Thursday, January 2, 2014

(No.254) Las Vegas: no place for 'ars gratia artis'

"Las Vegas: no place for ars gratia artis"

by Alastair Rickard

In booming industrial cities of 19th and 20th century United States like Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit and Buffalo, very wealthy residents created and supported both magnificent structures as public art galleries but endowed them with great art to hang on their walls as well as the money to buy more.

As I think about how much the great American museums in just this quartet of cities have enriched our travels this past year or two, I cannot help thinking also of the sharp contrast with another of the favourite destinations Pat and I have had: Las Vegas.

While we have not wagered a penny in Las Vegas it attracts us periodically because of the variety, quantity, concentration and accessibility of its live, professional entertainment. It rivals New York in this regard. The Las Vegas 'Strip' nevertheless remains perhaps the world's leading monument to concentrated excess and bad taste.

What Las Vegas did not have as it grew from being a desert town of saloons and bordellos  to its present status as a leading world tourist destination was a wealthy elite willing to do, for example, what Edsel Ford did for the Detroit Institute of Art or John Albright for its counterpart in Buffalo.

Benny 'Bugsy' Siegel, the gangster whose name is associated with the still operating Flamingo Hotel, was not as cinema has it the visionary founder of the 'Vegas Strip' (which is not actually located in the formal municipality of Las Vegas). Nor unsurprisingly was he a supporter of public art or culture nor were the mob bosses who followed him and ran the Vegas casinos for years, nor was the reclusive and looney Howard Hughes who supplanted them as the leading Vegas mogul.

The visitor to today's Las Vegas, despite its wealth and size, will search in vain for anything that even begins to approximate a public art museum/gallery worthy of the region.

When we first began visiting Vegas there was a branch of New York's Guggenheim Museum -- the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum -- located off the lobby of the Venetian Hotel.  It was a modest but interesting space and operated from 2001 until 2008 when it closed.

When the entrepeneur and art collector Steve Wynn built the Bellagio Hotel (one of the Strip's finest, since sold to the MGM chain), he created a smallish public gallery in which he displayed some of his own impressive art collection. After the sale the hotel maintained the gallery space and brings in small special exhibitions (currently some work of Andy Warhol).

When Wynn opened his new hotel Wynn Las Vegas on the site formerly occupied by the Desert Inn in April 2005 it too included a gallery displaying some of his art collection. Unfortunately it was closed in early 2006.

The latest serious attempt to create a truly public gallery on or near the Strip is the Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art, located on the second level of the Neonopolis complex [sic] on Fremont Street in the downtown of 'old' Las Vegas. It is an admirable effort open for several afternoons a week and seeks financial support wherever it can find it. But it has a long way to go.

It would be naive bordering on silly for anyone who admires and supports public art galleries to wring hands over the (mainly) vast wasteland for visual art in Las Vegas while so many billions of dollars have been devoted in recent years to the bad architecture that lines 'the Strip'. Still one is permitted to wonder whether there is not some way to reach the senior people in the very few large corporations that have a relationship with Las Vegas that most resembles that of a Sumo wrestler and his mat.

If such were indeed possible one might ask: is it possible for company decision makers, these permanent visitors to Vegas, to mount even a modest effort (funded by a few of the untold millions generated for them by Vegas annually) to support a decent public art gallery in the Las Vegas area, one that reflects in some small way the wealth derived from the hundreds of thousands of punters visiting the area annually?

Even Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor of London's and New York's scuzziest tabloid newspapers as well as Fox News, the latter being a major contribution to the lowering of Fox viewers' current affairs IQ, continues to maintain the superb Times Literary Supplement of London, one of the three leading book review periodicals available in English. But then even a bordello can, if it chooses, pay for the services of an accomplished piano player.

Ars gratia artis, "art for art's sake", was the founding motto of MGM Studios in Hollywood from which derives one of today's dominating Vegas hotel and casino chains: MGM Resorts International, operator of more than a dozen establishments along the Vegas Strip. However to be realistic one must acknowledge that this phrase has as much relevance currently as would the suggestion that Vegas does not have available a sufficient supply of Elvis Presley impersonators.


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