The white tents filled with billions of dollars worth of art along South Beach and across Miami’s mainland have officially been taken down as Art Week comes to an end in South Florida. Spearheaded by international luxury art fair Art Basel, Art Week boasted at least 20 different satellite fairs across the metropolitan city and more than 90,000 visitors all vying to bid millions of dollars on Basquiats, Warhols, and sometimes a viral banana taped to a wall. But despite local artist communities making Miami a desirable host city for the international art world, the wealth of the top 1% seldom makes its way to them. As Miami officially becomes the least affordable housing market in the country, the local artists who built Miami’s vibrant and diverse artist enclave are being priced out of their studios and homes and say living and working in Miami is simply not sustainable anymore.
“The difficulty is, this is so commercial,” Chire Regans said. “Everyone doesn’t have access to this level of art, [and] a lot of local artists are excluded from being part of the main fairs because this is a competition. These fairs are in town to sell art; they’re not here to support artists. The people that come are here to consume that, and it overshadows what is happening throughout the city.”
Regans, known as VantaBlack, has been working as an artist in Miami since she graduated from art school in 2005, coincidentally the same year Art Basel first arrived in the city. Since then, Regans has seen the artist community struggle as art fairs continue to capitalize on the city, overshadowing the local work.
“[Artists] are just seeking ways to cope with what has happened over the past two years, and all of that is happening behind […] this diamond-encrusted veil that Art Basel brings to Miami,” said Regans.
misael soto, an interdisciplinary artist whose work is driven by community and the systems to which society is beholden, has been working and living in Miami for over a decade. In that time, they have become familiar with the city’s infrastructure built for transience. Since its founding, Miami has been plagued by boom and bust cycles driven by Latin American and other foreign investors and sanctioned by local politicians who soto describes as akin to “carpetbaggers.”
“That affects the art world,” said soto. “It’s always been a really difficult place for artists, really, for anyone, if you’re not wealthy, to throw down roots here.”
Many artists, in turn, are forced to leave Miami for areas with a larger market and infrastructure of support for alternative styles of art-making like Los Angeles and New York City. soto, whose work has confronted gentrification in Little Haiti, rising sea levels in Miami Beach, and the inaccessibility of the art market during a recent performance at New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) in downtown Miami, has also had to look outside of Miami for support.
“We’re still kind of within a market and within a city that really doesn’t understand the value of that kind of practice,” soto said. “My work inherently is interested in systems, and as an artist, you have to think about how your work is being shown and moved to the world.”
Paola Katherine Rodríguez, an artist who has been working in the city for over 10 years and explores issues of abuse in her work, said she has rarely been able to present her own during Art Week. The fair only overshadows what is happening within the community, since she is busy trying to earn a living to survive.
“Local artists don’t get a platform during this time,” Rodríguez said. “The kind of people that Art Basel attracts aren’t interested in that either. They’re not interested in contemporary art. They’re interested in pop art, in fine art. They’re interested in things that look good in their kitchen or in their living room.”
A deep housing crisis
According to Indeed.com, the average hourly rate for an artist in Miami is about $22, and the average salary is about $46,000. But realistically, according to Regans, an artist’s income is never guaranteed. Half of an artist’s income is from their practice, and the other half is from gigs that may be commissioned, teaching, or other freelance work.
Since Miami is deeply entrenched in a housing crisis after becoming the least affordable city in the country, home buyers have to spend at least 86% of their income to purchase a home for $600,000, the median price for a home in Miami. Several factors exacerbated this crisis: first, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced closures forced artists to lose countless jobs, and then a push for Miami to become the next “tech hub” brought an onslaught of entrepreneurs who made the real estate market spike to unforeseeable heights. Artists, who need space to live and create their work, have been priced out of both living and working in the city.
“A lot of communities were hit hard by the pandemic, and creatives are no exception,” Regans said. “A lot of us lost our jobs, we lost gigs. On top of this health crisis, there is a housing crisis and … these major institutions cut us first.”
