Does high culture clash with neon?

Recent setbacks in Las Vegas's arts community raise the question of whether fine art can really coexist peacefully with Elvis impersonators

When the Guggenheim opened not just one but two museums in Las Vegas, there was talk of the city landing on the fine arts map. Picasso would take his place beside pirates and volcanoes among the regular fixtures on the Strip.

But now, a year and a half later, the Guggenheim has backtracked on its $30 million project (the most costly attempt ever made to show art on the 2.7-mile Strip). It shuttered the larger museum, which housed the exhibition "The Art of the Motorcycle," and gave no indication it would reopen at a later date.

True, the smaller Guggenheim space remains open, and it's not unusual for museums, or wings of museums, to shut down between exhibitions. But this closing happened in a "fragile little cultural community," as local art critic Dave Hickey calls Las Vegas. Such fragility persists despite the city drawing 38 million visitors per year.

And so the question persists: Is there a place for world-class art and culture in Las Vegas, the home of Elvis imitators, free drinks, and strip clubs?

The answer may lie beyond the Guggenheim. Although the world-famous name has drawn plenty of media buzz, other fine arts ventures have been launched in recent years on the Strip. They've also encountered challenges, but they've passed some milestones, too.

This suggests that high culture could have a home among the neon, but finding its place in this fast-growing metropolis may take longer than predicted when the Guggenheim came to town.

"The East Coast, as well as other parts of the world, have this fantasy of what Las Vegas is - a sort of vulgarian's ball," says Marc Glimcher, chairman of the gallery at the Bellagio hotel. "But the truth is, a man on the street in Las Vegas sees Cézanne's name on a billboard, and he will pay to see it."

The Bellagio was the first hotel to show fine art nearly five years ago, when former owner Steve Wynn opened a small gallery with paintings from his formidable personal collection. It went through another incarnation - and a brief closing - until Mr. Glimcher, president of New York's PaceWildenstein gallery, was brought on board.

Mr. Wynn then moved a dozen of his paintings, including Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Matisse, to a nearby Strip property that will soon house his next billion-dollar venture, a hotel called Le Reve.

Glimcher, meanwhile, oversaw the Bellagio's gallery through post-Sept. 11 lows. Still, in the past year, he's managed to double attendance, from an estimated 500 to 1,000 visitors daily.

The trick, Glimcher says, is to show "a concise exhibition that has a thematic, educational side to it" - without taking 5-1/2 hours. Currently, the gallery is showing "Andy Warhol's Celebrity Portraits," with narration by Liza Minnelli, until Sept. 7.

Over at the remaining Guggenheim space in the Venetian Hotel, the exhibition "Art Through the Ages: Masterpieces of Painting From Titian to Picasso" is showing through May 4. "American Pop Icons" is tentatively scheduled for June at the museum.

Guggenheim administrators had hoped to draw 5,000 visitors a day between their two museums, but saw only about 2,000 in the months before closing the larger museum, says Kimiko Haight, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas project. In addition, the foundation's worldwide operating budget, at $24 million, is about half of what it was three years ago, says Betsy Ennis, a Guggenheim spokeswoman in New York. And the New York staff has been reduced from 339 to 181 full-time positions in the past year - making the Las Vegas venture more of a gamble.

What will make the Guggenheim and other museums and galleries successful is if people come to Vegas with art on their agenda. "Art competes with so much here," says Joel Marquardt, an architect visiting from Kansas City. "[But] it could be complimentary to all the glitz and the flash."

Matt Pomaski, a computer-graphics artist who moved to Las Vegas from Los Angeles, says he doesn't gamble and hopes the Guggenheim reopens. "It's sort of like a shotgun marriage, having art in Las Vegas. But once you come in here, it's like you don't even know you're in a casino."

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