Goodbye showgirls, hello Dali

Picasso, Pavarotti, and Guggenheim in Vegas? Yep. And they are changing the city's image.

Las Vegas is not just for Wayne Newton anymore. For years synonymous with showgirls, gambling, and glitz, Sin City is reinventing itself: High culture is the gambit this time, and, in true Vegas style, there's nothing small about these new ambitions.

"A lot of forces are coming together to change the face of Las Vegas," says Robert Tracy, associate dean of the college of fine arts at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. "If you look at the history of art in the Western world, where the support is you are going to find art being made, whether that support is coming from banks or businessmen.

"Now, we're finding casinos with the money, and they are investing in art and culture." For example:

* On Sept. 15, New York's Guggenheim Museum will unveil a new 63,000-square-foot, $20-million exhibition space at the Venetian Hotel here. At the same time, the Venetian will add an additional 8,000 square feet of exhibition space to house masterworks from Russia's State Hermitage Museum. The Guggenheim's first exhibition will be its controversial "The Art of the Motorcycle."

* Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based theater troupe, now resides here permanently in two specially designed $40-million-plus theaters. The group's works have been compared to the art of Salvador Dali and Federico Fellini.

* A year ago, the avant-garde New York theater troupe "Blue Man Group" settled into a state-of-the-art theater in the basement of the Luxor Hotel. Its move prompted another Off-Broadway hit, "De La Guarda," to move west to Vegas as well.

* In January, the Smithsonian Institution, one the nation's premier arbiters of high culture, put Las Vegas on its list of national cultural stops for art and architecture.

Every week, entertainment listings here contain a growing number of visiting artists on the A-list of high culture, from Luciano Pavarotti to Itzhak Perlman.

Las Vegas has been scrambling for a while to halt the drain of gambling tourists from newly opened casinos nationwide. Most observers agree that the city's current love affair with high culture kicked into high gear in 1998 when Las Vegas hotel magnate Steve Wynn opened a fine art gallery in the conservatory of his new upscale $1.6 billion Bellagio Hotel.

"I was trying to send a message to people about the kind of experience they should expect in this new hotel," Mr. Wynn says. Given the diversity of his clientele, from Hong Kong to South Africa, Wynn says he was looking for common cultural ground. "Fine art and gardens seem to be one of those intersections," says the hotelier, who is now at work on his latest project, a revamped Desert Inn. "I was looking for a qualitative, not quantitative, aspect for my resort."

To the surprise and chagrin of many who felt that the Las Vegas setting cheapened the masterpieces, the gallery was a hit. Lines formed well past midnight, with tourists paying $12 for the privilege of viewing a modest collection of masterpieces including works by Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Renoir.

"I don't want this to sound self-serving or egotistical," Wynn says, "but the fact is if something works, then someone else says, 'let's do it.' It may be the lines of people that fascinate them, but it's a wake-up call," and the whole town listened, he says.

"We are part of something big," says Pavel Brun, artistic director of Cirque du Soleil, which came to the city in 1993. "This is the rebirth of Las Vegas." Also in keeping with spirit of the city, he says, it is all happening quickly. As the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan area, Las Vegas has an ample labor supply.

"There is lots of cash and labor; it makes everything happen very fast here," Mr. Brun says with a laugh. "When I think of how quickly these hotels and theaters were built for us here, I can't believe it."

'It takes more than a few Picassos'

The attraction for artists is nearly irresistible if they can get past concerns about selling out to the commercialization of Las Vegas, Brun says. "I have two theaters available for experimentation, 24 hours a day, [and] 200 intelligent young people willing to try things. I have money and technical resources to bring the highest-profile teachers to run classes for my artists.... Most people in my world could only dream of opportunities like that."

Not everyone, however, sees Las Vegas as the next Alexandria, that ancient Egyptian center of art and culture. For one thing, says Scott Dickensheets, editor of Las Vegas Life magazine and a 30-year resident, "It will take a lot more than a few Picassos to change the city's profile." Las Vegas, he points out, is largely a blue-collar city. A serious cultural center needs more than a few blockbuster imports.

"All the artists in town will tell [you] the biggest problem is that nobody buys their art," Mr. Dickensheets says. "They have to take their careers elsewhere. There have been a few well-meaning galleries, but they open and close, blooming like mayflies, and they're gone. There's no serious art patronage in this town."

Others suggest this is Las Vegas doing what it has always done best - copying everybody else, only doing it bigger. "All we are doing is mimicking the major cultural institutions of our era," says art critic Dave Hickey, whose wife curated the first exhibit in Wynn's gallery. "This is nothing but an example of the private institutions in Vegas accommodating themselves to the habit of major American public institutions promoting blockbuster exhibitions. They look at the gate and say, 'Why not?' "

Beyond that, Mr. Hickey says he doesn't believe anything close to Alexandria will be allowed to happen in Las Vegas. "I don't think the federal government will be able to keep its hands off the gaming revenues. Once they start taxing and outlawing gambling, this will all go away."

Some 38 million visitors pass through Las Vegas annually, and official statistics show that more than half do not gamble but come to gawk at the city's over-the-top hotels and attractions.

Artist Wayne Littlejohn says this underlying spirit of Las Vegas is the key to its future. "People are coming not for the gambling but for the phenomenon," says the sculptor and painter. "The city has this momentum that if gambling were outlawed, they'd find another way to make lots of money. It's that innovative, beyond-the-boundaries thinking here that people like, and it defies expectations...."

A coming of age?

Nevada has grown by 66 percent in the past decade and, despite the massive problems that growth has brought, locals point to signs that the city is coming of age.

For example, civic leaders have set aside 61 acres of prime downtown real estate in hopes of creating a world-class performing arts center, points out Las Vegas Sun editor Mike O'Callahan, a 45-year resident. "As you get bigger, and you grow, you develop things like zoos and museums," he says. At a mere half-century old, he adds, "you have to remember this town is very young, and it's still growing."

In assessing the site for their new museum, Guggenheim officials say both aspects of the city attracted them - the phenomenal volume of visitors as well as the potential for growth. "How do you get art to the masses?" was the first question Las Vegas answered, says Laurie Beckelman, deputy director for special projects. But, she says, the city is becoming a magnet.

People are coming for opportunity, she says, and they will demand more for their city. "And it's not only the Wayne Newtons that will serve these people. We want to be educated and stimulated." The city that everyone loves to hate, she adds, has the potential to become an important cultural destination of the first order.

***

Art, says hotelier Steve Wynn, has changed his life. He sees no reason why it can't do the same for anyone who visits Las Vegas.

"There is no 'Las Vegas person,' " he says. "They are you and I and ... anyone else on this planet." Art can make a difference in people's lives no matter where they find it, even in Las Vegas, he says.

Wynn says the three pieces of art he bought in 1996 changed him.

"I found myself staring at the portrait of Suzette Lamaire by Manet," he says of the pastel of a young girl. "And I can't stop staring at the picture. My wife and I are doting on it." Before long he says, "we got dreamy."

Today, collecting art is an obsession for him, Wynn says. "What happens is you get involved in art. I don't know what [kind of] deep yearning inside me it is, but it's like a narcotic."

A good day for him is one spent with art. On this day, after breakfast in his dining room contemplating a Manet self-portrait hung next to his two Matisses, Wynn is off to meet an Israeli collector whose work he hopes to house in his new hotel.

Wynn likens the need for great art to an incurable itch. "But here's to those itches whatever causes them," he adds. "[The art] is costing me $50 million, but Las Vegas will never be the same."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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