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Art Basel Miami Kicks Off With Corporate Sponsors, Lenny Kravitz

Photo: Getty Images

"Here we go again!" Sam Keller, impresario of Art Basel Miami, cries out to a friend on a Miami street late last night. As if on cue, the double doors of a giant geodesic dome swing open over his shoulder to reveal millions of dollars' worth of glittering jewels. Inside the Cartier Dome, Calvin Klein and a smiling Lance Armstrong sip the jeweler's house brand of Champagne as waiters circle with trays of Daniel Boulud yellowtail-sushi cones.

Welcome to Art Basel Miami.

The 50,000-strong art fair begins today, with a rush of collectors though another suite of double doors at the Miami Convention Center in South Beach. But last night, with a couple of notable exceptions (a grinning André Balazs hosting a groaning cheese board at the surprisingly zippy New York Times Website party), was largely for the corporate sponsors. An unprecedented and glittering flotilla — Krug, Netjets, Cipriani, UBS, Hennessey — have paired with the fair or ancillary events this year for access to its Über-wealthy international attendees. It's all about "partnership with art," says Cartier president Frederic de Narp, in the dome, then whispering to an employee that there's interest in two of the diamond rings and, "We need prices."

This year, the fair’s sixth, every Champagne flute comes with a brand logo and a pitch. At each event, marketing people — often less smooth than the art dealers they’ve attached their caravan to — descend as people enter the door. It all matches a frantic air at the edges of the whole bacchanalia this year, as people fret about the economy. "We had a bad quarter, so we had to justify this," apologizes a PR person at one Setai event, as Kimora Lee Simmons walks by.

"Branding" and "synergy" are everywhere. Lenny Kravitz Design is doing a nightclub, Audi's loaning cars to collectors, Cipriani is shuttling guests to Bellinis on the beach. This year, Krug, an Art Basel vet among the newbies, is trying to set itself apart with lunch and balloon rides over the Everglades in a white-leather gondola emblazoned "KRUG." "There's ten parties a night," says a marketing rep. "We wanted to do something people might remember two years from now."

How's this for memorable? At exactly 12:45 a.m., Lenny Kravitz strides into the Florida Room, pauses just long enough to have a picture taken with a tranny, turns on his heel, and leaves "his" club. Now that's branding. Next up: the art. —Alexandra Peers