Hmmm. Where to begin?
In his foreword for the ‘21st Century: Art in the First Decade’ exhibition catalogue, Gallery of Modern Art Director Tony Ellwood explains that “the project as a whole acknowledges our recognition that, in the 21st Century, the museum needs to develop at a pace commensurate with our time”. This statement got me thinking about the museums I’ve visited recently that have taken on this challenge and the place I immediately thought of isn’t, in fact, one that’s a traditional museum space as such, even though it does function like a microcosmic museum that collects the world. The place is, of course, the city of Las Vegas.
The 1990s was a major turning point in architectural design in Las Vegas. Casinos followed the earlier lead of Caesars Palace by constructing their own mini-kingdoms — Venice, New York, Bellagio, Paris, Luxor and Mandalay Bay — that were presented as micro-virtual cities for the pleasure to the people. At the same time, the “all you can eat, cheap as chips” attitude that had been the catch-cry for an ailing Vegas for so long began to transform. The ‘low’ began to give way to and merge with the ‘high’. This shift in cultural status was first marked by the opening of entrepreneur Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Hotel/Casino. Standing in all its glory on the remains of the old Dunes Casino, this new palace for the people came with its own Fine Art Gallery, which displayed many of the multi-million dollar masterpieces (including paintings by Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne) that were part of the Wynn collection. And people came in droves to pay to see the works on display – so much so that queues often stretched down the ‘private’ hallway that housed the gallery and into the very public gambling area that echoed with the mesmerising, musical tones the thousands of poker machines!
A trend was started and, since then, Las Vegas has witnessed the opening and closing of two Guggenheim museums at the Venetian Casino, the opening of the Wynn collection at the new Wynn Casino, and the revamped Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, which exhibits curated shows (most recently ‘Figuratively Speaking: A Survey of The Human Form’). More significantly, however, and following a trend initiated by Steve Wynn, many casino and hotel complexes are now dispersing their fine art collections throughout their enormous properties. As if the museum walls are no longer capable of containing them, the Bellagio, Wynn, Caesars and Mandalay Bay all include the works of famous artists in their lobbies, restaurants, meeting rooms and hallways. The Mandalay Bay Hotel lobby, for example, displays the Moroccan Bride 2000 series by Valérie Belin and Andy Warhol’s Camouflage paintings, while at the Picasso restaurant you can savour the delights of famous Spanish chef Julian Serrano while surrounded by the paintings and drawings of that other legendary Spaniard, which decorate the walls of the restaurant that takes his name.
I can understand why this collapse of the gallery wall may not be such a big deal in a city that delights in meticulously reproducing the works of artists like Caravaggio, Titian, Veronese, and Michelangelo across the wall and ceiling spaces of their vast palatial complexes. And once the walls collapsed, there was no turning back.
The real shift, one that forces a rethinking of the nature and function of the 21st art museum, occurred last year when the new CityCentre complex — owned by MGM-Mirage and Dubai Enterprises — opened to the public (a second phase of the opening will take place this year). Designed by Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Viñoly, Norman Foster, the Rockwell Group and Fred W Clarke of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, the complex consists of combinations of multi-purpose buildings – featuring a hotel and casino (Aria), two boutique hotels (The Residences at Mandarin Oriental and the Harmon Hotel and Spa), a residential complex — the first ever on the Strip (Veer Towers) — a condo-hotel (Vdara) and The Crystals, a high-end retail and entertainment district that is the first point of entry on The Strip. Costing over $11 billion, the CityCenter always included plans to integrate an art collection and exhibitions throughout its multi-building complex.
Integrating the MGM art collection into its holdings and purchasing further works that were commissioned from contemporary artists specifically for the CityCenter, the complex displays one of the largest public art collections in United States and its display is primarily outside the official walls of a gallery space. While the Mandarin Oriental has galleries that serve a more traditional function, and which will show rotating exhibitions, the rest of the centre displays works the art of Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer, Claes Oldenburg, Coosje Van Bruggen, Nancy Rubins, Frank Stella, Henry Moore, and Richard Long — to name just a few — across its public spaces.
In promotional material, Jim Murren, the President of MGM-Mirage stated that “The CityCentre Fine Art Collection will be the first initiative of its kind to merge public and corporate interests on this grand scale, and we’re proud to deliver this prominent force in contemporary art and culture to Las Vegas”. Murren explained that the company decided to assemble an art collection to signal that CityCenter was a departure from the themed megaresorts that surround it on all sides. In an interview for the New York Times he explained, “We’re going to create an art program that will be important on a global scale, that will have some meaning to Nevada… This will not be a collection of precious pieces from some bygone era but a collection that is approachable, of big scale… We need to make a big statement.”
And so, this $40 million public art program is displayed side by side with concierge desks, lobby entrances, outdoor fountain displays, high-end restaurants and haute couture retail destinations such as Fendi (complete with a reconstruction of the Trevi Fountain in its interior), Prada, Gucci, Tom Ford and Yves Saint Laurent. And in the evening, when the lights go down and the Vegas lights switch on, the entire complex stands like a majestic beacon that is, in itself, an amazing art work that could only be the product of the C21st!
Angela Ndalianis is Associate Professor in Cinema and Cultural Studies at The University of Melbourne. She specialises in Hollywood cinema, digital media and the convergence of popular forms such as films, computer games, comic books and theme park spaces. Her research also explores transdisciplinary and transhistorical approaches to entertainment forms and their history, and she is especially interested in the baroque dimensions of contemporary culture.