Leisure: The Guggenheim Gamble

  • Joan Altabe

Sheldon Adelson throws his arms up, waves them with a flourish, and declares, “Not even Bugsy Siegel would have thought of this!” Adelson is presiding over the October opening of the Guggenheim Las Vegas and Guggenheim Hermitage museums of modern art at The Venetian, his Las Vegas resort. This is the art museum event of the year, and hundreds have turned out—museum trustees, movie stars, and journalists from around the world.

Missing from the throng are some prominent members of the art museum community. While the aftermath of September 11 has kept some at home, several probably would not have come anyway. Many of them feel that the new Guggenheims embody everything that is wrong with art museums today: cheeky architecture, elevation of popular culture over fine art, homage to box office rather than scholarship, style over substance. But not everyone in the art world feels that way. Some applaud exhibits designed to trigger attention, and think that marketing art does not have to mean dumbing it down.

Whether you feel that the new museums are twin shrines to populism or prove that art is dead, they do something that all important works of art must do: They compel the viewer to react.

Guggenheim Las Vegas is a soaring 70-foot-high, steel-wall lean-to designed by ascetic architect Rem Koolhaas for large-scale contemporary sculpture, and cut to bedazzling ribbons by Frank Gehry’s signature rolling stainless steel work. The Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, also designed by Koolhaas, is a smaller space expressly styled for blockbuster shows of known quantities—people-pleasing easel paintings by household names. Its rusted Cor-Ten steel walls match the reddish velvet walls of the State Hermitage Museum of Russia, which supplies the space with loans from its collection.

It can be argued that neither of the new Guggenheims is a true museum. Art museums are institutions that collect, preserve, and study works of art, as well as display them. The Guggenheim museums in Las Vegas are exhibit halls, period. It seems fitting, then, that

The Art of the Motorcycle is the inaugural exhibit at the Guggenheim Las Vegas. When it debuted at the Fifth Avenue Guggenheim in 1998, many questioned whether the assemblage of motorcycles warranted an art museum exhibit. However, there was no question about the popularity of The Art of the Motorcycle. It attracted the largest crowd in the museum’s history.

With Adelson at the opening is Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens. When asked, “Why Vegas?” his answer suggests a self-consciousness about opening a branch of one of the world’s great museums in a gambling capital that draws an estimated 3 million visitors a year. “We didn’t do it for the money,” Krens responds, his voice low and brimming with distaste. “The fact that we’re in Las Vegas is almost beside the point.”

That the Guggenheim is in Las Vegas may in fact be the point. Some may see it as a marketing ploy, including Adelson, who compares the proliferation of the Guggenheims to the spread of A&P supermarkets. He built the museums at his own expense ($30 million), and the Guggenheim will pay him rent with the visitor fees from both museums.

Krens made similar deals overseas. The Basque government bankrolls the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the Deutsche Bank finances the Guggenheim in Berlin. Since he took the reins in 1989, visitor counts have increased to a reported 2.5 million annually for the five Guggenheims (in Venice, Bilbao, and Berlin, and two in New York). Explaining the international expansion, he tells the Vegas audience, “It’s a large and lonely world, and cultural institutions are stronger if allied.”

Despite his success, several of Krens’ fellow New York museum directors are opposed to the concept of mass marketing museums and the use of what they view as gimmicky shows to draw crowds. Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello’s criticism of the Guggenheim’s ways and means is well known. He has said that Krens’ approach is all about making money, not making museums. Glen Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, has called The Art of the Motorcycle show in Las Vegas “an act of desperation.” Of course, Lowry did mount a fashion show of Dior and an exhibit of Jackie O’s dresses. At least the Guggenheim has an excuse: Its endowment of $47 million cannot compare with MOMA’s $315 million endowment.

Certainly the Guggenheim is desperate, as are other treasure houses. The American Association of Museums reports that museums receive less than one-third of their funding from government sources, down nearly 40 percent from a decade ago. This might explain such dubious art experiences as a guitar show at the Mu-seum of Fine Arts in Boston and an American sneaker show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

But as Krens tells his Las Vegas audience, the culture has expanded to embrace new forms of art that fall outside the traditional media. “Culture in 2001 is more complex than painting and sculpture. It’s about film, video, performance art, and architecture. And the motorcycle show is like a retrospective of a major artist.”

Brooklyn Museum of Art Director Arnold Lehman, a devotee of the populist approach to art, agrees, but only because he sees these exhibits as a way to attract non-museum-goers. Referring to the motorcycle show, he says, “Young people have so many opportunities to receive visual stimulation in other ways. If we can’t explore those elements of our history and current society that make us what we are, we’re shutting out huge portions of our audience.”

