A work in progress
A work in progressArt museums search for an operational formula that will spell success on The Strip
A year after the Venetian's inaugural Guggenheim Las Vegas exhibit, "The Art of the Motorcycle" sputtered off into the sunset following sparse attendance, gaming analysts and officials still refuse to paint a grim picture of the future of art exhibits in the world's entertainment capital.
"The presentation of fine art in Las Vegas makes very good sense given that Las Vegas has evolved from a gambling town to a resort destination with world class entertainment, fine dining and hot nightclubs," said Andrew Zarnett, a bond analyst with Deutsche Banc.
One who agreed with that assessment is MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman.
"The art world has begun to understand there are people in Las Vegas who are just as serious and passionate in their love of great art as there are in Boston, Denver or San Francisco," Feldman said. "And I believe Las Vegas is going to have an expanding effect on the art world."
But not before art galleries in various Las Vegas Strip resorts finish experiencing downsizing pains prompted by the lingering national recession and continuing post-9-11 pressures on the travel industry. Just a year ago, the Venetian was forced to close its 63,700-square-foot "big box" Guggenheim Las Vegas exhibition space because of a lack of customers. Meanwhile, attendance at the Bellagio Fine Arts Gallery has dropped from 3,000 a day in 1998 to between 750 and 1,000 today.
Still, the Las Vegas Strip resort museum business continues, and while the displays are masterful as ever, they have been streamlined. And so have costs. Exhibition space is more compact, and the current trend is to showcase traveling exhibitions, rather than permanent ones. In the wake of the closure of the "Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit, The Venetian switched all of its promotion efforts to its much smaller 7,660-square-foot Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, and with some success. More than 800 visit the gallery every day.
The art of attractionCurrently, the Guggenheim Hermitage is featuring "Renoir to Rothko," an exhibit of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces by the likes of van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Gauguin.
"It's quite visually stunning, and our visitors-many of them foreigners-find the works astounding and beautiful, and I'd have to agree," said Elizabeth Herridge, managing director of the Guggenheim Hermitage.
Not to be outdone, the Bellagio Gallery in January unveiled a display of 21 Claude Monet masterworks on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It represents the largest-ever loan of Monet paintings from the Boston museum.
"It's quite a remarkable collection, and these works are the biggest draws," said Matthew Hileman, director of marketing for the gallery.
Across the Strip, Steve Wynn is presenting The Wynn Collection at the site of his signature megaresort, Wynn Las Vegas, set to open in spring. Among the nearly two dozen paintings in the collection is Picasso's Le Reve (The Dream), which was Wynn's first choice as the name of the resort.
In contrast to Wynn's collection, which is permanent, both the Bellagio Gallery and the Guggenheim Hermitage house traveling exhibitions. The collections are on loan from other museums. Officials explain this is a cost effective way give Las Vegas visitors the opportunity to see the world's greatest works of art-and, perhaps, keep them coming back.
Because the exhibitions at the Guggenheim Hermitage are drawn largely from the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the operators efficiently trim costs in everything from transport insurance to technical support.
"The Guggenheim Foundation assumes all the responsibilities for mounting exhibitions in Las Vegas, and there are tremendous savings in terms of insurance costs and in the utilization of staff resources," said Anthony Calnek, spokesman for the Guggenheim Museum.
The Bellagio Gallery and the Guggenheim Hermitage also have a great deal of experience in mounting and promoting traveling exhibitions. While the museums are in partnerships with the host resorts, the resorts for the most part leave museum operations to them, and simply lease the gallery space.
The Bellagio Gallery is managed by Paper Ball, a division of the prestigious Pace Wildenstein Gallery in New York. Pace has mounted nearly 500 exhibitions, which have included work by more than 200 artists, and published more than 200 exhibition catalogs since 1960. In addition to the numerous exhibitions of artists' new work, Pace has curated several dozen scholarly exhibitions over the years in the United States and Europe.
The Guggenheim Hermitage, a non-profit corporation, represents a collaboration of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which operates the Guggenheim Museum in New York, well known for its large collection of 19th- and 20th-century masterpieces. It also operates the 240-year-old State Hermitage Museum in Russia, which holds an immense collection ranging from prehistoric cultures to modern art.
"There is no collaboration like that anywhere in the world," said Lisa Dennison, deputy curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
And there is no museum market like Las Vegas.
Adapting to Vegas culture"At the time the Guggenheim decided to go to Las Vegas, there was a new family orientation to the promotion of Las Vegas," Dennison said. "Well, apparently the family appeal did not work because it's completely reversed, and now they say what happens here stays here-and forget the family."
Still, Dennison is optimistic about the Las Vegas market.
"People are still looking to do as much as they can while in Las Vegas, and today their visit could include a visit to a museum to see world-class art," she said. "We're getting extremely positive feedback, and committed to conducting a program at the highest level and making it work."
In order to make their exhibitions work, both the Guggenheim and Bellagio Gallery display a limited number of paintings-about three dozen or fewer-so the visitor doesn't feel pressed for time. Nearly all the works shown in both galleries are priceless masterworks.
