Art-lovers despair as lights go out for Vegas museum
Museums dedicated to neon, Liberace and pinball machines remain, but Las Vegas's more high-brow cultural scene has achieved a new nadir: Sin City is now the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a public art museum.
The 59-year-old Las Vegas Art Museum went broke and shut down, the latest in a string of bad news for the arts that also included the closure last year of a Guggenheim outpost in the Venetian Hotel-Casino and the decision in 2007 by Steve Wynn to convert a gallery at his Wynn Las Vegas resort into a Rolex shop.
"This is a community of two million people and it doesn't have a museum," said Libby Lumpkin, the LVAM's last executive director, who quit in January hoping to save the institution money.
"That's not a good thing. It's just really disappointing."
The Las Vegas Art Museum had its problems. It rented its space from a branch of a public library about 10 miles (15 kilometers) west of the Strip, too far for all but the most determined to spend the 85 dollar round-trip cab fare to reach it.
And in this economy, when Nevada faces the nation's highest home foreclosure rate, donors ceased to give.
"Our donations just stopped, like somebody just turned off a faucet," said Lumpkin, who in the 1990s worked as chief of acquisitions for Wynn as the hotel magnate became enthusiastic about collecting fine art.
"Our last projected budget was three million dollars and we had to take it down to one million and then it needed to go down further."
Yet attendance was meager at just 12,000 visitors a year, reflective of a general disinterest in art by both the local populace as well as the 40 million tourists traveling to the city each year.
Wynn, who for a time showed his private collection of Monets and Picassos in a gallery at his 2.7 billion-dollar eponymous resort, boasted last year that the Rolex shop he replaced it with grossed 16 million dollars in sales the first year. The Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at the Venetian, which operated for nearly seven years, is now a restaurant.
Still, it was the LVAM's closure last month that demoralized many, including Lumpkin's husband, the Vanity Fair art critic Dave Hickey.
"We were just wrong," Hickey said. "I thought there would be more support from the middle class and there wasn't. And nobody at the university or in city government is particularly interested in cosmopolitan culture."
Others see more hopeful signs. MGM Mirage spent 40 million dollars on public art at its five-skyscraper, 8.6 billion-dollar development which includes commissioned works by Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer and others, noted Michele C. Quinn, the art consultant in charge of MGM Mirage?s acquisitions.
Another major resort, the Fontainebleau, is also expected to open later this year with a public art program, she said.
Also, a Frank Gehry-designed medical research center is almost finished in downtown Las Vegas; the 10-year-old Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art has drawn 7,000 paying visitors in the first two months of its latest show featuring works by Lichtenstein and Warhol, and First Friday, a festival in which several downtown small galleries and antique shops stay open late, draws thousands each month.
"Yes, it sounds like we're going down with the ship here, but we're not in a tailspin here," Quinn said.
"To say everything is in a demise is very misleading. In 10 months, when CityCenter and Fontainebleau open, it will seem like a lot is happening. All of this is going to be open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"This is a great model for other cities to see maybe we don't have to have this kind of boxed institution and instead it can become part of the city."
Still, the arts in Las Vegas tend to lack public support of local leaders. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, for instance, is determined to find funding for a 50-million-dollar museum focused on the history of organized crime.
"I'm saying to myself, although my mother was a great artist, nobody's going to come to downtown Las Vegas to look at paintings, they?re not going to look at watercolors, they're not going to look at porcelain, they?re not going to look at miniature trains," Goodman said. "What will they look at? -- I said, 'A mob museum!' And I think it?s a natural."
Lumpkin decried such logic.
"A museum's primary mission is to educate and cultivate the arts," she said. "I wonder what a mob museum is supposed to cultivate? Better mobsters? More mobsters?"