How Maria Brito used Instagram to build a 7-figure art consulting business
She eventually grew her audience to over 200,000 followers across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and email.
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It was 2008 and Maria Brito was miserable. By that point, she had spent the better part of a decade in corporate law, a career she hated and had only entered out of familial obligation. “I grew up in Venezuela in a conservative family,” she told me in an interview. “My parents thought that the only path for me was to become an attorney or a doctor or an engineer.”
Brito graduated Harvard Law School in 2000 and soon got a job at a New York law firm. “I was so depressed and had no meaning or purpose in that job,” she said. She now refers to that period as “the dark ages.” In a recent Instagram post she described it as “countless hours, all-nighters, lack of creativity, lack of diversity, boring routines.”
But Brito did have one bright spot in her life; in the early 2000s she started going to NYC galleries and buying some art. She’d always been interested in art since she was a young child, but the density of galleries in New York allowed her to take this interest to a whole new level. “As I grew more fascinated with the field, I started recommending art to friends,” she said. “And it was very interesting to see my friends calling me and saying, ‘that artist you recommended me is getting hot. The price is going up.’ Those calls provided me with little clues that I needed to change careers.”
Eventually, Brito reached a breaking point. In 2008, she went on maternity leave, and the thought of returning to her job filled her with dread. By that point, the economy had entered a tailspin, with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers both collapsing. She decided that if there was ever a time to shift careers, this was it. “I went back to the law firm after maternity leave, and then they paid the bonuses in January, and then I quit.”
Within months, Brito had launched her own art buying consultancy. By then, she had built up a small network of high net worth individuals who trusted her recommendations, and that network served as her initial client base.
But Brito also invested a significant portion of her time into creating online content, first with a blog and then later on social media. She eventually grew her audience to over 200,000 followers across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and email, and she’s leveraged this audience to sign book deals, run brand sponsorship campaigns, and bring in dozens of wealthy clients that include Gwyneth Paltrow and Sean "Diddy" Combs.
How did Brito accomplish all of this? In a recent interview, she explained to me her content creation process, her philosophy on Instagram sponsorship deals, and why so many high net worth individuals trust her to buy art for their collections, often after seeing only a static iPhone photo of the piece she’s recommending for purchase.
Let’s jump into my findings…
It all started with a blog
To understand why Brito became so successful in her career as an art advisor, it’s helpful to know what an art advisor does. On the surface, it’s simply recommending art to her clients for purchase, and then she takes a commission on the sale price. In theory, she’s recommending art that’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but also projected to go up in value.
But the market is so much more complicated than that. An up and coming artist doesn’t simply produce their art and then list a purchase price. They use galleries as intermediaries, and those galleries evaluate potential buyers on all sorts of criteria — not only price, but also whether the clients have purchased art before, whether they intend to display it in a well-regarded museum, and, perhaps most important of all, whether they will simply turn around right away and sell it at auction for a profit. Engaging in that last act can get a client blacklisted from a gallery forever.
Brito’s reasons for launching a blog were twofold. The first was that it provided a vehicle through which she could learn about this labyrinthine world. “I did it for my own education,” she said. “I’m not from this world, and I was learning on the go. The blog was the perfect link to build out an audience but also try to make sense and educate myself even more.”
It also brought her closer to the very gallery owners who would decide whether a client of hers could purchase a particular piece of art. “I did it with the intent of connecting with the artist,” she explained. “It started to become a thing that artists wanted to become part of this project. I would write well, and I had a photographer who photographed their material in the best possible light. I would also distribute it like crazy because I was building up this audience on social media.”
Brito launched the initial version of her blog on Blogspot. “It looked horrendous,” she said. “We had an option to do Wordpress, but that required a lot of coding and I didn’t have the time or inclination to learn how to code.” She posted to it about once a week, and the posts usually consisted of a short summary of what she saw at the galleries she visited.
She monitored the analytics closely, and though the blog never attracted a huge readership, the audience was influential. “I think what really caused an impression on me was the messages and emails and comments on the posts. That gave me a lot of impetus. I felt that, well, if these people who read super sophisticated publications like Art Forum were reading and sharing my content, then I must be doing something right. It was not that much about the traffic, it was about the people who were influential and responding really well to my posts.”
The move to Instagram
While the blog raised Brito’s stature within the artistic community, it was the expansion onto Instagram that transformed her into a minor celebrity in that world. For the first few years of Instagram’s existence, she actually avoided joining the platform. “I was thinking in my mind, oh my god, I already have Facebook and Twitter and a blog, I don’t need Instagram.” But a friend of hers was persistent in arguing that all the major artists were active on the photo-sharing app.
As it happened, Brito had a coffee table book coming out in 2013. The deal had come about as a result of a blog post she had written for Goop, the lifestyle brand launched by Gwyneth Paltrow. “Right now, Goop is a huge company, but this was when it was just Gwyneth and an assistant. It got me an enormous amount of attention and visibility. Because of that, a publishing house called me and said, ‘we love what you do. Do you want to make a book with us?’”
Brito joined Instagram to promote the book. The timing ended up being perfect. “When the book came out, I was in The New York Times, I was in Vogue.” Whenever those articles came out the publications would often tag her in their promotional Instagram posts. “When you were promoted by these other accounts, thousands of people would follow you.”