Regans was furloughed from her job of four years during the beginning of the pandemic. But right before that, she became the artist-in-residence for Community Justice Project, a nonprofit legal aid organization. Regans created “A Little More Time,” a video project chronicling the many evictions that happened in 2020, despite the moratorium on evictions.
“Creators thrive on a healthy mental state and a healthy environment to be able to create, and if that is interrupted, it interrupts everything,” Regans said. “The housing crisis is a health crisis.”
soto said they had to couch surf for two months because they got priced out of their previous apartment in Buena Vista, Miami. They had to wait two months to find something they could afford, which ended up being a much smaller space.
“I’m not the only one,” said soto. “We’re all dealing with not having a studio anymore, having to put things into storage as we wait for an affordable studio, if it will ever come.”
soto is one of six fortunate artists who have subsidized studio space in Dimensions Variable, an art center in Little Haiti. Other organizations, like Bakehouse Art Center and Oolite Arts, also offer limited subsidized studio space for artists, but many artists are left to stomach unreasonable rent for both housing and studio space.
“I keep seeing a lot more GoFundMe pages for very basic needs around social media,” soto said. “Beyond that, everyone just feels very tired. In my perfect world, we would have started an artist union.”
Rodríguez, who said she cannot remember the last time she exhibited her work in Miami, is forced to focus on sustaining herself in the city. She works a minimum wage job at $15 an hour with no benefits and rarely finds time for her art practice.
“I’m so fatigued,” Rodríguez said. “I haven’t been able to dedicate any time to my own practice. I don’t even have the space right now, but my main focus is how can I eat? How can I survive? Can I make enough money with what I’m working with to be able to get by?”
Art worker challenges and unionizing for collective strength
A visitor service associate at a local contemporary art museum, who requested to remain anonymous, said that visitors during Art Week were disrespectful and condescending. They recounted an experience full of insults and belittlement, in one instance coming directly from a museum donor who told them, “You’re getting paid because of me.”
“All [the visitors] wanted to do was take selfies in front of the work,” they said. “I found that to be obviously very disrespectful considering that the works are about racism and social injustice.”
The worker, who is also an artist, said the museum does not offer a platform for local artists and instead caters to the needs of big donors and capitalism.
“There’s a lot of white saviorism,” they said. “[Museum leaders] say they’re inclusive, and they’re about equity and diversity and whatnot, but that’s not true. That’s just the façade.”
According to the worker, their boss warned them ahead of time that “things were going to be intense” during Art Week. For this artist and worker, Art Week is just an extended moment in time when their labor will continue to be exploited without any consideration or accountability from superiors. With few labor protections amid an economic and housing crisis, artists and art workers are left powerless without collective strength.
Over the summer, soto participated in “Heat Exchange” with Bas Fisher Invitational, in which a group of Miami artists traveled to Norway to engage with the artist community there. A recurring topic was forming an artist union in the U.S. similar to the ones that exist in Norway. Artists are routinely robbed of a majority of profit from sales of their work. If they show at a gallery, the gallerist will take a percentage of the sale, and if the collector resells the work, artists do not receive any portion of that sale either. A union would help ensure pay equity, legal assistance, and protection of their work. But the nature of living as a working artist in an unaffordable city means not necessarily having sufficient time to devote to organizing a functional union.
“I definitely feel that there’s a need and a lot of interest here for [a union],” said soto. “But there isn’t the amount of free time, energy, and commitment that a project like this would require. I have even less time because I’m struggling this much more to pay my bills. It’s come down to what is the viability of me staying in Miami? That’s been on the table recently. I hate to say that lately the viability is becoming less and less, that I’m not so sure about Miami these days.”
Regans points to Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE), which is an organization that introduces mechanisms for self-regulation into the art field in the hopes of creating a more equitable economic environment for artists as a step toward a union.
“There should be a concrete organization of artists in every major market because the control is not in our hands currently,” Regans said. “We should be able to get together and say this institution does not pay men and women fairly. They don’t have enough representation of women and women of color in their collection, so we are not going to partner with this institution until they’ve rectified that. Artists have the power to do that. We just have to get together and mobilize to do it. And that starts with having conversations and understanding that so many instances that we’ve all experienced are the same, and we could do something about it.”