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,
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
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,
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."