Internationally-acclaimed artist Christo will be in Westport next week for an exhibit of his work, but he won't be hanging 7,500 safron-colored panels as in "The Gates," his 2005, signature project in New York's Central Park.

Christo's appearance at the Westport Arts Center on Thursday marks the opening of an exhibit of collages, prints and films done in preparation for two massive outdoor projects planned in Colorado and in the Middle East.

"These are like the sketches or drawings that are made before the final art work is done," said Helen Klisser During, the arts center's director of visual arts. "These sell for thousands of dollars. They're collectibles. We are expecting many art collectors from New York City to come out to see this exhibit."

An opening reception is planned Thursday evening from 6 to 8 p.m. It is free, but reservations are required because the arts center anticipates a large crowd.

The two upcoming projects featured in the exhibit are enormous in scope.

"Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado" calls for suspending nearly six miles of luminous fabric over a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado. The project is meant to enhance the river's contours and the contrast of clouds, mountains and vegetation

"The Mastaba, Project for the United Arab Emirates," will feature more than 400,000 brightly colored oil barrels fashioned into the shape of a mastaba -- a trapazoidal Egyptian burial tomb. The rendering will be more than three football fields wide, as tall as a 40-story building and more than two football fields deep. It is meant to emphasize the world's dependence on oil.

"The Gates" was one of Christo's collaborations with his late wife, Jeanne-Claude. From the beginning of their partnership, they financed projects through the sale of their art. And the projects typically are expensive and take years to plan and finally install.

"The Gates," for example, cost $21 million. With complex bureaucratic channels to navigate for permits and approvals, most of their projects took a decade from conception to installation, During said.

The arts center expects the enormity of the upcoming projects will draw people to Westport.

"People are going to want to see this because you will feel like you're a little part of history," she said.

At the opening reception, During hopes that people will flow in and out of the arts center throughout the evening so a large turnout can be accommodated. "I don't want to turn anyone away because this is really special," she said. "If people are patient and wait until space opens up, I hope that everyone who wants to will be able to attend."

On July 23, Christo is scheduled to return to the arts center to give an artist's talk. Admission is $100 and all proceeds benefit the arts center.

Beyond his two appearances in Westport this summer, Christo has other ties to the town.

Shortly before he died in 1997, the late Westport writer and art historian Burt Chernow completed a biography of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. His book, "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: An Authorized Biography," will be available for purchase at the opening reception, and Christo will autograph copies on request, During said.

Christo in 1984 had an exhibit at the arts center's predecessor organization, the Westport/Weston Arts Council. He and Jeanne-Claude also delivered a talk at the Westport Public Library.

During had been hoping to bring Christo to Westport since she took over the arts center's visual arts department three years ago. She said his Colorado project, "Over the River," is especially appropriate to Westport because the arts center is on the Saugatuck River.

To help the community connect with the environmentally friendly aspects of Christo's projects, the arts center has organized several related programs for July and August that focus on the town's natural attributes.

An environmental discussion at the center will be patterned after "speed dating" sessions. Participants will talk to an expert from one community environmental organization for 10 minutes, then move on to another expert.

In partnership with the Westport Historical Society, a kayaking trip is also planned for August. Four guides and a local historian will lead a trip on the Saugatuck.

A family event called The River Quest is planned the last week in July. Each day, a riddle will be posted on the arts center's website that will direct participants to one of six cultural venues in Westport. Participants are supposed to take photos of themselves there, then post them online.

The goal is to offer a fun and playful activity that would encourage families to explore different places on either side of the river, said Deanna Foster, the center's executive director. "This gives folks a way to discover cultural institutions in town that may or may not have been to before," she said.

The exhibit will be on display from Thursday through Sept. 4.

To make a reservation for the opening night reception, call Jackie Barchilon at 203-222-7070, Ext. 106. For more information, visit www.westportartscenter.org.