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Jan. 26, 2004
Show Me The Monet

A coontroversial deal brings impressionism to Vegas

<see various reactions to this piece by clicking here>

By Steve Friess and Peter Plagens

Jan. 26 issue - The Elvises aren't really Elvis, and the Venetian is an impersonator. That's the whole point of Las Vegas: flashy faux surroundings for the rattle of roulette wheels and the snap of blackjack cards. Museum exhibitions of fine art, though, stand or fall on their genuineness. So what's the deal when a museum-type show with the red-velvet title "Claude Monet: Masterworks From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" turns up Jan. 30 (through Sept. 13) at the Bellagio Gallery on the Strip? Oh, the 21 Monets-spanning four decades of his painting, from a portrait of his wife and daughter to one of the late water-lily pictures-are genuine, all right. It's the deal behind the show that's pure Vegas.

Back in 1998 gambling mogul and art collector Steve Wynn opened the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in his new casino of the same name. He stocked it with Renoirs, Matisses and Picassos largely from his private holdings (with the works technically for sale, for tax reasons) and charged $12 admission. An astonishing 1 million viewers paid to get in during the first year, an at-tendance figure only a few major art museums, like Boston's, can match. But after a merger in 2000 absorbed Wynn's company into what's now MGM Mirage, he took his art home. Since taking over the place in 2001, Marc Glimcher, son of the famed art dealer Arne Glimcher, and his wife, Andrea Budonis, a Pace Wildenstein gallery executive, have staged exhibitions of Andy Warhol works rented from private collections and goodies from Faberge lent for a price by the Kremlin. The shows have drawn more than 150,000 visitors at $15 a pop. Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, Glimcher has guaranteed the MFA in Boston at least a whopping $1 million for the loan of the Monets.

That's where things get sticky, in terms of museum ethics. Ordinarily, not-for-profit museums make their money from private donations, box-office receipts, gift-shop sales and government support. But times are tough, with a huge falloff in funding and declines in cultural tourism. The traditional cashless quid pro quo for lending art to other museums-OK, we'll lend you our Picasso if we can borrow your Matisse-has been augmented by lending fees. But these money deals are still between nonprofits. Boston's hiring out Monets to help Glimcher make money in Las Vegas (not to mention jacking up the demand for the other Monets that Pace Wildenstein has for sale) seems to break new ground.

Some say the Bellagio Gallery's a "for-profit museum" and destined to fail. "There is not one for-profit art museum in this country," says Ed Able, head of the American Association of Museums. "If it were possible to run an art museum as a for-profit entity, why do we not have any?" (In truth, what makes a museum a museum is a permanent collection. The Bellagio doesn't have one.) Others, like L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight, say that the MFA "ought to be ashamed of itself" for selling out to private interests. Responds MFA director Malcolm Rogers: "We are always exploring new ways of bringing in revenue. And we love the museum's treasures to be seen in new places by new audiences."

Ethics niceties aside, there's the practical consideration: will Monet at the Bellagio work? Although Glimcher maintains that the show need attract only 400 customers a day to break even (the Warhol and Faberge shows averaged twice that), the gallery stands in the smoke of a recent Vegas disaster. The Guggenheim Museum's ballyhooed 64,000-square-foot Vegas branch, designed by star architect Rem Koolhaas, closed last year after one long-running show. But defenders of the city's cultural possibilities point out that a catastrophic drop in tourism after 9/11 hurt the venture. Glimcher says: "We need people to see the billboard [advertising an exhibition] and say, 'I want to see that.' Our mandate, like anybody else's in Las Vegas, is to make people walk out saying, 'That was unbelievable'." They will. For better or worse.

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