Inside Artspace’s new Center for Contemporary Art, the smell of wine and hors d’oeuvres — infused with a hint of fresh paint — floated past walls covered with locally produced art, greeting guests at the center’s gala opening and benefit auction Saturday.

The benefit signaled the start of a two-year fund-raising campaign for Artspace, which must raise an additional $1 million to support the cost of the center’s operations, including exhibitions, educational projects, and community-building programs. The new center will provide 5,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space for artists and community members at the Chamberlain building in Ninth Square.

Just outside the benefit, a woman in black leather boots and heavy makeup, known only as “The Cigarette Girl,” carried a tray filled with small pieces of “New Haven art,” on sale for 50 cents, in protest of the event’s $50 cover charge. The three-person protest was staged by Bill Saunders, a local artist who entered the New Haven mayoral race late last year as “Lil’ Miss Mess-Up.”

“Isn’t this [event] supposed to be about New Haven artists?” asked Ned Ludd Jr., the third protester. “Do you see any artists here?”

Helen Kauder, the director of Artspace, said she understood their concerns.

“I can certainly understand that artists would feel that $50 was a lot of money, because it is,” Kauder said. “Every now and then we have to raise money. I think sometimes that’s not always immediately clear to some people.”

Despite the slight disruption, Kauder said the event exceeded their expectations. More than 350 guests showed up, bidding numbers in hand.

The event’s success was a promising start to a fund-raising effort necessary to the center’s survival, Kauder said. While the city of New Haven has promised to cover the rent for the center for the first two years of its existence, she estimated that it would cost an additional $300,000 a year to run the gallery.

Nevertheless, most seemed optimistic that the center would be able to provide an invaluable service to the New Haven community.

“We came to the event to support the arts in New Haven,” said Ray Fair, a professor of economics at Yale. “It’s a great thing for Yale and for New Haven.”

Branford resident Ewa Buttolph agreed.

“In New Haven, when anything like this happens, it’s just marvelous,” she said. “Nothing better could happen here in this area.”

The opening of the center will also allow Artspace to expand the work they were able to do in “untitled (space)” on College Street.

“We’re big enough with this bigger space that we can have multiple things going on at the same time,” Kauder said. “Our idea is everything will have openings that coincide so we get different people mixing.”

Aron Michlin, a member of Artspace’s Visual Arts Committee who helped start untitled (space) on College Street, said he hoped the new center would help the New Haven art community grow.

“The possibilities that this place provides are enormous,” he said. “It goes beyond being a place to exhibit art.”

The Center for Contemporary Art is located at 50 Orange St., inside a Civil War-era furniture factory. Michael Haverland, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture, is the architect for the project.