Monday, May 16, 2005 | 11:10 a.m.
Art galleries have become more than just window dressing.
Tucked among the high-end retail shops at Wynn Las Vegas, the Wynn Collection art gallery is drawing up to 400 visitors on weekends and from 200 to 300 visitors per day during the week.
Last month, the Wynn Collection made its debut as the third museum space in a major Strip resort. Gallery operators say it marks another significant cultural milestone for the city and will feed existing demand among upscale visitors as well as fuel newer interest in art appreciation.
The Wynn Collection's 15 masterworks have already drawn a select group of art lovers and museum workers.
"A lot of people are coming specifically to see the exhibit," gallery Director Melissa Doumitt said. Some are coming to town to visit all three museum galleries, including the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and the Guggenheim Hermitage museum at the Venetian, she said.
Others are visitors who are simply looking for something different, Doumitt said.
"It's a nice break from the overstimulation of Las Vegas," she said.
A display of fine art -- whether in a museum space or in public areas -- has become "almost an essential" for a luxury resort, said Libby Lumpkin, the Bellagio gallery's founding curator under Wynn.
"We're going to have 39 million visitors whether we have fine art or not," said Lumpkin, who will shortly assume the post of consulting director for the Las Vegas Art Museum after teaching art history and museum studies for a number of years. "But it's a sign that a resort is serious about providing visitors with a full spectrum of possibilities for enjoyment. It says something about the management in the resort and the standards of amenities in a resort."
While it does not have a museum space, Mandalay Bay features an impressive collection of contemporary art in its new hotel tower, including a set of Andy Warhol prints and a giant painting by contemporary artist Arturo Herrera, she said.
"I think the days of putting up what we used to call 'hotel art' in public areas is maybe over," she said, referring to cheaply-made prints seen in many lower-end hotels.
The history of casino galleries begins with casino boss Steve Wynn, who opened the Bellagio resort with a museum space featuring selected paintings from his personal collection.
Months after opening, Wynn doubled the gallery's size to meet demand -- a move that challenged critics who believed that casinos and Las Vegas tourists cared little for fine art.
"It was more than a milestone," Lumpkin said. "It was kind of a revolution."
The gallery attracted visitors who were already appreciative of art, she said.
"There were all kinds of business people and very sophisticated types who were here for business or love to visit Las Vegas. It was totally untapped."
Wynn's involvement in art also has spurred upper- and middle-management casino officials to begin collecting and displaying art, Lumpkin said.
The Guggenheim Hermitage Museum -- a partnership between the Guggenheim Foundation in New York and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia -- opened in 2001 after witnessing the success of the Bellagio.
The Bellagio gallery is finishing up its longest and most successful exhibition to date. Its display of 21 Claude Monet paintings on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which ends this month, has attracted more than 450,000 people since its January 2004 debut.
"We expected to see a huge lull at some point but people just kept coming," Marketing Director Matthew Hileman said.
The gallery is attracting about 1,000 people per day, he said. The roughly 2,700 square-foot gallery will do about half of the traffic that the Museum of Fine Arts, which houses thousands upon thousands of masterworks, attracts in a year, he added.
The Bellagio gallery will be continuing the success of its partnership with the Boston museum -- which receives an undisclosed fee from the gallery to receive the paintings -- when it hosts a new exhibition of 36 Impressionist paintings by 16 artists starting June 10.
In the gallery's early days, many visitors were people who had never been to a major museum before, Hileman said. Perhaps because of return visits to the Bellagio or a growing sophistication among customers, more people are experienced museum-goers, he said.
All of which benefits the host property.
"They're more affluent, more educated," Hileman said of gallery visitors. "My average guest right now is 35 year-old woman with a six-figure income."
The Guggenheim Hermitage museum at the Venetian is drawing about 800 to 1,000 people per day on weekends and about 500 to 600 people per day during the week, Managing Director Elizabeth Herridge said.
The small gallery has been embraced as a significant tourist attraction and has begun to work more closely with the Venetian to cross-market its services, she said.
In a few weeks, for example, the space around the gallery will host a corporate event for VIP customers.
In spite of the museum's success so far, it is only breaking even and lacks the money to obtain the corporate sponsorships it will likely need in the future to continue to obtain its hugely expensive exhibits, Herridge said. Unlike the for-profit Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas galleries, the Guggenheim Hermitage is run by a nonprofit and is prevented from certain management tactics that could potentially squeeze more profit from the space, such as selling art in the gallery, she said.
The Guggenheim Hermitage is now showing "The Quest for Immortality," an array of ancient Egyptian artifacts found in the tomb of a pharaoh that relate to life after death. The exhibit is the single largest loan of artifacts from the Egyptian government.
"The quality is extremely high ... but we are not getting the response we (expected), which is very disappointing," Herridge said. "But the hotel is very supportive."
Executives at the Venetian and parent company Las Vegas Sands "who in their busy careers may not have had that much time to look into this are converts," she said. "They may have already been converts but I see real enthusiasm. That's the power of art."
Gallery operators say they are helping to fuel a broader transformation of Las Vegas from cheap gambler haven to luxury destination for the jet set.
"I think this ties directly into the real estate boom," Hileman said. "If you look at all the high-rise condos that are going up in the next five to ten years, all of that is geared towards cosmopolitan living. If you're paying $1.5 million for a condo you want to see something befitting going up on the walls."
At the Wynn gallery, more than half of visitors so far appear to be locals rather than tourists -- a sign that residents are aware of the exhibit's cultural significance, Doumitt said.
The exhibit includes several paintings that have never before been displayed in Las Vegas and features one painting in particular that will become a major tourist attraction for art aficionados worldwide.
"A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals," painted in 1670, is the only painting by Johannes Vermeer in private hands and one of only 36 Vermeers known to exist. It is also the first Vermeer to have been available for sale since the 1920s.
While Las Vegas continues to take lumps from art critics, the Wynn Collection promises to stimulate even the most experienced museum-goers with important works on par with the world's greatest museums.
"These are some of the best examples of each of the artist's works," said Doumitt, an expert in Impressionist art who joined Wynn Resorts from the Sotheby's auction house in New York and previously designed traveling exhibits for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Picasso's "Still Life with Tulips," painted in 1932, is another Recent purchase making its Las Vegas debut. It joins Wynn's other Picasso, "Le Reve," in the exhibit.
Both were painted within months of one another and depict one of Picasso's lovers, Marie-Therese. "Le Reve," French for "The Dream," is the gallery's signature painting and was Wynn's inspiration for his resort. It also was the property's formative name before marketers urged him to put his name on the property instead.
Another relatively recent acquisition is a Rembrandt self-portrait from 1634, one of a handful of self-portraits in private hands. Originally thought to be painted by a student of the Dutch master, a years-long cleaning process in 2002 revealed Rembrandt's signature and later attempts to dress up the portrait with decorative touches.
Visitors can hear an audio tour of each painting in which Wynn explains why he bought a particular piece or the context of the artist's work. It is a personal touch repeated from the Bellagio gallery during the years he owned the property.
His comments are unscripted and insightful, often lulling visitors into a dreamy, contemplative state, Doumitt said.
"It's so rare to hear (a) collector comment on (his) works," she said.