She incorporated Instagram into her blogging routine; every time she visited a gallery, she’d take several photos and upload them as an album. Often, she’d simply snap these photos with her own iPhone, but she also sometimes brought a photographer with her when she wanted to appear in the photos. Artists with gigantic audiences kept tagging and interacting with her posts, and her account gained tens of thousands of followers in a short period of time.
Then the DMs started flowing in. Sometimes they were just fans of her work, but often they were rich individuals who enjoyed her tastes and wanted to hire her to find them art. “I got several DMs from big collectors saying they would love to work with me on these emerging artists. In some of those cases I even got invited to fly out of the country and work with those people because they liked what I was doing and saw I was legit.”
As Brito’s profile rose, she began to diversify into other business models. First there were the book deals (she has another one coming out this year) and then she launched an online course. She called it “Jumpstart” and described it as a course for anyone who’s feeling “creatively stuck,” whether it’s in their careers or other pursuits. “I sought to put in this program not only my experience, but all the things I’ve learned from the best artists I’ve worked with and give a practical teaching to my students via short videos, PDFs, exercises, and weekly goals.”
The original version of the course cost $497 and was conducted live, meaning that Brito had to set aside time each week to host regular Zoom meetings with participants. But that eventually grew too taxing, and so she created a more evergreen version of the course, meaning that someone could download it at any time and move through it at their leisure. For that, she lowered the price to $297.
Of course, the most prevalent method for monetizing a large Instagram following is to accept brand sponsorships, but Brito has been especially circumspect on that front. “I get emails every day from people who want me to promote things, but I’m not interested in making $1,000 for a dress I have no interest in wearing.” Whenever she does accept brand deals, it’s usually a longterm engagement with a brand she admires. “I did a 12-month partnership last year with Lavazza coffee,” she said. “Originally when I signed the contract I was going to go to Italy with them, and then I was going to go to Art Basel and the US Open.” But when the pandemic hit, the company still honored the contract. “I just made content in my apartment with my kids.”
Ultimately, though, Brito makes far more money from an art consulting client than any Instagram brand deal, hence why she doesn’t take on many sponsorships. “I don’t eat off of Instagram. Although it’s funny because I may eat off of Instagram when you consider all the deals that I’ve done through the DMs.” In fact, she’s grown frustrated with the platform’s DM filters, which have made it increasingly difficult for her to receive messages from potential art buyers.
As Brito’s Instagram reach grew, it eventually replaced her blog as a vehicle for sharing her visits to galleries, and so she needed something else to publish to her website. About a year ago, she launched The Groove, a weekly newsletter that’s also cross-posted to her blog. “I love it because it’s timeless stories about artists, about business people,” she said. “I incorporate recent studies in psychology and neuroscience, and it’s all aimed at helping people unlock their best ideas.” Recent editions have titles like “HOW TO OVERCOME LIMITING BELIEFS AROUND CREATIVITY” and “SIX LESSONS IN ENTREPRENEURSHIP FOR 2022.” When we spoke in September, The Groove stood at about 20,000 subscribers.
The decision over whether to launch a media company
I asked Brito how much time, on average, she spends per week creating content. She estimated that she probably devotes around 10 hours to a variety of tasks that include researching and writing the newsletter, editing photos from her gallery visits, and writing captions. She purposefully keeps her operations lean, preferring to hire contractors for freelance work as opposed to recruiting a large full-time staff.
Because her work is commission based, she’s been able to scale her business to seven figures as she’s taken on higher profile clients who are willing to buy increasingly expensive art. “I can do a high volume of transactions most days without leaving my house,” she said. “It has to do with clients being sufficiently sophisticated and being able to pull the trigger by seeing an image on their phone. They trust me. They know that I think it’s a good option and viable for them.” Those quicker transactions save her time and allow her to take on a higher volume of client work.
I pointed out to Brito that most of her business revolves around her personal brand, and I wondered whether she had any ambitions to scale her operations into a full-fledged media company.
“I would love to build something I could separate myself from at some point,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m so dedicated to my craft and what I do with my clients that I feel it would be complicated for me to separate myself from the day to day operations.” She pointed to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop as an example of a brand she’d like to emulate. “It’s a big business but it revolves around her persona a lot. She wants the business to grow really big and to serve a lot of people and employ a lot of people, and when she’s really old, people might not even remember who the owner is, but for now she’s still beautiful, she’s the face of the company, she has her hands in everything. For me, she’s not only an inspiration, but also a person who has been able to capitalize on the best of both worlds.”
Regardless of which path she takes, Brito is far happier than she was in 2008, back when she dreaded returning to her corporate law job. Recently, she uploaded two photos side by side to Instagram. The first was of her as a 24-year-old student at Harvard Law School. “The truth is that while my time at HLS was magical, I didn’t want to be an attorney,” she wrote in the caption. “I bought into the stories of ‘dependable careers’ and safety that my parents planted inside my head and I foolishly believed.”
The second photo is also of her, but from the present day. She’s holding copies of her forthcoming book. The 22-year journey that separates the two photos, she writes, represents “the pain and eventually the triumph of pivoting a career and finding massive purpose, meaning, fulfillment and success when I allowed myself to be myself … The woman in the second picture is the person I was always meant to be.”
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