From Slot Machines to the Sublime

In an unlikely pairing of capitalist innovation and socialist sensibility, the Guggenheim and the Hermitage team up to dazzle the masses in a Las Vegas hotel . In an unlikely pairing of capitalist innovation and socialist sensibility, the Guggenheim and the Hermitage team up to dazzle the masses in a Las Vegas hotel.

Leonardo (da Vinci, not DiCaprio) in Las Vegas? Can you hang a Rembrandt and a Raphael a stone’s throw away from the roulette players, the slot machines, and the craps tables? Will more people come to Las Vegas for the art than for the entertainment and the casinos?

Frank Gehry designed the installation of “The Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim Las Vegas.
David Heald ©2001 Copyright The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Don’t bet against it, now that two new Guggenheims have been launched at the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino, a lavish 3,036-room hotel with faux Tiepolos, a Japanese gondolier singing “O Sole Mio” in a mini–Grand Canal near a re-creation of part of the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, and the facade of the Ca’ d’Oro.

The cast includes two of the world’s leading museum directors, two of the most distinguished architects, the minister of culture of the Russian Federation, and a billionaire hotel owner who is gambling close to $50 million (“but who’s counting,” he says) that bringing masterpieces to what used to be called the city of divine decadence, which has a population of 1.5 million and 37 million visitors annually, will dazzle the masses at $15 a ticket for each of the Guggenheims.

As Sheldon Adelson, the Venetian’s owner, says, “Who would have thought?”

At first, Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim (“Everything you see is a child of Tom Krens,” Adelson says), wouldn’t have thought, either. Krens, who has been called everything from the Clint Eastwood of museums to Mr. Verve and Nerve, was approached more than two years ago by Adelson and Rob Goldstein, president of the Venetian, about considering a museum at the hotel.

“I’d never been to Las Vegas and I didn’t think it was such a good idea,” Krens says. “We thought we’d take an exterior space and build a tent.” Five months later in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mikhail Shvydkoi, minister of culture of the Russian Federation, and Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, announced an alliance with the Guggenheim.

Adelson and Goldstein soon decided that a tent was not such a good idea. They agreed to expand the museum project to include two spaces, one for classic art, the other for contemporary projects. Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect, was hired to design both. Why Koolhaas? “He embodies the anti–Las Vegas esthetic,” says Krens. “Copying the exuberant impulse of everything on the Strip doesn’t make sense. It’s a kind of severe rationality in a kind of whimsical way.”

Thus were born the Guggenheim Hermitage (“In Russian, we call it the Hermitage Guggenheim; in English, we call it the Guggenheim Hermitage,” Piotrovsky says) and the Guggenheim Las Vegas, which opened to the public on October 7.

The Guggenheim and the Hermitage will collaborate on programming in what Koolhaas calls “the jewel box,” a 7,600-square-foot space near the hotel’s main entrance, in what was once part of a VIP lounge. The inside and outside walls are of velvety brown Cor-ten steel. Why Cor-ten? Christian Bandi, one of the architects in the Koolhaas firm, says that “when we visited the Hermitage, most of the art was hung against fabric—burgundy, royal blue, and so on. That’s when we came up with the idea of using a similar background, and using steel.”

Since no museum has walls of steel, magnets the size of a videotape were designed to hang the paintings. Each magnet can hold up to 250 pounds. Christopher Knight, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, thought they were whimsical. “The result,” he wrote, “is both profoundly elegant and sharply amusing—actual masterpieces deployed like refrigerator magnets.”

The first exhibition, “Masterpieces and Master Collectors,” was cocurated by Albert Kostenevich, curator of modern European art at the Hermitage, and Lisa Dennison, deputy director and chief curator of the Guggenheim in New York.

They have assembled works from both museums—45 paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Picasso, Pissarro, Chagall, Rousseau, Renoir, and others. Some of the paintings, once part of the private holdings of the legendary early-20th-century Russian collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, had never left the Hermitage. The Guggenheim paintings were collected by Solomon R. Guggenheim, the museum’s founder; his niece Peggy Guggenheim; and the art dealer Justin K. Thannhauser.

