Art for Wealth’s Sake: Art Basel Paints a Picture of Miami’s Separate and Unequal Worlds

It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night. A naked girl is splashing about in the swimming pool at the Standard Hotel Miami. She is from New York and runs a nonprofit for homeless teens. We’ll call her Liz: “You’re so boring!” she yells from the middle of the pool.

It was a common refrain here during Art Basel Miami Beach—now the world’s largest contemporary art fair—where many of earth’s most privileged humans gather for a week of champagne and gawking at art (and at each other) in the sun.

The poolside celebration was for Terry Richardson, a fashion photographer known for his sexually charged (or sexually abusive, depending on your source) shoots. A cell phone company, HTC, spent $100,000 to sponsor the party, a book release for Richardson. This is a typical event, one of hundreds that occur during what is commonly referred to as “Basel.”

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Basel is now 11 years old. It’s gone from a decent sized art fair to an international marketing and branding orgy with few parallels. Because all the big collectors fly down private, and scores of cool young New Yorkers file in on JetBlue, luxury brands rush in to hit both their “target demos” and “tastemakers” in one shot.

In terms of tourism dollars, Basel is Miami’s highest grossing week. Hotels on South Beach were demanding thousands per night for rooms. The fair’s main sponsor was the honorable UBS, the very same Swiss bank that just settled a billion dollar fraud case with international authorities. UBS not only robs the world and stashes terrorist/dictator cash, it sponsors art fairs too—cool guys.

Most Miamians don’t care about Art Basel. The city is only 11 percent white (far and away the primary Basel target demographic), and most of the 40 percent Hispanic and 20 percent black populations live far from the South Beach glam, many in poverty. Miami has the second widest gap between rich and poor in America, after New York. Blacks make an average of $15,000 a year. Whites double that, at $37,000. But at $19,000, the city’s majority Hispanics aren’t doing so well either.

Disparity defines the art world too, with its hungry artists and rich collectors and patrons. So it’s fitting that the largest contemporary art fair in the world happens in Miami.

Few people are more detached from the short-end reality of income disparity than the global art tribe. These arbiters of the cultural elite fly around the world to various openings and fairs then retreat to galleries, museums and studios in their home cities before heading out again. Of course, there are exceptions. Some artists at Basel retain a socio-politico aesthetic. A good example is Barbara Krueger, whose text-orientated pieces mocking consumerism and political power were selling for $200,000 to $500,000 and became the talk of the fair.

Bearing many hallmarks of a third world city, Miami breaks down into two distinct populations. The rich live across Biscayne Bay on beautiful beaches and gated islands. The poor are stretched across downtown’s grid, where every block headed west from the bay is worse than the one before it. The city has few economically diverse neighborhoods.

The two Miamis can easily be visited on the same day. Last week. Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez, the New York Yankee third baseman with the largest sports contract in history, was having a party in his $30 million modernist manse.

I skipped A Rod’s soiree, mainly because I hate the Yankees, to hang out with Dee, a 22-year-old drug dealer who lives on west 20th Street downtown. All he wanted was customers: “Man, who down here needs anything? I’m fucking broke. I live in the projects with my aunt. Gotta get out.”

Dee said he’d take any job—as in, “I’ll work at Chick-fil-A, man!” Saddled with a criminal record, he’s never been hired anywhere.

We cruised over to 75th Street, the main drag in Little Haiti, where public housing is painted lime green and similarly awesome pastel paint jobs cover buildings advertising W.I.C and Western Union.

“There are no banks here,” Dee tells me. “We don’t have enough money.”

UBS—where are you?

The South Beach Basel crowd hosted quite a few Hurricane Sandy benefits. But I didn’t find one art world benefit for Miami’s poor. There is a definite willful ignorance in plopping your billionaires down at dinners and six-figure parties in the name of “culture” while ignoring masses of people who are in dire need of said culture and are readily at hand: The impoverished residents of Miami.

Back in New York, I catch up with Liz, the naked pool gal. She’s in Tompkins Square Park, the epicenter of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Stella is smiling. Her art world disdain has clearly dried off.

“I have no idea why I was in Miami,” she says. “Who were those people? Why are they so boring, and why did that one guy in the black suit keep saying Le Baron over and over again?”

Around the same time I get a text from Dee. “You know anyone still down here? Tryna get that $.”

I inform Lee that Le Baron is a Parisian disco that does a chic party every night of Basel.

Lee receives this information as she’s handing out clean needles and Narcan to the local crust punk populace, all of whom she knows by name.

“Do these people really care?” she asks.

Sadly, Basel people do seem to express more concern about French discos and wearing aggressive outfits than they do about the inequality in America—maybe best seen in Miami’s two worlds.

I have an idea for Art Basel next year. In the process of exchanging all those millions for bought and sold visions, try and help some of the people from Miami.

Are wealthy visitors obligated to alleviate some of the local misery when they party in the midst of poverty? Take a position in COMMENTS.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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Ray LeMoine was born in Boston and lives in New York. He’s done humanitarian work in Iraq and Pakistan and has written for various media outlets, including the New York Times, New York Magazine and the Awl.