| August 18, 2014 | People
Romero Britto is a powerful force in philanthropy in Las Vegas, donating his sunny Neo-Pop art to causes all over the city—a contribution his longtime friend Larry Ruvo is eager to share.
Larry Ruvo and Romero Britto at Vegas’s Agassi Prep Academy in 2009.
Meeting on a chartered Concorde flight would be an auspicious beginning to any new friendship, but in the case of Larry Ruvo, senior managing director of Southern Wine & Spirits and founder of Keep Memory Alive, the foundation that supports the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, and an as-yet-unknown Pop artist named Romero Britto, that 1988 flight to Sweden has left an incredible legacy of philanthropy in Las Vegas. In the years since a young Britto was selected along with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring for Absolut Vodka’s “Absolut Art” campaign, he has exhibited in more than 100 countries and contributed to more than 250 charitable causes, among other accomplishments, and earlier this year he was appointed an ambassador for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Recently, Ruvo and Britto discussed their friendship, Britto’s contributions to Las Vegas, and his remarkable— and unusual—path to international diplomacy.
Larry Ruvo: I met Romero a few decades ago on a trip to Sweden with Michel Roux, the creator of Absolut Vodka, who went to artists from all over the world to create this groundbreaking new campaign. I was enamored with his art—but [even more so] when I began to understand where he really came from.
Romero Britto: I was born in Recife, Brazil, and my mother had nine kids, which was pretty hard because she was a single mother. I never like to talk about my childhood; I don’t have great memories anyway. But I had a friendship with a family from England, and I had an opportunity to stay with them in Europe. I started dreaming of being a diplomat like the parents of my friends. I went into the army and law school—and then realized I was miserable. I never thought my art would take me anywhere. But [years later], I am meeting friends like Larry and staying as a guest of the royal family of Sweden. Two years ago I was at Buckingham Palace with Prince Charles, Camilla, and the queen, meeting Prince Harry, Prince William, Kate Middleton. It was the most incredible thing you could imagine. In fact, you’ve become a diplomat in a much more powerful way than you probably could have if you had gone through the normal channels.
Britto paints as part of the 2013 Best Buddies International event in Miami, for which he teamed up with Chris Brown.
RB: I really appreciate that, and I think it’s better to be a diplomat of goodwill than be just from one country. Do you know how many people suffer because sometimes people who are in a position of leadership don’t understand how important it is to share their influence, their wealth, their knowledge, their wisdom?
LR: Here’s a man who came from a distressed childhood in a shantytown. When I met him, he said, “I’ll never paint with dark colors”—because his art is about bringing hope and light to people. He has huge fans on the basis of both his art and his kindness. I was in Kennebunkport with President George H.W. Bush and Barbara; I did a fundraiser for the Kennedy family—they’re all huge fans. Here’s a guy who in Miami is an icon, and in fact he painted the Miami Dolphins’ stadium! Recently when we honored Gloria and Emilio Estefan [at the Power of Love Gala for Keep Memory Alive] and I showed them some of his artwork, they both said, “He’s one of our most favorite people on the entire planet.” And they know a lot of people.
RB: When I see what Larry has done, bringing this incredible organization to Vegas to make it possible for future generations not to have to go through such stress or grieving with their loved ones, definitely I am there. Every time I go to Vegas, I can’t wait to come back again and help a little bit with my art.
LR: For at least the last 20 years, Romero has donated work for UNLVino [a showcase by Southern Wine & Spirits that raises scholarship money for students of UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration], which has allowed us to raise millions of dollars for academically talented but financially challenged kids. In 1999, I asked him, “Is there any way I can get you to come out and auction off one of your pieces of art for Andre Agassi’s school?” He got a lot of money for his art [at the auction], but most importantly Romero was at the school, seeing the students and being with the people. Between what he’s helped UNLV raise, what he’s helped me raise for Keep Memory Alive, and what he’s helped Agassi raise— we’re talking about a sum of not millions of dollars, but tens of millions of dollars in Las Vegas alone.
Andre Agassi with Britto and Ruvo at the Andre Agassi Grand Slam for Children art unveiling in 2009.
Does either of you have a favorite moment at one of the Las Vegas events to which you’ve contributed?
LR: One was the night of the Agassi event, when I was backstage and I was listening to Elton John and so many other celebrities talking about my friend in such a genuine, caring way. The other for me was when I brought him to the Frank Gehry building, which was under construction, and his eyes were like a kid in a candy store. The culmination of that is a beautiful painting. He came back in April, and President Clinton was there, and he got to walk into the building for the first time to see his art and understand that he’s a very big part of this. We’re going to see 50,000 patients and change people’s lives because of his support. He doesn’t like to take all the accolades and compliments, but that moment for me was seeing my friend’s face when he saw his art in the building for the first time.
RB: That is the exact same unforgettable moment for me. I’m so proud of what you’ve done, giving such a living legacy to the world. Millions of people go to Vegas and have the best time, but for me to say, “Look, I went and I sat down with scientists, and they’re doing all kinds of research, finding the cure for so many diseases of the brain in this incredible building,” it’s very unique.
Beautiful Mind, the painting that Britto did for the Ruvo Center.
Do you have a favorite piece you’ve brought to Las Vegas that you feel just belongs here more than any other place?
RB: Oh, yes. The one that is at the Ruvo Center, called Beautiful Mind. It’s this massive brain in the middle of this square, and when you look at it, it looks like you’re looking at space and you see stars on the side, and the other side you cannot see because it’s too far away, but it’s right there. I love that piece. I was looking at it again and I was so proud and so happy. It’s wonderful to have that piece in that incredible place.
photography Courtesy of the artist (Beautiful Mind);
Photography by Denise trusCello/Wireimage (ruvo); gustavo Caballero/getty images (britto); george rose/getty Images (ruvo Center); DenIse trusCello/WIreImage (agassI)