This is a wonderful exhibition, sponsored by Interros, a Russian holding company. There are six important Picassos, including Three Women, the Cubist work from 1908 that once belonged to Gertrude Stein. Picasso created Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) with Three Women as a starting point. The impetus was two versions of Cézanne’s Bathers.

There are four early Matisses, including the extraordinary Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1913). The latter is hung next to Picasso’s stunning 1905 portrait of his mistress Fernande Olivier, Fernande with a Black Mantilla. Other highlights: a wall of Kandinskys—Sketch for Composition V (1911), Sketch for Composition II (1909–10), and Improvisation 28 (1912)—and a van Dongen portrait, Lady in a Black Hat (1908).

A short walk away is the Guggenheim Las Vegas. There, with a facsimile on the ceiling of the central scene from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, is “The Art of the Motorcycle,” which has already been seen by many thousands at the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue and at the Guggenheim Bilbao. It’s a delightful exhibition, sponsored by BMW and Delta Air Lines.

One of my favorite works is an unwieldy Daimler Einspur motorized wooden bicycle from 1885 with a water tank to cool the engine. It seems there was also a German manufacturer at that time named Hildebrand & Wolfmüller. Its motorcycle design was too complicated to be reliable, according to the Acoustiguide, “and the selling price was less than the cost of manufacture, and they went out of business in four years.”

Frank Gehry, who designed the installation, almost steals the show. He came up with huge stainless-steel ribbons (some visitors considered them sensual), even bigger chain-link curtains, and large-scale graphics of scenes from movies with Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, and Marlon Brando on motorcycles.

The debut of the museums was preceded by two press conferences on consecutive days. The first was for the Guggenheim Las Vegas.

Krens came to the podium wearing a red-and-black leather jacket, black pants, black boots, and a baseball cap. He faced about 250 members of the media—representatives of newspapers, magazines, and television stations from at least a dozen American cities, as well as from France, China, Israel, England, Japan, Russia, Brazil, and Germany, among others.

“Welcome from the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club,” Krens said. He introduced Lauren Hutton, the actress; Dennis Hopper, the filmmaker, actor, and photographer; and the actor Jeremy Irons, all members of the club and all in motorcycle regalia. The club, an informal society, started when the motorcycle show opened in Bilbao in 1999. Krens rides a BMW. Hutton has said they enjoy debating the esthetic merits of motorcycles.

They all had arrived in Las Vegas about two hours before the press conference. They had started out two days earlier from Otis Chandler’s Museum of Vintage Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard, California. Chandler, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, is the biggest lender to the motorcycle show.

“This is truly a remarkable story,” Krens said. “I’m not sure how to begin
. As you know, the Guggenheim has become an international institution in the last two years. Part of the strategy is to expand our program beyond painting and sculpture to architecture, film, video, design, multimedia.”

Now that the Guggenheim has expanded into Bilbao, Berlin, and SoHo, it’s no secret that Krens is considering other venues, from Lower Manhattan to South America. The gag in the art world is that one day the Guggenheims will outnumber the McDonald’s.

Some of Krens’s colleagues have wondered what 130 motorcycles are doing in an art museum. They have raised their eyebrows over Giorgio Armani’s donation to a show devoted to his own fashion designs. Some have expressed concern over the fact that the Guggenheims in Las Vegas are located in a hotel with a casino.

Other colleagues consider Krens one of the world’s most visionary museum directors, as he searches for ways to expand audiences and raise money at a time when art museums are facing declining support from government, private donors, and other revenue sources.

In any case, at the press conference, there were questions from the media:

“Could you elaborate, Mr. Krens, on taking the Guggenheim around the world?”

Krens: “A number of governments and institutions have approached us. The world is increasingly international. We expect a significant return over a period of time. We didn’t do it for the money. Demographics here have changed dramatically over the years.”

“Has September 11 made you rethink here or New York?”

Krens: “Our first response was to cancel the opening. Then we decided to take out some of the celebratory aspects to this, to reduce the scale of opening events.”

The next day at the press conference for the Guggenheim Hermitage, Krens was dressed art-community stylish—in black jacket, black pants, black shirt.

As he spoke to the media, two large screens above him kept showing Gauguins, Matisses, Cézannes, and Picassos. The ceiling was faux Tiepolo.

