Bringing Van Gogh and Monet to casino land

Like a dying desperado in an old western, Las Vegas has gone and got "religion" on the cusp of the new millennium.

In a place where, arguably, money is the god, a secular shrine to fine art has been created.

"The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art," at the end of a football-field-size bed of aromatic flowers at the Bellagio Hotel here, contains some of the most valuable and revered works of Western art. It is not a comprehensive collection, mind you. Just a few plums: Picasso's "Portrait of Dora Maar"; a late Gauguin, "The Bathers"; and "A Peasant Woman against a Background of Wheat," one of Van Gogh's last works.

The two small rooms also hold "Police Gazette," by Willem de Kooning; "Dialogue of Insects," by Joan Mir; and "Frieze," by Jackson Pollack.

A few more are on display - a Renoir, a Manet, a Monet, a Modigliani. And don't forget the two de Koonings hanging behind the registration desk in the Bellagio Hotel lobby, directly across from a huge overhead display of glass flowers created by Dale Chihuly.

The hotel opened last October. When Steven Wynn, the chief executive of Mirage Resorts Inc., first announced his intention to display these works here, a gasp went up from the world of art. The response suggested that somehow these works would be profaned by their presence in the Nevada gambling playground.

Now Mr. Wynn is lobbying the Nevada legislature to give him a $2.7 million annual tax break on his gallery along with a one-time $18 million exemption from sales tax on the purchase of the artworks.

The experience of viewing the Bellagio art seems to fit the ridiculous outsized indulgence of this city. Wynn's gravelly narrative on the audiotape tour is delivered as if he were present at the creation of each work ("It was on a Sunday, I think ..."). It fits the theatrical setting.

Why an art gallery among the casinos? To begin with, because Wynn has the money to do it (the artworks, which unlike those at museums are for sale, are said to be worth a total of $200 to $300 million).

The gallery, at the end of the blossom-filled conservatory just off the hotel lobby, is actually one of the few nongambling attractions in Las Vegas that does not force visitors to walk through a casino to get there. In the likely event, however, that culture pilgrims don't know a Picasso from a poker chip, they are provided clues.

First, it costs $12 to get in - big money by Las Vegas standards, where owners like to lure the customers and their cash into the casinos by making the rest of the town a bargain. (New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, charges $10.)

Next, a visitor is handed an audio wand with which to listen to Wynn's long, rambling commentaries laced with hyperboles such as "most important," "most valuable," "rarest," and so on.

Wynn's stated reasons for bringing high art to Las Vegas runs something like this: Losing money gambling is exhausting, so nothing less than the best will do for the tired gambler. And only authentic art, not reproductions, is good enough for the discriminating guest. (That standard, however, doesn't seem to preclude imitation maple burl in the hotel elevators or fake wallpaper crown molding and grass cloth in the rooms.)

Is the valuable art wasted on the typical Las Vegas tourist? Michelle, a recent visitor to the gallery, was standing in front of a de Kooning. She pursed her lips. "I was kind of hoping it would be, like, a real picture, you know? I don't like it much." Her friend Grace, who admits to having little passion for art, agreed. "But then, I don't know much about art, so I can't say," she added.

*Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is goodaleg@csps.com

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