The immediate economic impact of the cancellation is grist for debate. A 2014 New York Times study estimated that the fair brought an injection of nearly $13 million in spending in Miami, while local boosters often insist that the figure is 10 times that amount.
What’s indisputable is the transformative effect Art Basel’s spotlight has had on the way Miami is seen — not only by the art world at large but also by Miamians themselves. A city once derided as a cultural backwater is now championed as a serious arts player by locals and visitors alike.
Mr. Gelber, a Miami Beach native, recalled working during his teenage years in the late 1970s as an usher at the convention center. Showcasing the cream of contemporary art wasn’t on the center’s agenda at that time. In a dark blue polyester suit and matching cap, he instead staffed a steady diet of boxing and wrestling matches.
“That was the cultural fare of the city then,” he said. On rare occasions, he would be called in to work a traveling Broadway show — “I saw ‘Pippin’ 23 times” — but that was as highbrow as local fare rose.
Art Basel changed everything, he said, adding, “It made us the center of the art world for a week, and we were able to grow so that we would have a profile all year long.”
“I’m the mayor of what is essentially a crowd-based economy,” Mr. Gelber said, adding, “We typically promote the opposite of social distancing.”
Mr. Gelber’s current strategy is damage control, in the form of $1 million in emergency grants to a dozen of Miami Beach’s leading arts organizations.
“Our hope is that we can limp through this period so we can emerge and resume where we were,” he said.
Within Miami’s art community — in which the fair’s cancellation had long been anticipated because of the pandemic — there have already been conversations about special shows for the week of Art Basel, albeit without the fair and its visiting out-of-towners.
Fredric Snitzer, one of Miami’s most prominent gallery owners and a regular exhibitor at Art Basel Miami Beach, recalled the cancellation of the fair’s planned debut in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Miami’s own artists soldiered on then, Mr. Snitzer said. The most notable example was a Robert Chambers-organized exhibition, “Globe>Miami<Island,” at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. A who’s who of local figures who had first begun working in the 1970s and ’80s — among them Karen Rifas, Salvatore La Rosa, Robert Thiele and Purvis Young — showed new pieces alongside a budding crop of young talent, including Bhakti Baxter, William Cordova, Naomi Fisher and Julie Kahn.
It was a coming-out party for a Miami art scene that had, until then, been overshadowed — and an affirmation that there was indeed an impressive homegrown roster that could hold its own against the out-of-town competition.
Then and now, Mr. Snitzer said, “the local community will be celebrated, will understand the value of itself and that there are things here which are significant and can be put on a world-class stage.”
And if that stage is far smaller than at any time before, with masking and strict distancing measures? All the better, he said.
“Instead of going to a big opening with 100 people and not having the opportunity to walk up to a painting and really stare at it for 20 minutes, suddenly that’s all that you can do,” Mr. Snitzer said. “The ability to commune with the work, perhaps talk to the artist or the dealer, that’s what the art world used to be. For me, that’s a huge plus.”