think I got the most out of that time with critical thinking. You have to challenge everything from a perspective that actually has a foundation. So I’m good at thinking critically and also thinking in a quick way because you have to react in that type of environment very quickly. I think that has helped me a lot with where I am today."
After graduating from law school, Maria spent the next nine years practicing law in Manhattan as part of a larger firm. It was a comfortable job in that she was paid handsomely and afforded the freedom to do the things that she wanted. It was also during this time that she frequented galleries in Chelsea, meeting artists, gallerists and curators.
"Ten years ago when I started my own collection it was a very, very closed world. Today is very porous and super open in relation to what it used to be. I had that passion for things that were beautiful and helping my friends also hang their works and curate and rotate."
Working to help friends acquire art, she found validation when they would later call to let her know their acquisitions had appreciated significantly. After working in law for some time and the birth of her first son, she realized she needed a change. Suddenly the prospect of going back to work at a job she hated wasn't a viable option.
"I thought the job that I do makes no sense, I mean it does, but at the time I didn’t see the point in it. I’m just one brick in this huge wall of attorneys, all unhappy, you know? It’s not creative, I’m an entrepreneur, I feel it, I have it in me, I have to do something. I just can’t keep doing this."
This moment feels like a coming full circle in Maria's life. Starting with inspiration and passion for art, going into a field that is dry, structured, logical, taking what she needed from those experiences and letting that environment shape a part of who she is. Now it was time to embark upon the life she wanted. I also have to add, I'm amazed at her timing. She decided to leave her very safe, secure career to start a new, risky venture right after the 2008 economic woes and after just becoming a new mom to boot. I'm literally astounded at her grit and I imagine 99.9% of us wouldn't have had the guts. I have to know more. I don't have children (yet) but the prospect of losing my career in the responsibilities of motherhood is a real fear for me and I found her reply fantastic:
"The way I see it is that balance is just so much bullshit. They put it out for us and then what do you do with that? I think you pay more attention to one thing than another at any given time you know? I think it is super important for my kids to see me working and engaged in something I love. That was also one of the reasons why I said I can’t model my life after something I hate so much. For me to show my kids that I’m doing something I love is very important. I don’t know if they fully understand…"
I think if they are anything like their mother they someday will.
My next questions have to do with business, art fairs, the brick and mortar model and how the market is ripe for disruption with the right tech and approach. Like everything I notice she evaluates from every angle, pluses, negatives, challenges and advantages. For instance, I assumed the big fair model was a boon for her business. She would be able to cover a lot of ground quickly showing clients a multitude of art in minimal time. She agreed this is true but was quick to recognize the strain it's putting on a lot of other aspects of the art world and how a brick and mortar gallery is sort of in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. She also admitted, she didn't want to come across as jaded, but it was easy to get art fair fatigue. Something I don't think she needs to feel ashamed to admit, just in the time it took to coordinate our meeting she was occupied first with Frieze New York and then abroad for the Venice Biennial.
I look at my phone and realize our time has probably gone a little over and we wrap up the conversation. I come away knowing a little more about Maria. Someone who is primarily known for her celebrity clientele, fashion forwardness and instinct for the art market, but equally interesting is the path she's taken to get to this point. After all, while she was going through the steps, it was anything but straightforward. But in hindsight, it all fits together with the kind of elegant synchronicity that comes from a life lived with passion and intent. I see how her experiences lent her the knowledge, skills and drive she needed to build a business that was exceptional. The most exciting thing is that she really has only just gotten started.
We say our goodbye and she heads back out into the dreary Monday afternoon rain while I head in the opposite direction to Port Authority. I don't know if our paths will cross again, but I know at the very least, I will be keeping my eyes open for her next big project.
Article courtesy of PoetsArtists Magazine