Art and Las Vegas not a good match


"Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words."

-- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

The Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at The Venetian will close May 11 after a 6-year run. Thus will end one of the most audacious experiments in the history of the arts.

The experiment didn't work, but not for lack of effort. The museum exhibited some of the world's greatest works of art in a beautiful space prominently situated within a big, bustling resort. By any conventional measure, it should have attracted longer lines than In-N-Out Burgers.

But you can't use conventional measurements in Las Vegas. Every city likes to believe it is unique. Most aren't. But Las Vegas is.

Las Vegas is perhaps the last place on Earth where anyone should expect classical art to draw a crowd. That's why the Guggenheim's idea to open a museum here was so audacious. The respected arts organization aimed to prove perceptions wrong by enticing the masses to appreciate the world's art treasures.

But it should have realized that Las Vegas is not about the quiet contemplation of paintings and sculptures -- it's about the loud celebration of chance and commerce. This is true, I would argue, whether you're talking about tourists or residents.

Unlike other cities, where industry and culture comfortably coexist, Las Vegas is so focused on the former that little or no time or money is dedicated to the latter. The commodification of pleasure is a full-time pursuit.

This sounds like a criticism, but it doesn't have to be seen that way. After all, because of this singular mercantile spirit, Las Vegas developed into one of the marvels of the modern age. Consider: If we had adopted a nonchalant attitude about whether visitors have a good time here, would we draw 40 million of them a year from all corners of the globe?

Still, the closure of the Guggenheim Hermitage is sad news for that relative handful of Las Vegans whose lives orbit around the arts. Those who understand how unusual it is for classical master works to be on display here are dismayed that we'll probably never see this caliber of art grace our city again.

But while the museum's demise is disheartening, it should not be surprising. This noble experiment was a long shot from the start. For at least two reasons.

The first is the most obvious: Demographically, psychologically, economically and politically, Las Vegas is not a high culture town. Most visitors are not "cultural tourists," and most locals are not inclined to place a visit to an art museum at the top of their to-do lists.

Elizabeth Herridge, the museum's managing director, notes that more than 1 million paying customers walked through the doors of the Guggenheim Hermitage during its existence. That's an impressive number, especially when compared with the modest attendance figures posted by other nonprofit museums across the valley. But here's the kicker: 90 percent of the Guggenheim patrons were tourists.

The other reason: The museum is in a Strip casino. For many locals, this is a deal killer. They may really want to see original works by Picasso and Monet, but they refuse to endure the hassles of the resort corridor to Strip is largely unwarranted from my experience, but it is pervasive nonetheless.

Amid the massive expansion of the Strip over the past two decades, we effectively placed our hopes for the city's cultural maturation in the hands of the casino industry. And the casinos responded, to an extent. Steve Wynn opened an art gallery at The Bellagio. Sheldon Adelson brought the Guggenheim to The Venetian. Mandalay Bay staged "Chicago" and hosted a sophisticated independent bookstore, the Reading Room.

But we should have known better than to rely on the passing fancies of casino operators to build rich and sustaining cultural institutions. The Guggenheim is closing. The Reading Room is closing. "Chicago" was the first of several acclaimed Broadway shows that have not done particularly well here. "Avenue Q" ended after only nine months, while "Spamalot" will last 18.

If we want to develop cultural institutions in Las Vegas, we have to do it ourselves. By "we," I mean both potential philanthropists and regular arts devotees. MGM Mirage, Caesars Entertainment, Wynn, Adelson -- they may give high culture a try here and there, but if the numbers don't add up, whatever they are doing will be shown the door, replaced by a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Off the Strip, Las Vegas has some promising cultural institutions but each one is in need of more money -- in some cases a lot more money. Are there enough philanthropists in town to help all of them reach their goals? Probably not.

"People have to want it," Herridge says. "If they don't want it, there's no hope."

My experience suggests that most Las Vegans will get along just fine without the Guggenheim, the Reading Room and the closing Broadway shows. They're content to feed their souls in other ways, healthy and not so much.

But where does that leave those few but passionate Las Vegans for whom the fine arts are the very stuff of life? If they're not hitting the highway for greener cultural pastures, they must come to terms with the fact that Las Vegas will never be New York, Chicago, San Francisco or even L.A. It's just not in our DNA to support a Guggenheim or appreciate the humor of "Avenue Q." It's not even clear yet whether we have the wherewithal to build one performing arts center.

But we're not totally hopeless.

If you lower your expectations just a tad, it's possible to take pride and pleasure in homegrown creative endeavors, such as the monthly First Friday events in downtown's arts district and the annual Vegas Valley Book Festival. And local music, theater and dance productions of considerable quality are happening all the time all over the valley.

Las Vegas is full of talented artists. They just need an audience.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.

 

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