Krens: “Underneath the dynamics of the new Las Vegas, we could see that major cultural expansion was possible…. Mr. Shvydkoi brought new programs to Russia and convinced President Putin that this was a good thing for the Hermitage.”

Shvydkoi, continuing the theme of everyone giving everyone else credit for the creation of the museums, smiled at Piotrovsky and said: “The minister of culture in Russia changes with great speed, but not the director of the Hermitage. He deserves more credit. It’s important that we continue our regular lives and our cultural exchanges.”

Krens: “The possibility of a Guggenheim in Las Vegas would have been an impossibility without the Hermitage. I floated the idea in 1999 of long-term cooperation.”

Piotrovsky, grinning: “Why America? Why Las Vegas? Because of our Socialist education—art belongs to the masses. Now we can add another word, solidarity, with the people of America. This is a wonderful coproduction, all part of our policy to make our collection more accessible. We have a lot of things in common. This is another museum open to the world.”

“Our exhibit reminds people about great art, about the value of the authentic, about the pleasures of the spiritual life,” he wrote in the catalogue for the show.

Krens: “It was the vision of the Adelsons to bring the project to fruition, which is nothing short of miraculous.”

Adelson: “Las Vegas was created more than 50 years ago not to become a cultural mecca. It was created for gambling, or gaming. It has evolved from topless revues…. Nobody would have dreamed of a Guggenheim Las Vegas, not even Bugsy Siegel.” The late Bugsy Siegel was a gangster financed by the Mob, who opened the first luxury casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Adelson concluded: “Steve Wynn started in the Bellagio Hotel and was successful. We are not ashamed to say we took a page out of his book.”

Added Krens: “We have been impressed at the size of the audience and the degree of attention of visitors at the Bellagio.”

Steve Wynn was owner of the Bellagio when the Bellagio Gallery of Art opened in 1998 with a collection of about 50 Impressionist and contemporary works of art that he had bought for about $280 million. The gallery was a smash hit.

“The gallery gave the hotel a dimension—soul,” Wynn told me in a telephone interview. “The new Guggenheim museums will be very popular. You take some of the greatest paintings in the world, put them in Las Vegas, and if you don’t think it will be a great success you’re outrageously irrational.”

During the Guggenheim Hermitage press conference, Adelson said the exhibition will be changed every six months. “We might possibly have an all-Picasso show, a combination of Rembrandt and Raphael,” he said. “Maybe a da Vinci Madonna and Child will visit Las Vegas.” The painting is now in the Hermitage.

Someone then asked Krens: “With all the faux art, is there concern that when people see the real thing, they’ll think it’s a copy?”

Krens paused for a few seconds. He smiled and said: “I suppose so.”

At which point Kurt Ouchida, the Venetian’s director of communications, announced: “That concludes this formal press conference.”

Later, during an interview with ARTnews, Adelson declined to go into details about the financial relationships among the three institutions: “There are two relationships. We’re the landlord, and they’re the tenant. But it’s more of a quasi–joint venture. We put up all the money. They put up the art, the talent, the expertise. We share in the proceeds, but I can’t go into details because of a keep-quiet clause in the contract.”

Shvydkoi, perhaps in response to some criticism that the Hermitage venture in Las Vegas was not a classy act by one of the world’s great museums, said, “What is the difference between an exhibit in our park of culture—Gorky Park—and an exhibit in Las Vegas, which is a bit like America’s own park of culture?”

As ARTnews went to press, a Guggenheim spokeswoman said she was unable to provide attendance figures but would not elaborate. A spokesman for the hotel said, “it’s very, very strong,” but refused to give details.

Among the first visitors, here were some comments:

At the Guggenheim Las Vegas, Kevin Galatas, an operating engineer from Bakersfield, California, said: “My wife and I are having a great time. I have a passion for art. The motorcycles are works of art.”

At the Guggenheim Hermitage, a woman from Minnesota: “We don’t have too many opportunities to look at art, so I appreciate this.”

A man from Sarasota, Florida: “It’s very exciting. It’s overwhelming.”

A man from Philadelphia: “What a neat thing to find in a place like this.”

A woman from New York: “I’m amazed. Las Vegas goes from the ridiculous to the sublime. You can see such wonderful things. This is the sublime.”

Who would have thought?


Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

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