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Gaming Guru

Kristen Peterson

Guggenheim Hermitage Still in the Game

25 October 2005

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- There was the 18th-century "Portrait of Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich" and a quiet discussion about the Russian czar's life.

There was an enthusiastic docent and students with questions.

It was a beautiful moment with free-flowing conversation, a tradition, a common rite of passage for elementary school students.

They moved through the exhibit, stopping at pearl-embroidered footwear, at the opulent decorative arts, housewares, guns and religious objects that make up "Russia!" at the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum.

The group was among 8,000 students from the Clark County School District who are dropped off at the Venetian's porte-cochere annually. They pay no museum admission and no transportation costs. It's a deal teachers value.

"This is what really enhances your program, when you can take them out to an actual museum," said Garehime Elementary School art teacher Erin Sawhill, who was visiting the museum for the second time with students.

"Just the experience of being in a museum is amazing for them. Without museums we wouldn't be very educated."

But Southern Nevada's shortage of museums (not including Elvis-A-Rama Museum and Gift Shop and the Liberace Museum) leaves for slim pickings when looking for a cultural or educational experience.

The only museum in the Las Vegas Valley accredited by the American Association of Museums is the State Museum and Historical Society, Las Vegas.

Essentially, if it weren't for the Guggenheim Hermitage, local students wouldn't be looking at 17th-century decorative arts.

But some say the Guggenheim Hermitage's location, on the Strip, makes it difficult for the community to embrace.

Elizabeth Herridge, executive director of the Guggenheim Hermitage, sold 780 memberships in the last two years, with a 70-percent renewal rate. Today there are 600 members. The Las Vegas Art Museum, in contrast, has a membership of about 1,700 and Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, a for-profit gallery has more than 2,000 members.

Corporate sponsorships at the Guggenheim Hermitage are hard to come by, Herridge said.

So the museum, celebrating its fourth year this month, remains in somewhat of a conundrum. The hotel is needed to keep the museum alive, but might be scaring away needed community support.

At the gallery

Nearly 200,000 visitors tour the museum each year. Only between 4 and 6 percent of visitors are locals. The percentage was higher (13 percent) for this year's "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt."

"If we were not so close to all of this traffic, we would probably have serious financial problems," Herridge said. "The key to the success here is the fundamental relationship with this hotel. They're serious. They really want to put their money behind it after what was a very dubious start."

The larger Guggenheim Las Vegas opened in September 2001 as a space for pop culture exhibits, beginning with "The Art of the Motorcycle" and closed for good in March 2002 because of poor attendance and lack of funds.

Herridge said community support could help fund educational programming and outreach and defray exhibition costs. A budget for a standard show is six figures. The museum's annual operating budget is seven figures.

Recently, Herridge had to scramble when a planned exhibit fell through at the last minute. Because of staff changes over the summer, she's worked marketing, operations and retail.

Local art collector Patrick Duffy, who with his partner, Wally Goodman, donated a kinetic sculpture by Fletcher Benton to the Guggenheim Foundation, says it isn't only the location that deters community involvement.

"People are nervous about art in this city," Duffy said. "Here, it's a foreign term for many. In Chicago you've got the people who support the art: Marilynn Alsdorf, Ruth Horwich, Lou Manilow, Muriel Newman -- you just have a rich base of supporters."

Without the Guggenheim, Las Vegas would be at a loss, Duffy said. And there's no sign of anyone building a public art museum with a collection of centuries-old works.

Libby Lumpkin, art critic, art historian, writer and director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, agrees with Duffy's assessment of the museum's value.

"There's no question that the Guggenheim Museum is a great asset to the community, with great educational opportunities," Lumpkin said.

Around the world, Guggenheim museums have been criticized for putting on blockbuster shows with little scholarly merit. A Guggenheim in Las Vegas, where museums are scarce, however, is a different story.

Lumpkin, who said she is aware of the criticism, said, "Whatever the Guggenheim's problems are, they still provide valuable and interesting art for our community that offers the community an incredible resource at no cost."

Another complaint by critics is that the Guggenheim Hermitage, which is a result of the partnership between the Guggenheim Foundation and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, doesn't feature enough of the Hermitage's vast collection.

That will change with the Guggenheim Hermitage's scheduled upcoming exhibits, which include "Reubens and His Age" (much of which is work from the Hermitage State Museum). That will be followed by a masterpieces show featuring work from the Guggenheim Foundation and the State Hermitage Museum. After that will be a 2007 "Venice in Painting" exhibit, followed by a show of early Picasso works.

"In this venue, people want to see large-format paintings, not historical objects," Herridge said, explaining the next lineup of shows should be successful.

Paintings and sculpture were not part of the "Russia!" exhibit at the local Guggenheim and experts have said that Guggenheim Hermitage was given mere castoffs from the New York exhibit.

"That is just categorically wrong," said Anthony Calnek, deputy director of communications of the Guggenheim Foundation. "It was meant for that space. The New York show here is just strictly painting and sculptures. It was a very expensive show to bring to Las Vegas."

"The staff in New York is very much participatory with what happens in Las Vegas. We're also interested in connecting with collectors in the Las Vegas Area. It's important to build a constituency of sponsors and donors."

Major donations for the Las Vegas Guggenheim are donated through the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, but are earmarked for the Guggenheim Hermitage. Some say the reluctance from local philanthropists is that they don't want to support the Guggenheim Hermitage because they believe that in the end it benefits billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Las Vegas Sands Corp., the parent company of the Venetian, and the Venetian Foundation have contributed significantly to the Guggenheim.

Las Vegas Sands contributed $5 million to the Guggenheim Foundation, which Ron Reese, executive director of communications at the Venetian, said is "a contribution to continue our strategic relationship with the Guggenheim Foundation."

Herridge said the Venetian has been supportive and that it gives the Guggenheim-Hermitage "an extremely advantageous rental situation" and an in-kind gift of on-property advertising twice a year. (Other reports state that the Guggenheim's rent is free.)

Reese declined to say what the rental relationship is other than, "It's a very strategic partnership with the Guggenheim," but explained that the Guggenheim is a cherished entity in the resort.

"We consider it one of the important amenities that makes the resort so special," Reese said.

Sawhill, who moved here from Columbus, Ohio, is happy to take her students to museums such as the Guggenheim.

"I want them to get a sense of art appreciation and the experience of being in a museum, so they can do it later in life and know that these resources are available," Sawhill said.

"If we didn't have museums, it would lead to ignorance. We wouldn't understand our past and think we were the end all, be all."