"When the average person comes to
Las Vegas, that person might want an art experience, but doesn't necessarily feel there is enough time to take in a large museum," the Bellagio's Hileman said. "What we do is offer the greatest hits-so to speak-and so you don't have to worry about searching through a large institution for four hours."
Both the Guggenheim Hermitage and Bellagio Gallery charge about $15 to tour the galleries. Based on visitation of 800 per day, each gallery would gross about $60,000 per week, plus additional revenues from the annexing museum shops that sell everything from art postcards to
These revenues pay for the operational costs of each gallery, including lease rates and salaries of a staff of 40 at the Guggenheim Hermitage and 20 at the Bellagio Gallery. They also help both institutions offer quality exhibits during a time when both travel and donations to museums are down.
Still feeling the pinchSo what is the future of art in Las Vegas? At the moment, that question is still up in the air, as the art world struggles first to fully recover from the economy's latest woes.
"The economy has certainly picked up (since the 9-11 terrorist attacks)," Dennison said, "but art institutions have not yet felt the full benefits of the recovery, partly because travel is still down, and partly because corporate support for museums is still down."
Indeed, The Art Newspaper reports private contributions to U.S. charities declined last year for the first time in 12 years. In addition, donations to 14 arts groups surveyed by the Chronicle of Philanthropy plunged 26.5 percent from the previous year when the charts were skewed by an unusually large endowment to the arts by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.
Still, The Art Newspaper noted: "retrenchment remains the watchword in the museum world." As an example, the theme of the Museum Trustees Association's annual meeting in October was "Doing more with less: museum leadership in times of crisis."
"The economy is having a huge impact on museums," Hileman said. "Donations are down 36 percent. As a result, museums are turning more attention toward marketing and how to interest large populations-many of whom have never been to a museum."
It's no wonder that in this difficult economic climate, some major museums are looking toward fast-growing, but potentially risky markets like Las Vegas as places to further artistic campaigns.
"We're absolutely committed to running the Guggenheim Hermitage in Las Vegas," Calnek said. "And what we're hoping is to become an intrinsic part of the permanent community-not just an attraction for the tourists."CJ
Showcasing gambling's past
Private collector sees case for a gaming museum is Las Vegas; so do othersO ne of the world's greatest collections of gaming artifacts is housed in Las Vegas-not in a major resort or multi-million-dollar museum, but in a private office of resident Steve Forte.
In his 1,200 square foot office, Forte has thousands of gaming collectibles including 19th-century playing cards from the steamboat era, keno gooses from the Civil War era and ancient Roman dice made from the knuckle bones of sheep.
Other historical artifacts include vintage Faro gambling boards, and mahogany case keepers used to keep track of the cards when they were dealt in saloons of the Old West. There are also turn-of-the-century roulette wheels, dice shakers and cups, early playing card dealing devices and a collection of old photographs including photos of casinos being closed when gambling was outlawed in Nevada in 1910. Forte also has a vast collection of vintage gaming chips.
Forte, 47, a retired game protection specialist, also has a complete collection of early cheating devices and materials ranging from gaffed dice and crooked roulette wheels to 19th-century playing card hold-out mechanisms that gamblers wore under their sleeves.
"I've been a collector for 30 years," Forte said. "When I started working in game protection I began collecting security oriented artifacts-everything from marked cards to shaved dice."
Some of Forte's vintage collectibles are so rare, they haven't been seen in over a century. Among them: a layout of The Game of Diana, which was played on the Delta Queen steamboat about 120 years ago. Cards were dealt onto the layout, and players bet on whether cards would be high or low, red or black.
Ready to shareForte is trying to garner interest and support for a significant museum of gaming artifacts to be operated in a major Las Vegas resort.
"I think the industry has so far overlooked the fact that people are fascinated with these historical gaming artifacts, and that there are several significant collections right here in town," said Forte, who notes visitors to his private collection are enthralled.
"As Las Vegas has evolved from a gambling town to an entertainment destination with fine restaurants, retail and other amenities, visitors are staying longer and they're always looking for new things to do," he said. "I think they would enjoy seeing such a collection."
Daniel Davila, a gaming analyst with Sterne, Agee & Leach agreed.
"I think such a museum would succeed in Las Vegas," Davila said. "There is a certain fascination with the medium and more people visit Las Vegas than they do Orlando."
One such operation that already succeeds in Las Vegas is the Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino. The museum, which takes up 5,200 square feet, charges $6.95 for adults and $5.95 for seniors, to view a range of celebrity collectibles from Elvis Presley jumpsuits to vintage photos of entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.
"We just finished our fifth year, and we're the most visited museum in the state of Nevada," said owner Steven Cutler, adding that more than 1,000 people visit the museum every day.
"There is a mystique of the Las Vegas of the '50s and '60s when the Mafia ran the town," Cutler said. "Well, you can't go back, but you can still see the costumes the entertainers wore, and the photographs, and the vintage slot machines. People love that."