Jan. 26, 2004
Show Me The Monet
A coontroversial deal brings
impressionism to Vegas
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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
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.