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The Movable Buffet: Repainting Vegas' art ambitions

The casino galleries charging admission to view masterworks didn't work. Now the movement is toward free public displays and new artists.

August 15, 2010|By Richard Abowitz, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Las Vegas —

The dream that Las Vegas could become a center of "cultural tourism" to rival New York and Los Angeles, as art critic and soon-to-be-former resident Dave Hickey once imagined, died painfully. The two Guggenheims at the Venetian closed, as did the gallery at Wynn. Only the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, the original admission-charging-art-museum-as-Strip-attraction, remains, and there are no plans for others.

The final death knell of Vegas' high-end cultural ambitions arrived off the Strip, with the closure of the Las Vegas Art Museum, in February 2009. The museum had been run by Hickey's wife, Libby Lumpkin (who once worked advising Steve Wynn on his purchases for the original Bellagio Gallery) since 2005. Now, the couple, who are moving to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico, freely admit their vision of Vegas was wrong.

"A museum that draws people away from casinos was never going to be supported enough by casinos," she says, adding that the type of art in a casino that could draw a Vegas tourist audience proved equally unobtainable. "There are simply not enough of the Vermeer or Rembrandt or the marquee great paintings still in private hands to create a museum that will draw people to Las Vegas who want to look at art. They are always going to choose L.A. or New York."

Or, as the more acerbic Hickey notes: "The people who come to Vegas are not going to be the people who want to explore art galleries. There was a brief moment where I thought Vegas would grow into that. But I turned out to be mostly wrong about Vegas. This town dreamed big, but Vegas is built for middle-class gamblers and not the tastes of the casino executives."

And yet, paradoxically, the abandonment of ambition may in the end place more art in front of the public. CityCenter, located next door to Bellagio, acquired a $40-million art collection including work by Maya Lin, Richard Long, Jenny Holzer, Nancy Rubins, Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen, Frank Stella and Henry Moore. Rather than being in a gallery that charges admission, the work is spread out around the property. The Frank Stella work, for example, sits behind the check-in desk at Vdara.

Next door to CityCenter, the yet-to-open Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (which has already been through foreclosure during construction) is already offering on its free public art. Instead of spending money on a collection like CityCenter, Cosmopolitan formed a partnership with the well-known nonprofit Art Production Fund, based in New York. For now there are two videos by T.J. Wilcox and one by Yoko Ono on the marquee.

According to Art Production Fund co-founder Yvonne Force Villareal, as the resort starts opening in December there will be rotating installations inside. This permanent use of commercial space for nonprofit art is a first for the fund. Cosmopolitan has final say, of course, over what art goes into the resort.

"The gallery idea hasn't really worked — people don't think of Las Vegas as a city where you go to visit a museum or a gallery," says Cosmopolitan Las Vegas CEO John Unwin. "I think in the past we've tried a bit too hard to be something that we're not. There's this perceptual barrier that unless you are an expert, galleries aren't for you. Art doesn't have to be something that you pay to go see."

The Strip seems to be learning to use art as a free enhancement to the Las Vegas experience rather as a defining attraction that tourists purchase access to while here. Moreover, the recession has also produced a few surprising benefits, such as arts groups partnering with casinos. If at one time there was snobbery about loaning great works to a gallery space in a casino, that luxury is gone. "I think everybody is challenged by the economy and looking for new ways to do things," says Tarissa Tiberti of Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.

Downtown, casino El Cortez owned the building of the former Fremont Medical Center, which sat vacant for five years until its unlikely opening this summer as Emergency Arts, with a café and artist studios for rent.

Jennifer Cornthwaite, co-owner along with her husband of Emergency Arts, says the resort for a long time had no interest in this project. As Vegas en masse abandoned the vision of new hotel/condo/casinos springing up all over the city, the casino was left owning a lousy old building in a not particularly good neighborhood. The solution: Turn the space over to artists.

"Coming in this morning, this homeless guy almost knocked me down. And I told my husband, 'We have at least another five years here!'"

To critic Hickey, these cheap spaces for rent and lower ambitions mark a realistic goal for Vegas post great recession. "For contemporary artists, Vegas is once again what it once was and what it will probably always be: a cheap place for younger artists looking toward L.A. to rent space while they work."

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