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Rod Smith

Fine Art in Las Vegas, Galleries Struggle to Find Their Niche

7 October 2003

LAS VEGAS -- Skeptics paint a dismal picture of how well art exhibits benefit Las Vegas' tourism industry, but visitors still visit them and Strip megaresorts continue to stage events like the new Chatsworth exhibit that opened Sept. 13 at the Bellagio Fine Arts Gallery.

"It's the Homer Simpson syndrome," explained MRC Group Research Institute Chief Executive Officer Jim Medick. "We've done research on it and have found art is working here in Las Vegas.

"Even if you don't understand the art you're looking at, like an average Las Vegas tourist, when they walk out, they feel a little smarter," he said. "Few people come here for the express purpose of going to the galleries, but when they go, they have bragging rights. They can say they've seen a Monet or a Rembrandt and it adds another qualitative dimension to what we offer here in Vegas."

Still, many question Las Vegas' attempts to add fine art to its list of things to do.

Paul Webb, a visitor from New York who was caught heading from the Bradley Ogden restaurant to the blackjack tables at Caesars Palace, for instance, said for him to visit the Bellagio gallery was "about as likely as going to church" during his Vegas vacation.

"It's not what I come here for. I come for all the rest of it," he said.

Stacey Gold of Chicago was not as negative as Webb. Instead, she said she would go to see the Chatsworth exhibit, "just like I'll go to the pool. But I'll go because it's here. I wouldn't come here for it. This we've got back home."

Other visitors seem to share that kind of mixed enthusiasm for the Strip's art scene.

Attendance at the Bellagio gallery has dropped from 3,000 a day in its first year to between 750 and 1,000 today, said Matthew Hileman, director of marketing for the gallery.

Still, industry insiders insist the experience encourages first-time visitors who take in some of the cultural exhibits to come back and the word-of mouth increases awareness for prospective visitors.

At The Venetian, for instance, resort and museum officials continue to believe the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum can find an audience in Las Vegas, even though the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation closed the larger Guggenheim Las Vegas operation because of a lack of customers.

Steve Wynn, now chairman of Wynn Resorts who created the Bellagio gallery when he built the $1.6 billion resort in 1998, said the gallery initially was a "direct extension of commercial motivation."

"I wanted people to know they could be stimulated on a different level -- intellectually," he said. "I never dreamed 2,000 people a day would come to see it. It caught everybody on the blind side, and I was the most surprised guy in the world."

Wynn remains committed to exhibiting art as an enhancement to first-class resorts, and Wynn Las Vegas, his new development on the Strip at Spring Mountain, will house the Wynn Collection of Fine Art, 13 masterpieces he owns that will be on display to the public.

Elizabeth Herridge, managing director of the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at The Venetian, agreed gallery experiences at the casino-resorts "make the resorts much more upscale. People are surprised we are sharing this quality of art in Las Vegas."

The partnership of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York and The Hermitage in St. Petersburg "is unique in all the world and offers visitors even another experience in Las Vegas besides shopping, dining, sports, weather and now cultural experiences," she said.

But, she adds, the museum she operates has quantitative benefits for The Venetian as well.

"This summer, we ran a free-after-5 (program) for locals three hours a week on Tuesday nights. Every week, 25 percent of the people coming to the museum were locals taking part in the program, which we thought was amazing," Herridge said.

That translated to the casino with a big boost in guests signing up for for player cards, she said.

"Every Tuesday night, they had a couple of hundred extra people signing up for players cards. We didn't expect that to be the case, but we were thrilled and so was The Venetian," Herridge said.

Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage, which owns the Bellagio, said the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is important to his company because of the brand enhancement it offers and the role it plays in marketing rooms, restaurants and show tickets.

He said the new Chatsworth exhibit is particularly important because Great Britain is an expanding gaming market and Britons come to Las Vegas to see the exhibit.

The Chatsworth exhibit has more than 250 pieces from the private collection of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and features old master paintings and drawings, sculptures, masterpieces of gold and silver, porcelain, gems, jewelry, furniture, early photographs, and rare books and manuscripts from Chatsworth's private library, considered the greatest in the world.