Not the least of the unprecedented ideas behind Prospect.1, the international art biennial opening this week all across New Orleans, is that the United States' first such major exhibition is happening in a city brought to the edge of ruin just three years earlier. In fact, that led to founder and curator Dan Cameron's inspiration.

"There has never been a major art event like this in response to such a large-scale catastrophe," Cameron says. "One of the goals of Prospect.1 is to reposition New Orleans as a high-end visitor destination. The city already has a vibrant art community and it could be very beneficial to build on it in a way that inspires direct philanthropic investment in our cultural institutions. So far 46 museums, including major ones like the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago, are sending groups to attend the opening."

Still, many New Orleans residents and visitors may be unsure what to expect from this far-flung spectacle with some 81 artists and 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, spread out over two dozen venues plus site-specific outdoor installations. Exhibitions open Nov. 1 and will be on display through Jan. 18. Shows are free to the public, a condition Cameron insisted on for participation. During the 11-week expo, there will be free continuous shuttle service to many of the sites.

Although Prospect.1 has taken over the entire Contemporary Arts Center building, where Cameron serves as director of visual art, as well as the entire Old U.S. Mint branch of the Louisiana State Museum on Esplanade Avenue, visitors may be challenged to find some of the more obscure locations in a city where streets meander as if they had a mind of their own. Cameron mapped out Prospect.1 in such a way that visitors would see and experience the city as part of the show — including storm-damaged neighborhoods. While Prospect.1's participating museums have yet to open their exhibits, artists have been working in the Lower Ninth Ward and have already made a mark on the community.

"It's become a rallying cry, a symbol, something that really shouldn't be ignored," Cameron says. "There's a need to address the poverty and neglect, and for many artists it's become crystal clear that making art in the Lower Ninth Ward is something that is very important for them to do. Art can play a significant role in trying to make it right. We have over a dozen projects going on there now."

Back in January 2006, when Cameron first conceived of the biennial, he said his goal was to "change the discourse," the litany of depressing news stories that followed in Katrina's wake. With Prospect.1 he invites the world to see New Orleans in a whole new way. "New Orleans is really like our Venice — it's a city that's an extraordinary trove of cultural riches," he said recently. "And just as the art world was instrumental in saving and restoring Venice, I think it's going to be able to play that same role in getting New Orleans not just back on its feet, but in creating a whole new identity as a global cultural showcase for the 21st century."

Cameron was uniquely poised to create the event. He has an international reputation after serving as the curator for New York City's New Museum of Contemporary Art for more than a decade, and he has curated international biennials in Istanbul (2003) and Taipei (2006). Since 1987, he's been a regular visitor to New Orleans, originally as a Jazz Fest fan. As he developed friendships and contacts in the city, he got involved in the local art scene. He's curated a regional triennial show at NOMA (1996) and lectured at the University of New Orleans. He produced shows in New York by local artists like Douglas Bourgeois and Roy Ferdinand. Now he's bringing the art world to his second home.

"When you do an international biennial and Dan Cameron is the curator, you know you're going to get the zeitgeist. A great biennial only comes from having the artists of the moment who are really breaking through." So says influential art collector Dennis Scholl of the mammoth exhibition assembled by the renowned New York curator and longtime friend of New Orleans. It's a group that Cameron has called "the cream of the crop."

Approximately one third of Prospect.1's 81 artists are American, regional or local, with the remaining two-thirds hailing from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. But even here, be prepared to be surprised. Local artists don't always exhibit the most local-looking work, while a number of artists from elsewhere have been inspired by the city and its experiences during and after Katrina. Their efforts at times suggest an intermingling of magic and social work, and while the most successful art has historically contained at least a hint of magic, contemporary art with a social conscience has slowly gained influence over recent decades. In fact, there is a term for it: "relational aesthetics," and international biennials are no strangers to the genre.

A symbolic approach is seen in the work of Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford, known for his elaborate collage paintings that can sell for six-figure prices. His father is from New Orleans, but the two barely knew each other and never had a bond. Struck by the biblical extent of the devastation, Bradford created Mithra, a house-size ark made with plywood panels from construction sites that, with their tattered remains of old posters, give the ark its signature Bradford look. The ark sits on Caffin Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward, not far from where a levee was breached. It's a theme reprised by Portuguese artist Miguel Palma, whose own surreal rescue boat is featured at the Lower Ninth Ward Village.

Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu took a more personal approach after meeting a 67-year-old widow named Sarah Lastie — "Miss Sarah" — whose Lower Ninth Ward home was destroyed by the flood. When she tried to use her insurance settlement to rebuild, crooked contractors poured a faulty slab and absconded with the rest of her money, in yet another example of an all-too-familiar story. "Miss Sarah's story fascinated and frustrated me," says Mutu, who has created an abstract framework on the site, which she sees as imbued with the potency ascribed to crossroads in African folklore. Titled Miss Sarah's House, it's what she calls an "apparition made of wood, wire and light. This "light-drawing' will create a kind of ghost building at night, a mirage of sorts, an attempt to describe hers and others' dream of returning home." Mutu is also working on a print titled Home that will be sold and used to raise money for the Miss Sarah's House Fund.

French artist Anne Deleporte takes a more universal approach in her room-size collage murals across the street at the L9 Center for the Arts, as well as at the U.S. Mint. Painting a sky-blue field around newspaper illustrations, Deleporte whimsically explores media images as a kind of dreamlike "public memory." But it is the L9 Center for the Arts' founders, legendary local photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, who epitomized a local form of relational aesthetics in their years of work documenting the everyday lives of the inhabitants of the Lower Ninth Ward. While not officially part of Prospect.1, they inspired many who are, and some examples of their work that survived the flood will also appear alongside pieces by Deleporte and Mutu.

New Orleans has long had its own form of relational aesthetics in the form of Mardi Gras Indians among other creative community traditions, and it's to Cameron's credit that the spectacular bead-and-feather concoctions of Big Chief Victor Harris and his Fi Yi Yi tribe are shown at the New Orleans Museum of Art alongside not only Willie Birch, a New Orleans artist with a strong reputation in New York, but also such big-time international biennial veterans as Venetian-born Berlin artist Monica Bonvicini, Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Beijing New Wave icon Xu Bing. And it says something quite extraordinary that contemporary art's global stars — figures like El Anatsui of Nigeria, Bahamas-born Janine Antoni, Havana's Alexandre Arrechea, Berlin's Candice Breitz, Beijing's Cao Fei, Chinese-New York art star Cai Guo-Qiang and Argentina's Leandro Erlich, to name a few, will be on equal footing with the natives who form the backbone of this city's traditions. This is multicultural cross-pollination of a high order.

"It is really amazing that some of the biggest names in contemporary art's global glitterati will be showing with, and rubbing shoulders with, New Orleans natives like the Mardi Gras Indians who are part of this city's most deeply rooted, yet exotic, traditions," says collector and gallerist Mark Bercier of Taylor-Bercier Fine Art. "This is a grand encounter of the global and the local."

Beyond Prospect.1's vast quantities of striking new art, there are also many ancillary exhibits of mostly local artists' works that often coexist in close proximity to, sometimes even in same building with, the biennial's own sites.

The influence of serious art collectors can never be underestimated. The worlds of big-time art collecting and global high finance are necessarily intertwined, and having collectors see the city at its best is a big plus for New Orleans. Organizers have projected an economic impact on the city of between $20 million-$30 million over the course of the 11 weeks of citywide exhibitions.

Perhaps because America was such a dominant player in the art world for so much of the latter 20th century, it apparently never occurred to anyone to stage a truly large-scale international art biennial anywhere in the nation. There are some smaller international shows, and it's true that Art Basel Miami Beach, which modestly bills itself as "the most important art show in the United States, a cultural and social highlight for the Americas," is, like its Swiss namesake, a fairly big deal. But those events are really art fairs, glorified trade shows, and very different in tone from the more high-minded, or even idealistic, international biennials. In theory, New York City is supposed to reflect everything hot and trendy that is happening anywhere in the world, and in theory it does, but only in its own oddly insular and rather predictable, if not parochial, way.

So it is not without irony that Prospect.1 returns New Orleans to the position it held a century ago, when the Annual Exhibition of the Art Association of New Orleans was the most exciting survey of new international art in America. From 1887, when Claude Monet was among the exhibitors, to the start of World War I in 1914, when France and Italy sent representatives for the last time, New Orleans was the place where hot new art from overseas was shown. By establishing a large international biennial here in 2008, Dan Cameron has the potential to redrawing America's cultural map.

"We want people all over the world to come here and fall in love with the city, recognizing it as a new kind of cultural capital — unique yet threatened in much the way that Venice is threatened," Cameron says.