MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Superstorm Sandy almost kept roughly 50 New York City art galleries from participating in Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the world's most prestigious contemporary art fairs, officials said.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the 11th annual Art Basel Miami Beach, the U.S. extension of the contemporary art fair held each June in Basel, Switzerland. A rum-running skeleton, red Lego pieces stacked into a starry flare and man-sized vampire fangs are among Picassos and thousands of other paintings, photographs and sculptures on display through Sunday.
New York's Chelsea gallery district is home to many of the 257 galleries participating in the main exhibitions that opened Thursday at the Miami Beach Convention Center, said Marc Spiegler, one of Art Basel's directors. The district was one of those areas hard hit when Superstorm Sandy blew into the Northeast in October with flood waters and high winds.
Some of the Chelsea galleries reported just minor water damage, while others lost everything they had in storage, Spiegler said. Still, none skipped the four-day fair.
"Our fear was, not so much that we would have an empty booth, because that's something we can deal with, but just that the implication would be that if you didn't do Art Basel, it would be because you were going out of business," Spiegler said. "Obviously, that's what we were really afraid of: that (Sandy) would put people out of business, which so far it hasn't."
In conjunction with Art Basel, about two dozen other fairs also opened across Miami on Thursday with gimmicks that organizers hope will attract collectors, critics, charitable donors and partygoers. A Bugatti has become a drivable painting, a menacing dog looms over a South Beach hotel and a scattering of Steinway pianos have been transformed by teams of artists for pop-up concerts.
The Miami art season has developed into a see-and-be-seen event as luxury brands and celebrities have sponsored or been featured in an increasing number of independent fairs and exhibitions.
Not all the stars want to be treated as such, though. "Artist! Artist -- not a celebrity!" Julian Lennon playfully yelled at a friend who had referred to the musician and photographer as "a unique celebrity."
The son of the late Beatles legend John Lennon has about a dozen landscapes in a show titled "Alone" at the Overture Art Fair.
"It's basically about having that moment in time where you can reflect, you can think about life, think of the past and present and future. It's that moment in time when you have a bit of peace," Lennon said about the photographs he shot while traveling between music and charity projects.
Lennon also exhibited his photography during the 2010 art fairs, and he was looking forward to enjoying Miami's social scene. "You get every kind of character and every kind of style," he said. "I just hope that doesn't detract from the actual work of the artists who've come here."
Away from the velvet ropes and celebrity glare, many public art installations offer culture for free.
Street artists, including Shepard Fairey, have painted colorful new works onto the exteriors of the warehouses of the Wynwood district. Red, blue and green resin alligators crawl up the yellow facade of Miami's Freedom Tower to raise awareness for Florida's environmental issues.
There's even a kind of scavenger hunt. Over the last two years, the French artist Invader has installed more than 70 mosaics of space alien figures throughout Miami, and maps to each spaceman's location will supplement an exhibit of his new work in the Jonathan LeVine Gallery booth at the Pulse Miami fair.