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Las Vegas Venetian Resort's Pop Culture Museum Folds

May 10, 2003|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — The Venetian Resort said Friday it is closing its Guggenheim Museum, ending a high-profile commercial effort to deliver pop culture to the gambling masses. The museum's only show featured the history of the motorcycle as art.

The 63,700-square-foot, hangar-like space designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas will be converted into a more conventional showroom for stage productions and will open next year, said Venetian President Rob Goldstein.

The museum, a joint venture between the Venetian and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, opened in 2001 to hold large, pop-culture exhibitions. Disappointing attendance has forced its closure, Goldstein said.

The Venetian's other venture -- the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, which displays old-world masterpieces and other fine art -- has been more successful, drawing about 1,000 visitors daily. The smaller museum, alongside the lobby, will remain open, Goldstein said.

The Venetian had been criticized by some curators for delivering art as Las Vegas Strip entertainment, but was applauded by others for making it available to tourists who otherwise would have little opportunity to view it.

Las Vegas tourism, Goldstein said, could not sustain the cost of the Guggenheim Museum.

The museum cost the Venetian $25 million to construct. Its only show was "The Art of the Motorcycle," which the Guggenheim previously staged at Chicago's Field Museum and at its own museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Serious art critics scoffed at the show, and it failed to draw the kinds of numbers needed to pay the museum's overhead in Las Vegas, even though it was a financial success in Chicago and Bilbao.

The motorcycle exhibit closed in January after a 15-month run. Attendance ran lower than expected, Goldstein said, partly because of the downturn in tourism after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Venetian and the financially struggling Guggenheim Foundation were not able to find a replacement show, partly because of the cost of underwriting such large installations. At the time, a Guggenheim spokeswoman said several exhibitions were in "advanced stages of development," but funding for them never materialized as Guggenheim executives in New York worked to trim budgets.

"We just couldn't afford to keep the space vacant while waiting for another show, and then take the chance it wouldn't do well," Goldstein said Friday. "I'm still very proud of the Guggenheim Museum, but it didn't have the commercial viability I thought it would. Nobody is more frustrated than I am that we couldn't make it work. On the cultural side, maybe we were ahead of the curve on using such a big space. There are better ways to make the real estate work for us."

Richard Koshalek, ex-director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, said the Guggenheim Museum in Las Vegas "was an extraordinary gesture" by the museum and resort to bring art to the masses.

"I thought it would be very successful in the context of Las Vegas," said Koshalek, the president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "But I guess tourists wanted to view artists whose contributions are proven and certified, and they didn't have any exploratory instincts for new work and new ideas."

Hotel executives are discussing how to use the cavernous space, which features a 70-foot-high main gallery beneath a skylight painted with a scene from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a 35-ton industrial crane, a mammoth floor-to-ceiling door for exterior access and a lower-level, clear-topped trench for subterranean exhibits.

It will cost more than $25 million to convert the museum into a theater, Goldstein said.

He said the Venetian is considering staging Broadway shows such as " 'The Producers' and others of that ilk."

Joshua Ramus, a New York-based partner with Koolhaas in the design of the Guggenheim Museum here, said Friday the space was designed to be "hyper-flexible" and would lend itself to theater use, but wondered how some of its architectural follies would be incorporated. "Its use as a theater," he said, "could be exciting."

The Venetian has also taken back the lease of another showroom property in the resort, which its operators had rented to show producers. That showroom will be expanded so that, together with the Guggenheim space, the Venetian can stage two large productions concurrently, Goldstein said.

The Venetian's challenge in trying to find the right mix of entertainment reflects the changing dynamics of the Las Vegas entertainment industry and its efforts to tap the changing tastes of tourists.

Showgirls, magicians and impressionists still reign here, but the last 10 years have brought the likes of New York's Blue Man Group, Broadway shows including the current run of "Mamma Mia!" and two Cirque du Soleil productions.

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