Master Works: The Phillips Art Collection
By Scott Dickensheets

From Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2001


Las Vegas makes strange bedfellows, and, over the last few years, no pairing besides Siegfried and Roy has seemed as curious as the casino industry's embrace of big-ticket fine art. The very idea of Degas in Vegas (to cop a phrase from critic Arthur Danto), of heavy-duty art in a city of gleaming superficiality and instant gratification is, to say the least, incongruous.

Casino mogul Steve Wynn began the trend in 1998 when he opened Bellagio, a billion-dollar resort whose gallery boasted $300 million worth of Renaissance, Impressionist and modern paintings. Even in a city that prides itself on continuous reinvention, this was an astonishingly new idea: fine art as a tourist trap. Almost no one thought it would work until it worked. The Bellagio Gallery received worldwide media play, and hotel officials say it has averaged 1,500 paying customers a day.

When MGM bought Bellagio this year, Wynn took his paintings and left, but the new owners picked up where he left off. Through March, the gallery is showing a selection of masterworks from the prestigious Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C. The 26 pieces, gathered decades ago by pioneering collector Duncan Phillips, represent an art-history dream team: Picasso, Braque, Monet, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Cézanne, de Kooning.

Now the Venetian, a Venice-themed Strip resort, has announced its intent to host not one but two branches of the Guggenheim Museum in a building designed by architect-of-the-moment Rem Koolhaas (one of the Guggenheims is a joint venture with Russia's venerable Hermitage Museum). It's scheduled to open next summer with the wildly popular "The Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit. Nor is Wynn out of the picture; he plans to reinstall his collection in a new casino he'll open in a few years.

That's a pretty heavy dose of blue-chip culture for a town that Time art critic Robert Hughes once predicted would never have a museum because art couldn't stand up to the visual spectacle of the Strip. For a long time, the city proved him right. The Vegas aesthetic ran entirely to kitsch, neon and ironic representations of Elvis. The closest it could claim to a museum was the grandly named Las Vegas Art Museum, which occupies a library gallery.

All that has set the stage for Vegas' new refinement. The first question is obvious: How are the masterpieces holding up in the temples of chance? "I guess the purists would find something disagreeable or perhaps even perverted for museum-quality art to be exhibited in a casino," says Robert Tracy, an art history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Personally, I find those critics so far off base as to be ludicrous. Those same types were ridiculing Duncan Phillips for collecting European modernist paintings in the first place."

The line between high and low culture has been giving way for years, but that's been largely evident in the art itself. The stuff still hung mostly in galleries and museums. Placing it in such a frankly commercial context, as an aside to the main action, as a slick enticement to a certain class of potential gambler—now that's new.

Yet the paintings hold their own, according to Libby Lumpkin, an art critic on faculty at UNLV who also curated Wynn's collection. "When you bring in fine art like this, it's quite distinct from Las Vegas, which is all about surface and spectacle," she says. "In the gallery, you get a more penetrating aesthetic. You experience elements of expression and tactility you don't see in the rest of the culture here." And, as the art tends to be set apart from the clamor of the gaming floor, viewing it in the Bellagio Gallery probably isn't qualitatively different from viewing it in a museum that doesn't have a casino attached to it.

Vegas can even re-contextualize the art. Take Edgar Degas' painting, "Dancers at the Bar," which depicts a pair of ballerinas limbering up. Viewing it in Washington, D.C., you would undoubtedly link the image with, well, ballerinas. In Las Vegas, it inevitably makes you think of showgirls, which extends the lines of interpretation into distinctly different intellectual terrain.

With their talk of grumpy purists and outraged critics, Las Vegans like to imagine an art world elite arrayed against this new miscegenation of art and commerce. Such defensiveness is habitual in a city that's been mocked and condemned for its tackiness and licensing of sin as long as Vegas has. But, aside from a few puritans, most of the art world seems to accept the idea of casino galleries as a logical step in a process of patronage that began with the church and continued with the corporation.

"When we first opened the Bellagio Gallery," Lumpkin recalls, "I anticipated a great deal of resistance and reluctance. I was surprised that I encountered almost no philistinism by the art world."

Locally, the casino galleries are doing what no one else has been able to (just as casino theaters have done by importing Broadway shows). "Individuals and organizations have been trying for years to get a major fine arts facility for Las Vegas," Tracy says. "But the reality is that these efforts have come up short. The casinos have the juice to make it happen."

Of course, the casinos aren't hanging art as a community service; the accounting department expects results. So the second obvious question is: How will the commercial imperatives of the modern mega-resort drive gallery programming? Casino bosses will opt every time for a crowd-pleasing motorcycle exhibit over chancier, aesthetically challenging shows. You will never see the words "Mapplethorpe exhibit" in a casino-run gallery.

Of the Phillips Collection and the Guggenheim, William L. Fox, a cultural columnist for Las Vegas Life magazine, wrote: "Both may be decent exhibitions, but the motives are based in entertainment for tourists, not in helping Las Vegans understand and develop their own visual culture—a necessity for any city that desires to be more than a roadside attraction."

Until that happens, the local culturati will take whatever Monets they can lay their eyes on. "Everybody knows the casinos are interested in the 35 million visitors who come here every year," Lumpkin says. "But it's really we Las Vegans who benefit. It's practically a miracle that we have access to these important works of art on a full-time basis."