The timing of the long-planned preview of Artlantic, a $10 million public art initiative in Atlantic City, turned unexpectedly momentous last weekend after Hurricane Sandy battered and flooded the gambling mecca’s boardwalk, where many of the major casinos—and much of the community’s public life—are berthed. Suddenly, there was more urgent need than ever for artists to help create beautiful, inviting spaces for the city’s down-and-out residents (roughly a quarter of whom live below the poverty line).

“Artlantic: wonder,” the $3 million first phase of the five-year project curated by Lance Fung, has been installed in two sites situated along the boardwalk. The first is a seven-acre empty lot—long an eyesore—that’s been landscaped into an undulating amphitheater of grass and wildflower. The site’s green haunches, featuring brightly-colored text installations by the artist Robert Barry, feel womblike—a metaphorical embrace of the community, to Fung’s thinking. At one end is a sculpture garden designed by the wild-maned New York artist Kiki Smith, which houses her 2003 piece “Her,” a sculpture of a woman holding a fawn, and which will bloom a vivid red come spring. Docked at the other end of the site is a massive sunken pirate ship littered with chests of golden treasure—catnip for the kiddies. It’s the work of the seminal Russian conceptual artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

A second smaller site, right atop the boardwalk, features John Roloff’s bold, graphic stage, where the Atlantic City Ballet performed during the preview ceremony on Friday. When I was given a tour the day after the show, a hoodied local on the boardwalk stood peering at the Op Art backdrop for a long time. Finally, he called out to us. “Hey! What is that thing?” he asked.

“It’s art!”

He took this this rather unhelpful reply in perfect stride. “When’s it open?” he asked, already impatient. “Soon?”