Las Vegas — Things are not always what they appear to be in this city of dreams and disappointments. When a single street is lined with facsimiles of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Palace of the Doges, a medieval castle and an Egyptian pyramid, what you see is not necessarily what you get.
The pretense usually doesn't extend to the city's art galleries. But a new exhibition, "Claude Monet: Masterworks from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston," has raised questions about the relationship between the venerable museum that owns the pictures and the high-toned gallery that is presenting them.
The beautifully installed assembly of 21 paintings -- including trademark images of the cathedral at Rouen, waterlilies at Giverny and a grain stack at sunset -- surveys the artist's career from 1864 to 1905. With an illustrated catalog and a $15 admission fee that includes a recorded tour, the exhibition resembles a miniature museum retrospective.
But Boston's MFA hasn't established a Las Vegas branch, like the joint venture of New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum. The Monets are on loan to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, a commercial enterprise at the luxurious Bellagio hotel-casino. The gallery is operated by PaperBall, a division of PaceWildenstein gallery in New York.
This is not the first time a nonprofit art museum has loaned artworks to a for-profit galley, although loans as large as this are extremely rare. And -- thanks to the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum and the Wynn Collection, a small display of paintings owned by casino mogul Steve Wynn -- it's no longer a novelty to see splashy advertisements for blue chip art on the Strip.
What has the art world talking is that the Boston museum stands to reap an enormous return from the Monet show -- a sum reported by Newsweek as a minimum of $1 million.
"That figure is speculative," says Malcolm Rogers, the museum's director. He also deflects questions about additional revenue based on attendance. But he doesn't deny the profit motive: "There are financial arrangements, which I can't discuss in detail but which are beneficial to the museum."
And therein lies the controversy. Even as leaders of financially stressed museums all across the country seek creative ways to bring in more people and money, they wrestle with just how far they can -- or should -- go.
"Professional Practices in Art Museums," published by the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, offers this guideline: "In any decision about a proposed loan from the collection, the intellectual merit and educational benefits, as well as the protection of the work of art, must be the primary considerations, rather than possible financial gain."
Rogers says that cashing in wasn't his primary concern when he was approached about the show. "We first of all looked to see if we could actually do an exhibition of Monets," he says. "Did we have enough that weren't needed for our own walls or promised to other exhibitions? We wanted to fill the Las Vegas space beautifully with an exhibition that would tell a coherent story and represent each phase of Monet's career."
With 39 works by Monet -- 36 paintings, two pastels and one drawing -- the Boston museum has one of the largest holdings of the artist's work outside France. Rogers and curator George Shackelford decided they could assemble the desired exhibition by taking five paintings off the walls and 16 others out of storage. "There have been some adjustments made in our display," Rogers says, "but I suspect that visitors will not find what we have on our walls disappointing."
Rogers has come under fire for reorganizing the museum's curatorial departments, dismissing staff and presenting an increasingly lowbrow program, including a planned exhibition of fashion designer Ralph Lauren's car collection. But he says the museum's trustees and curators are united in their support for the Monet show.
"This is a very interesting opportunity," he says. "We love to have our works seen in new cities by new audiences, and we are always looking for new funding sources. Unlike most of the major city museums of the country, Boston is entirely privately funded." With a 350,000-piece encyclopedic collection and 1,000 employees, the museum operates on an annual budget of about $50 million.
"This will make a very nice contribution to our overhead," he says, "as well as bring great masterpieces to new audiences. The money will pay salaries, heating and lighting -- keep this museum open."
At the Bellagio, the Monet show is a coup for gallery President Andrea Bundonis and her husband, Marc Glimcher, president of PaceWildenstein. They share responsibilities at PaperBall, formed in 2001 to, as Glimcher puts it, "do all the fun stuff that doesn't fall into the category of selling art." That includes licensing artists' images for products, but the company's primary activity is running the gallery in Las Vegas.