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Kristen Peterson

Art museums on the Strip: Why only one survives

14 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Two galleries. Almost 40 million tourists. Extravagant resources and big names in art.

When the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum and the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art opened on the Strip, both set out to feed art to the masses.

Neither was enough to justify a stop in Las Vegas for the savvy cultural tourist. But that was never the plan. The plan was to insert art where art hadn't been, make a lot of money doing so and add cachet to the resorts. If you're going to have designer boutiques and top-notch restaurants, then keep the brows raised by adding an art gallery. Dabble a little. Add another crazy element to the mystique of ever-evolving Las Vegas.

The only two art spaces on the Strip were vastly different creatures. With Guggenheim Hermitage Museum closing next month, we are left with the Bellagio Gallery. And the question: What happened with the Guggenheim?

The satellite museum, operated by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York, offered a lot of promise but struggled to gain community support and lacked special programming for Las Vegas.

Moreover, it never seemed to possess the prestige that the Bellagio Gallery enjoyed.

Guggenheim officials touted the greatness of its two Rem Koolhaas-designed galleries at the Venetian. "The Art of the Motorcycle" in the larger gallery, which opened to fanfare and celebrity endorsement, closed in 15 months, turning the focus on the smaller Guggenheim Hermitage, a partnership between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Unlike the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, the Guggenheim seemed like a Vegas outsider, a satellite to New York.

Even when PaperBall, a subsidiary of New York's PaceWildenstein, took over the Bellagio Gallery, it delivered intimate shows tailored to Las Vegas.

The Guggenheim arranged some fantastic showcase exhibits for Las Vegas. But its other shows had been rotated through other Guggenheims before landing here.

A Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit opened in Berlin in 2004 and stopped in St. Petersburg and New York before arriving in Las Vegas in 2006. The exhibit compared Mapplethorpe's work to original mannerist engravings from the State Hermitage Museum at the other Guggenheims. Here, the Guggenheim Hermitage displayed copies of the prints.

Similarly, a Rubens exhibit opened in Bilbao four years before it arrived in Las Vegas, and the "Russia!" show here was dwarfed by a much larger version of the same exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York.

But that was to be expected. Thomas Krens, then the director of the Guggenheim Foundation, stated as much in the 2000 news release that said the partnership between Guggenheim and Hermitage would result in small exhibitions that would show "as part of an international tour."

On the other hand, Steve Wynn and his Bellagio Gallery were all about Las Vegas. The gallery was so intrinsic to his vision for the Bellagio that even after it was sold to MGM Mirage and the gallery was taken over by PaperBall, Wynn's thumbprints were still visible. Some had no idea that Wynn was out of there.

PaperBall ushered in interesting boutique shows such as Alexander Calder and the Kremlin's Fabergé treasures. Its Andy Warhol exhibit focused on the artist's love of celebrity, showing his celebrity portraits and personal accouterments: a wig, eyeglasses, a tape recorder and photographs. Liza Minnelli, Warhol's good friend, narrated the audio guide and told stories of her times with the pop artist.

Even the openings of the museums were distinct.

The Bellagio Gallery opened in 1998 to two-hour waits to see Steve Wynn's personal collection. The huge crowds prompted Wynn to move the gallery from its original location off the conservatory to a larger space on the property.

The Guggenheim Hermitage arrived three years later, opening less than a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, when tourism and the economy were taking a beating.

Nobody, especially locals, could argue that it wasn't great to have paintings by Beckmann, Modigliani, Picasso, Manet, Monet, Bonnard, Marc, Klee and dozens more at the Guggenheim.

But the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art continued to grab attention. Its partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts astonished and angered the museum world, but delivered an extravagant show to Las Vegas: "Claude Monet: Masterworks from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston." In 16 months, the show drew 450,000 visitors.

Moreover, the headlines it created over the clash between old money and new money, tradition and a 21st-century city furthered the gallery's reputation. Whether it was an innovative way to bring money into museums that relied mostly on patrons with deep pockets or an issue of a well-respected museum selling out to commercialism didn't matter to Las Vegas, and especially the Bellagio. It was a master stroke of branding.

Meanwhile, the Guggenheim had its own struggles.

The nonprofit museum relied on community support: corporate sponsors, membership and deep-pocketed patrons. But nobody was throwing money at a museum housed in a casino, whose majority shareholder, Sheldon Adelson, is one of the richest men in the world.

Managing Director Elizabeth Herridge said in an October 2005 Sun article that only 4 percent to 6 percent of the museum's 200,000 annual visitors are locals.

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

Herridge struggled to build the museum into the community through educational programs with the Clark County School District. She led the Young Collectors Council. The group of young professionals visited artists' studios and attended private lectures at the Venetian.

The Guggenheim's exhibition space is cool and cavernous with Cor-ten steel walls. But it's also hard to find and casino noise is audible while viewing art. Across the street, the Bellagio's cozy space, set far away from the casino, offers a more calm, intimate and relaxing environment.

Krens' plans for creating a space that had "the aesthetic and practical capability to do things that were not possible in any other museum or exhibition space in the world" died when Guggenheim Las Vegas closed. We never saw the fashion, architecture, multimedia and video exhibits, as well as a "retrospective of massive Richard Serra sculpture."

Guggenheim officials now say that the partnership with Las Vegas was always temporary. No surprise there. After all, this is Las Vegas.