At Miami’s Art Basel, a canvas of global inequality in the pandemic age

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MIAMI BEACH — On the Rolls-Royce-clogged avenues of this art deco dreamland, the global One Percent are back — and richer than ever.

After a pandemic hiatus in 2020, the orgy of opulence known as Art Basel Miami Beach returned to the loving arms of South Florida this week, luring high-net-worth individuals from their coronavirus bunkers to duel for Warhols and Basquiats. A sea of fashion-clad art buyers gathered in the city’s convention centre to peruse works at asking prices exceeding eight figures. At least one was wearing Gucci-logoed Lederhosen.

With pent-up demand from the French billionaires, Hollywood stars and real estate barons in attendance, just months after the U.S. government first said it would lift most bans on travel from Asia and Europe, sales are “robust,” officials say.

So much for the pandemic as a great equalizer. The U.S. edition of Miami’s huge art festival, which draws more speculators than anyone else, is a great post-coronavirus party for global mega-rich. This even though the pandemic continues to overshadow global affairs with rising cases and the rise of an omicron strain.

Sure, there’s new mask requirements this year and the need to produce proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for entry. The latest event shows that, despite the pandemic and despite it, global elite lives (or their bank accounts at most) are better than ever.

Globally, poverty rates have climbed, especially among younger, lower-skilled and female workers, while the more moneyed have enjoyed roaring stock markets and surging property values. The World Bank estimates that inequality among countries is rising for the first time in a generation, with emerging evidence that it is deepening within more countries, too. It happens as it took only nine months for the fortunes of the world’s 1,000 wealthiest individuals to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to the antipoverty group Oxfam International.

Few places offer a clearer glimpse into a pandemic-era world of starker inequalities than Miami-Dade County.

Even before the first cases of covid emerged, this multicultural, international metropolis was second in the United States to New York City in terms of income inequality. In Black-majority neighborhoods of Liberty City, Overtown and Little Haiti, poverty festered a cultural world away from the glittering costal high-rises branded by the likes of Fendi, Four Seasons and Porsche, and where the most-coveted condos come with car elevators so the wealthy can keep their chariots close.

At least some of that shine rubbed off from Art Basel, which, for all its finery, is at its core about the serious business of art as a financial instrument. Since the show’s arrival in 2002, the global elite have descended on Miami each December in fleets of private jets, fueling the eruption of an already-growing local art scene and making a second, third, fourth or fifth home in Miami just another bauble for the well-rounded collector. Russians, Chinese and Turks joined the fabulously wealthy Latin Americans and Europeans who had long since pioneered the palace-sized South Florida pied-a-terre.

Then came the pandemic, and a wave of new buyers from an unexpected group: Americans.

Looking for larger, warmer pandemic digs — and to capitalize on Florida’s generous tax laws — New York hedge-funders and Californian tech bros were suddenly moving next door to Miami’s landed gentry of Venezuelan tycoons, Colombian superstars and Cuban American magnates. The result: A county with a subpar median household income of $51,000 a year witnessed one of the most blistering run-ups in property values in the United States. Not even the deadly collapse in June of an oceanfront tower could slow the frenzy.

Among 45 global cities, the Miami area’s luxury housing market witnessed the biggest price surge in the third quarter of 2021 year-on-year, outpacing growth in Shanghai, Moscow and Hong Kong, according to London-based real estate firm Knight Frank.

Those jumps put the American Dream of homeownership further out of reach for most Miamians. Ned Murray, associate director of Florida International University’s Jorge M. Perez Metropolitan Center, estimates that only 8 percent of Miami-Dade County’s 2.7 million residents can now afford the current median home price of $490,000.

“It really is a tale of two cities,” Murray told me this week. “In fact, it reminds me a lot of Rio de Janeiro. If we had hills instead of being flat, you’d be able see our poor neighborhoods from the more expensive coast, just like you can see the favelas in Rio.”

The wealthy here are enjoying the spoils of the pandemic. New towers branded by Missoni and Aston Martin have risen skyward; a supertall Waldorf Astoria is on its way. In the exclusive Design District — a sort of tropical Fifth Avenue spread out over several city blocks — the fashion house Chanel is pouring $40 million into a new flagship store.

During the pandemic, major art collectors, both in Miami and beyond, drove business to record heights for local gallerists, several of whom say they saw record sales even as local jobs were lost. The surge in real property and the desire for more wall space by the rich is partly responsible for their wild sales.

“We had multinational executives buying places in Miami; they wanted an alternative to living in Manhattan,” Miami art dealer Fredric Snitzer told me at his buzzing Basel booth.

Freddie Davis, 51, a disabled truck driver, is one of many Miamians struggling under new burdens.

He told me this week that his landlord jacked up the rent for his Miami apartment last year from $825 to $1,400, in what Davis described as a bid to update appliances and attract better-off tenants. He was forced to leave and turned to the community homeless program, which has offered him a place in a hotel for the moment.

It is on the wrong side of a major interstate on the mainland — far from the art shoppers on gilded Miami Beach.

“You have all these rich people spending all this big money,” he told me, referencing Art Basel. They are very good men. But what about me?”

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