Can Picasso and Renoir compete with topless revues and video poker? Will a museum exhibit draw the same crowds that scramble to see fighting pirates, dancing water fountains and exploding volcanoes?
Las Vegas resorts are betting on it.
The newest form of entertainment to headline on the Las Vegas Strip isn't magicians with white tigers or lounge act impersonators. It's fine art.
"It's a gamble, but it's an educated gamble," says Rob Goldstein, president of the Venetian hotel-casino. "We like the odds."
That's because developer Steve Wynn, former owner of Mirage Resorts Inc., emerged a winner when he put his private art collection on display at the luxurious Bellagio hotel-casino in 1998. He had wagered a bundle on the belief that when tourists had their fill of free booze, cheap buffets and nickel slots, they might be in the mood for a little culture.
And art continues to attract tourists. Last year they flocked to the "Treasures of Russia" exhibit at the Rio hotel-casino.
"I'm delighted to be a catalyst," Wynn says. "This is fundamental change. This is not going to go away."
Not if the long lines of tourists in shorts and Hawaiian shirts filing in to catch a glimpse of works by Monet and van Gogh are any indication.
That's what inspired Thomas Krens, chairman of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, to collaborate with Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Venetian, to bring the Guggenheim-Hermitage museums to the Strip. Two separate galleries are set to open in September at the resort.
Of the two museums, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the smaller is a collaboration between Guggenheim and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Referred to as the "Jewel Box," the Guggenheim-Hermitage, located just off the upscale Venetian's lobby, will house more intimate exhibits, such as Picasso's early works and Faberge eggs. Its first show will be a display of Impressionist and early modern masters from both institutions.
For larger traveling exhibitions, plans call for a 63,700-square-foot building between the hotel's casino and the parking garage. The inaugural exhibition will be "The Art of the Motorcycle," sponsored by BMW, which debuted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1998.
The center would be only the sixth Guggenheim branch in the world, joining branches in New York; Berlin; Venice, Italy; and Bilbao, Spain.
Krens' move to build a museum in Las Vegas has made him controversial in the art world, and many remain skeptical about the project, which was to have been completed this spring.
"We need more motorcycles like we need more hookers," says art critic Dave Hickey, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. But he agrees that having the Hermitage in town will be a boon to a community in search of substance.
Though it is internationally famous, few place Las Vegas in the same cultural league as such cities as Berlin, Venice and New York.
"The fact that it is based in Las Vegas is creating something of a stir," Krens acknowledges.
Still, he says that the glitz, glitter and glamour of the Strip should not be brushed away so easily by those in the art world. Shows such as the "O" at the Bellagio, and even magic shows like the Mirage's "Siegfried & Roy," should be admired.
"They're all about cultural expression," Krens says.
David Carver, president of the Las Vegas Art Museum, says that exposing people to fine arts has to be considered a positive--even if the arts are being used to drive casino traffic.
"Because we've grown so rapidly, the arts have lagged behind," he says. "Anything that brings fine arts to people here is worthwhile. Bring them on. The more, the merrier."
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman sees it as an artistic and cultural renaissance, skipping references to the Dark Ages that preceded the rebirth.
"People will be lining up to visit our museums and galleries like they are now lining up to play in our casinos and see our shows," Goodman says.
Gambling industry experts say bringing fine art to the Strip is a natural progression as the city evolves, moving from a narrow gambling focus to have broader appeal.
"And we have more live entertainment than L.A., New York and London put together," says Bill Thompson, gambling industry expert and professor of public administration at UNLV. "It's a way for Las Vegas to go. It gives us world class."
That's why Krens remains convinced that the criticism will soon dissipate once the museum opens. "And it will be replaced by jealousy."
And profits, he hopes.
Krens estimates that the Guggenheim could pull in $15 million a year for his foundation and the Hermitage; the $7.5-million cut going to the Hermitage would be massive for a museum that currently receives only $7 million a year in endowments.
His marketing plan is simple. Rather than organizing traveling Guggenheim exhibits that move from city to city in search of audiences, Krens reasons that he can reach people far more efficiently by simply setting up shop in Las Vegas, with its ready-made audience of 36 million annual visitors.
And that suits tourism officials just fine.
"We are looking to appeal to the type of person who wouldn't have considered coming to Las Vegas in the past," says Erika Brandvik of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority. "The fact that we are getting some renowned artworks is making people who thought we were just cheap buffets and nickel slots take note."
Wynn took some of his masterpieces with him when he left, and MGM Mirage sold others to pay down debt, but the concept of an art gallery in a casino resort remained.
"Increasingly, sophisticated audiences with a variety of needs and interests have created a market for culturally rich experiences in Las Vegas," says Bobby Baldwin, president and chief executive officer of the company's Mirage division.
And the market is there, according to the estimated 1,000 people who visited the Phillips Collection exhibit daily since it opened in September with 26 works at the Bellagio Museum of Fine Arts. The collection included paintings by Edward Hopper, a 400-year-old El Greco and a self-portrait by Paul Cezanne.
Besides, says gallery director Kathleen Clewell, people feel more comfortable looking at art in their casual resort wear, and they are not overwhelmed by an expansive museum like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Phillips ended its run last month to make way for actor, comedian and author Steve Martin's private art collection. Proceeds--after costs--from both exhibits go to charity.
Martin's five-month exhibit is the first public display of his collection of 28 works by Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, David Hockney and Hopper, among others.
"The venue is quite beautiful, and it's a nice, intimate space for what I have," Martin says. "It's a real contrast to the jazzy feel of Vegas."
Artist and actor Martin Mull, whose work is among that being displayed in Martin's collection, compared fine art in Las Vegas to a symphony orchestra in Akron, Ohio.
"It's not where you would expect to find it," he says.