Art museums a thing of past

from China Daily / AFP

LAS VEGAS: Museums dedicated to neon, entertainer Liberace and pinball machines remain, but high-brow culture in Las Vegas has achieved a new nadir with the closure of its public art museum.

The 59-year-old Las Vegas Art Museum (LVAM) went broke and shut down, the latest in a string of bad news for the arts in the largest metropolitan area in the United States.

Last year saw the closure 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 2 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 LVAM had its problems. It rented its space from a branch of a public library about 15 km west of the Strip, too far for all but the most determined to spend the $85 round-trip cab fare to reach it.

And in this economy, when Nevada faces the nation's highest home foreclosure rate, donors stopped giving. "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.

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 resort, boasted last year that the Rolex shop he replaced it with grossed $16 million in sales the first year.

The Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at the Venetian 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.

The couple moved to Las Vegas in the 1990s because they sensed the city was on the verge of a cultural renaissance; Lumpkin says she hoped the city could become a Miami-like art-tourism destination.

"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 on public art at its five-skyscraper, $8.6 billion development which includes commissioned works by Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer and others, said 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, 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," Quinn said.

"To say everything is in a demise is 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."

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