For the arts, a renaissance in Vegas

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Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone constructed his public artwork Seven Magic Mountains as a two-year exhibition located in the desert outside of Las Vegas.
Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone constructed his public artwork Seven Magic Mountains as a two-year exhibition located in the desert outside of Las Vegas. Photo Credit: Courtesy Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Just after the recession hit in late 2007, the arts environment in Las Vegas started to look bleak.

The Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in the Venetian closed in May 2008, following the closure of the Wynn Art Gallery two years prior. Then the Las Vegas Museum of Art closed in February 2009. The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art kept going, but that represented one art gallery on the Strip, which sees 40 million tourists per year.

Additionally, at the time Las Vegas had no top-flight performing arts venue and little in the way of music or art exhibitions away from the Strip. The slow recovery from the recession, however, has coincided with a re-emergence of cultural and arts attractions.

In the subsequent years, casinos turned away from charging for galleries and instead installed, and publicized, art around their properties.

"The gallery idea hasn't really worked — people don't think of Las Vegas as a city where you go to visit a museum or a gallery," John Unwin, former CEO of Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, told the Los Angeles Times months before the resort opened in December 2009. "I think in the past we've tried a bit too hard to be something that we're not. There's this perceptual barrier that unless you are an expert, galleries aren't for you. Art doesn't have to be something that you pay to go see."

Up until the beginning of 2016, the Cosmopolitan had a dedicated space for a rotating artist-in-residence, and although that space closed to make way for a restaurant, the resort still features contemporary art throughout the property and left the door open for a return of the residency program. The Cosmopolitan continues to partner with the well-known New York-based nonprofit, Art Production Fund.

When the Aria opened, also at the end of 2009, the resort featured art installations scattered around the property. The fine art collection includes a variety of styles and media, from artists such as Maya Lin, Henry Moore, Frank Stella, Nancy Rubins and Henny Holzer.

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in downtown Las Vegas in 2012, gave the region a world-class theater venue, hosting top classical, jazz and pop musicians and productions such as "Wicked" and "Book of Mormon." The Broadway smash "Hamilton" is slated for a run at the Smith Center during its U.S. tour.

The Life Is Beautiful Festival, entering its fourth year, has not only brought a cadre of top musicians to town each year, but also features a robust arts program. Each year the "Art Motel" is filled with a new round of exhibitors, and muralists and street artists from all over the world add  installations to downtown Las Vegas.  

While not exactly fine art offerings, other cultural sites have blossomed in the Southern Nevada desert in recent years. The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, otherwise known as the Mob Museum, has proven a success at its downtown Las Vegas location in a renovated court building. The Neon Museum, not far away, underwent a renovation and reopened in 2012 with a more robust program and more exhibits.

More recently, the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone constructed his colorful, public artwork Seven Magic Mountains as a two-year exhibition located in the desert outside of Las Vegas. The seven 30-foot-tall, DayGlo totems made up of painted boulders have become an off-the-beaten-path attraction for Las Vegas locals and visitors alike.

More fine art exhibitions have also popped up as free attractions in spaces dotting Strip casinos. The Wynn displays two Jeff Koons sculptures, "Tulips" and "Popeye the Sailor Man." The Delano just announced the temporary show "SpaceTime Kinetics," an exhibit of freestanding artworks by Las Vegas-based Cristian Aluas. In addition to the fine art gallery, the Bellagio also features the photographer Jeff Mitchum's Las Vegas gallery at the pool promenade. Along with some of Mitchum's most prized photos from around the world, the gallery also displays artifacts, such as one of Sierra Club founder John Muir's original manuscripts and a pair of Ansel Adams' hiking boots.

Las Vegas has long been known more for its entertainment value than its cultural tourism offerings. While there still doesn't appear to be movement, or demand, to build more traditional fine art galleries on the Strip, the cultural attractions in Las Vegas have never been as good or plentiful as they are now.

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