RIO DE JANEIRO (AP).- As a salesman at a luxury clothing store, Beto Silva has seen his earnings jump over the past decade as Brazil's economy has boomed.
That doesn't mean he's moved out of his cramped, 600-square-foot apartment, but it's now filled with the spoils of his new wealth: paintings, lithographs, collages and sculptures, many of the purchases still shrouded in protective bubble wrap and stacked a dozen deep in his study.
Like other thriving middle-class Brazilians, Silva has bought his way into the growing ranks of collectors who are helping to put Rio de Janeiro on the international art map.
Art collecting was long considered the exclusive domain of a tiny cadre of enthusiasts from the country's ruling elite, but Rio's middle class is jumping in and investing, and international dealers are scrambling for a toehold in this promising market.
"I used to feel a bit out of place going into a gallery," Silva said. "But now, people know me and appreciate my eye and what I know about art."
In what collectors here interpret as a sign that their laid-back beach city has finally arrived, Larry Gagosian, one of the world's foremost gallerists, announced this year he'll take part in the second edition of the city's new international art fair, ArtRio, a four-day event that opens Sept. 13. His is only one of a flock of famed galleries taking part.
"There's been a paradigm shift. Art has become an object of desire here," said Katia Mindlin Leite-Barbosa, president of Sotheby's Brazil. "It's becoming something of a marker of status, like a nice car or a fancy vacation.
"It used to be that you couldn't even find listings for gallery exhibitions in the paper. Now there's a whole weekly section devoted to it," she said. "The interest is palpable."
Though Sao Paulo, the richer, more sophisticated megalopolis to the south, has had its own international art fair for the better part of a decade, Rio had no major art market event until ArtRio got its start last year.
Its debut was a spectacular success. More than 80 galleries from across Brazil and around the world recorded sales totaling $60 million. Turnout for the four-day show was twice as high as expected, with more than 40,000 people flooding through the fair.
For many visitors, it was their first real exposure to a gallery, said artist Brenda Valansi, who co-founded the fair along with gallerist Elisangela Valadares.
"It used to be that we Brazilians were just worrying about inflation, security, making ends meet. But the country has changed so much and so quickly that now people have the luxury of focusing on other things, including art," Valansi said. "With ArtRio, we're trying to debunk this notion that art is just for a few and show that you don't have to be a millionaire to be a collector."
She added that prices at last year's fair ranged from $500 to $5 million. "Now, any working class person who's interested can enter the art market," she said.
ArtRio mushroomed this year and is slated to take up twice as much space as last year's staging at the refurbished Porto Maua port area, with its stunning views of Guanabara Bay.
Some 120 galleries, 50 percent more than last year, are expected to participate. Half of them are international, hailing from New York, London, Zurich, Berlin and other more traditional art capitals. Organizers said the split between local and international galleries reflected the mix of Brazilian and foreign art being bought.
But the jewel in the crown will undoubtedly be the Gagosian Gallery, widely considered the world's top. Gagosian is known for having his finger on the pulse of promising new markets and has opened 11 locations worldwide.
The gallery's stand at ArtRio, which is expected to feature a 1937 Picasso as well as an extensive sculpture wing, is Gagosian's first foray into South America. Rio's art community was abuzz with rumors that he was planning on setting up permanent shop in the city, but the Los Angeles-born dealer called the ArtRio stand "a test of the appetite" there.
"We've had some success in recent years selling to Brazilian collectors at other galleries that we have in London and Paris, but honestly we don't really know what to expect," Gagosian said in a telephone interview. "Hopefully that's just the tip of the iceberg and there are a lot of other collectors there in Rio."
Artists themselves welcome the attention, and say it's based on more than just an increase in Brazilians' wealth.
Sculptor Raul Mourao has watched Rio's art scene establish itself in the last two decades. When he started, there weren't more than a dozen books out on Brazilian art in general. The opening of a single exhibit in Rio was a novelty that made news.
Now, dozens of exhibits show in Rio at any given time, and an established culture of publicly financed displays has taken root. Mourao has two openings in the coming month: one in a private gallery and one in a public square, where he'll show six massive outdoor sculptures.
"It's not just the art market; it's the whole cultural scene that's booming," he said. "There are more plays, more movies, more books. Brazil as a whole is growing, and it's natural that the art and cultural markets grow along with it."
"If we didn't have a rich history, fascinating work, a group of good artists, interesting movements, money wouldn't make a difference," Mourao said. "What is happening now, though, is that artists can produce with more confidence, in a field that is more welcoming."
Other top international galleries making their debut at ArtRio include Japanese artist Takashi Murakami's KaiKai Kiki, New York's David Zwirner and White Cube of London, organizers said.
One major question is whether authorities will lift a hefty import tax that can end up hiking the cost of imported artwork by as much as 50 percent above market prices. Last year, a one-time exemption was announced on the eve of the fair.
Partly as a result of the tax, Rio's new collectors tend to focus on homegrown artists, at least at first, said ArtRio's Valansi.
"We're seeing that a lot of collectors here, who started off focusing on domestic artists, have begun to open their collections to international art," she said.
That's the case of clothing vendor Silva, who started out selling cut-rate jeans in Rio's suburbs and became the top salesman at one of the city's most exclusive boutiques.
He began his collection seven years ago with a slim, multicolored statue he bought for $90. Now, he says, he invests 30 to 40 percent of his salary on art.
His ever-burgeoning collection of 60-plus pieces, including a Medusa head-emblazoned plate by Brazilian star Vik Muniz, lend his apartment the feel of a lived-in museum.
"Now, when I walk into a gallery," he said. "I feel like a VIP."
Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.