The new Guggenheims in Las Vegas certainly cannot be accused of inaccessibility. However, The Vene-tian’s lavishly appointed gambling rooms may look more like museums and the Guggenheims more like storage rooms. In the company of Vegas’ campy mock-ups of famous places that reach to the pyramids of Luxor, the Guggenheims’ relatively modest design seems bent on some kind of aesthetic cleansing. It is as if the stark steeliness is sending a message across the madness of Vegas glitter and make-believe: “We are for real.”

The message may not get through, says Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Russian Hermitage Museum. He worries that his one-of-a-kind trea-sures will not seem real amid the glare of the resort’s replica frescoes and statuary. “I hope visitors to the Guggenheim Hermitage won’t see the work as faux,” he says.

To hear Lehman tell it, well-attended popular-culture shows in Brooklyn, such as the hip-hop exhibit organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, increased attendance in the institution’s other galleries. He says that during an evening dance party for the show, people wandered through the rest of the museum and curators were swamped with questions. “We are always selling the American public short,” he says. “We think what museums do is too difficult for people to grasp. But that’s our problem. It becomes their problem because we don’t do anything about it.”

In his speech at the opening ceremony, Koolhaas, the new museums’ architect, calls the separation of low and high culture “an old myth.” When attempts are made to blend the two, he says, “The high art becomes vulgar, and the low art loses its energy. Yet the whole world has become a casino, meaning anything goes. We wanted to be part of that, to get away from solemnity.”

Then Koolhaas turns solemn, saying that art needs a different sort of place “to retain its aura and definition.” Steel, with its “strong authority” and the “only real material in The Venetian,” answers that need, he says. “It’s a strongbox for art.”

But is The Art of the Motorcycle really art? Guggenheim curator Ultan Guilfoyle does not call the bikes “art” exactly. Sounding terribly British, he says, “It’s not art in the way Picasso is art. But it’s perfectly legitimate for a museum to mount a design show.” Then he hastily adds, “This is no ordinary design show. I could have done the popular thing and mounted Harleys. But I didn’t want to be seduced by what is popular. I went for purity and picked the best 100 I could find.” Guilfoyle considers his picks “sculpture.”

Whatever the answer to the “Is it art?” question, an about-face is historically inevitable. A 1993 survey of critics in ARTnews magazine noted that seeing art in different contexts had the power to change minds. Arthur Danto of The Nation thought Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Therese, a Baroque bronze of a swooning figure with swirling drapery that simulates light rays, was “absurdly silly” when he first saw it in Rome. But after visiting many local churches with Baroque art, Danto looked at the work again, and it moved him to tears.

Maybe The Art of the Motorcycle, which was panned by critics when it showed in New York’s Guggenheim, makes sense in Las Vegas’ Guggenheim. Those who would deride the bike show should recall that the Impressionist and postimpressionist works now displayed in the Guggenheim Hermitage were deemed assaults on art when they debuted, and the term “Impressionism” started out as a slur.

But while the art world continues to question the validity of the motorcycle show, lay visitors may direct their doubts at the Russian collection. Mounted on oxidized walls not unlike those in Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, the paintings look dingy. The walls are broken up into panels, and their lines of separation distract from the paintings. It interrupts contemplation, further reducing their impact. Glitz-blitzed Vegas tourists, looking at modern masters in such a space, may wonder what the big deal is. Curator Guilfoyle’s explanation—that the thickness of the steel made it too heavy to construct walls with one unbroken plane—is logical, but it does not do much for the poetry of the paintings. Neither do the exhibit labels, which lie in hard-to-see places on the floor beside the paintings, each label reduced to mere names and dates.

If the museums are ultimately doomed by the design of the display areas, the exhibition schedule, or the Las Vegas location, it will not be completely disastrous. Because Adelson paid for the museums, the Guggenheim would lose only the anticipated $15 million in annual revenues, and the Hermitage would lose a projected $7.5 million. All the frontline players could go back to what they were doing in New York or St. Petersburg before the launch. Adelson could always turn the Herm- itage back into the VIP room it once was. Gold-flocked wallpaper should take care of the steel walls nicely, and the 70-foot-tall Guggenheim Las Vegas might make for a second palatial baccarat pit, which could come in handy. The first one looked pretty crowded.

Joan Altabe is an art and architecture critic and expat New Yorker. She bangs out her belles lettres for Florida’s Bradenton Herald from a quiet tropical key.

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