Friday, June 11, 1999 | 11:31 a.m.
(C) Copyright 1999 Las Vegas Sun
Resort expansions are nothing new to Las Vegas, but the one under way at Bellagio takes the time-honored tradition to a new level.
Just eight months after opening, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is in the midst of a major expansion designed to better accommodate the 750,000 people expected to view the growing collection this year.
The $7.5 million expansion will move the gallery to a new site just opposite the pool entrance, increase its square footage to 2,600 from 1,250 and add more art-related retail space.
The project was prompted by long ticket lines and inadequate space to display the increasing number of masterpieces in the collection.
Yet Mirage Resorts Inc. Chairman Steve Wynn professes to be a bit surprised by the breadth of the public's thirst for fine art in a city critics often dismiss as a cultural wasteland.
"The gallery's popularity has exceeded our expectations," he says simply.
"The queue for the one ticket counter in the conservatory has created a lot of congestion. So we're moving the gallery to much larger quarters with four ticket counters, higher ceilings and its own bathrooms.
"By more than doubling the size, we'll be able to display more paintings, and more people can see them comfortably."
But such pragmatism vastly understates Wynn's deep conviction that the public at large shares his passion for great art, that experiencing true masterworks is the next best thing to owning them.
It's a passion he's convinced cuts across cultural and economic barriers in its ability to make people pause and marvel, to think, "I'm standing in front of something Da Vinci created with his own hands, from his own mind, at a different time and in a different place unique in all human history."
The essential lure of great art, after all, is its ability to transport viewers to a locale where they can rub psychic shoulders with a Michaelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Matisse, to somehow be with creative genius as it takes visual form.
"Who wouldn't want to be standing next to Leonardo when he painted Mona Lisa, who wouldn't give anything to know what he was thinking?" Wynn asked the publisher of the art magazine Apollo last year.
The crowds queuing up for the current Bellagio collection don't really surprise Wynn. He's often noted that more people go to museums than professional sporting events, a statistic that, in retrospect, might have hinted the gallery's initial size would be inadequate.
The collection itself is expanding, as well. The gallery currently has 21 pieces of art on display and has the capacity for up to 28. Between 50 to 60 paintings and sculptures will be in place when the new gallery opens Aug. 1, Wynn says.
Other masterworks can be seen in selected areas of the resort, as well. Two original paintings by Robert Rauschenberg commissioned especially for Bellagio have replaced Willem de Kooning pieces in the lobby, while Picasso and Rauschenberg works are displayed in two of the resort's restaurants.
"We're constantly upgrading the collection through selling, buying and trading," Wynn says. "The idea is to have the best possible pictures, pictures that are great examples of masterworks from every century.
"Right now, we have a Titian from 1558 that's been loaned to us by a private collector next to a Rubens we own ourselves.
"Ounce for ounce, the Bellagio gallery -- along with the Frick -- offers the highest quality art display you can find in the world," he says.
The Frick is a noted museum in New York.
"There are museums with more pictures, but none with higher quality pictures. We've been extraordinarily lucky," Wynn says
And extraordinarily shrewd, say analysts.
"Those who are proprietors of art and consider themselves experts can only be in awe at what he's amassed -- a truly distinctive world-class collection," says Jason Ader, senior managing director at Bear Stearns & Co.
Originally tabbed as a $300 million collection, Wynn says there aren't any financial constraints or limitations to its ultimate size.
"If something is really terrific and it's too costly for the company, I'll buy it myself," he says.
Wynn believes publicity over the Legislature's approval of a tax exemption for art collections such as Bellagio's will benefit other galleries in Nevada.
The new law allows exhibitors of major art collections to charge a fee and still be eligible for property and sales-tax exemptions.
"We've got to get into entertainment and the arts to strengthen the non-gaming profile of Las Vegas," he says. "The whole idea was that the Bellagio gallery would lead the way."
That concept got lost in the debate over the tax exemption, which was widely touted as a tax break for Wynn. But he disputes that notion.
"A lot of fine art was going to Oregon, and I wanted it to come here," Wynn says. "Now the Legislature has created a tax incentive so people will be willing to park their art here for nine months, and other galleries can afford to display it.
"I didn't need an exemption because I'm an art dealer. I paid a 2 percent tax last year while the issue was up in the air, even though I didn't have to pay a thing.
"But other gallery operators do need that exemption because they need to provide security and environmental controls and other protection for art lent to them for display," Wynn says.
"The side effect of the publicity that has been directed at me personally has focused the interest of major collectors in New York and elsewhere in Nevada.
"I haven't got room to display other people's pictures. But now that Nevada is a tax shelter in terms of a sales tax for famous works of art, Nevada will become a center for art."
The concept seems to be working. The legislation has provided fertile ground for what art critic Arthur Danto, writing about the Bellagio gallery in The Nation magazine, describes as "the formation of an art world" in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
"So what is at stake in the Bellagio?" Danto writes. "To have installed a collection of real masters is already to have taken a step toward the transformation of Las Vegas from a theme park to something that addresses the higher sensibilities of people.
"Hence the bold idea of a gallery of fine art as an attraction, and hence the possibility of changing the whole concept of Las Vegas.
"No one, except those professionally involved in the art world, visits distant places for the art alone," Danto says. "They may come for the art primarily, but they are interested in fine restaurants, in shopping, in entertainment.
"So in an important sense, plain old unreconstructed Las Vegas is in a synergetic relationship with the Gallery of Fine Art, giving tourists the extra incentive to undertake the trip.
"The mere existence of the Bellagio collection makes Las Vegas a destination for museum tours from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and elsewhere. And the mere existence of Las Vegas itself gives the added incentive to subscribe to them. Everybody benefits."
Including Bellagio. While resort officials say they haven't analyzed the incremental economic benefits the collection brings to the property, it's apparent those 750,000 visitors are adding to its profitability.
Andrew Zarnett, chief gaming analyst for Ladenburg Thalmann & Co., says he studied the impact of increased visitor volume when Bally's Las Vegas linked up with a monorail from the MGM Grand.
"About 15,000 people were using it every day to enter Bally's, which is about 5.5 million people a year. We determined that the average person who walked through the property would spend $2 in the slot machines.
"That worked out to about $11 million a year of incremental revenue, with a profit margin of about 70 percent. So that gave us incremental cash flow of about $7.7 million."
Zarnett says the Bellagio gallery will probably generate a higher per-visitor increase in incremental income.
"Many people going to see the gallery are prepared to make it an event," he says. "They'll plan on spending more time there to see not just the art, but to maybe have a meal, do a little shopping, play in the casino.
"About 20 percent of those who go to the gallery buy something there -- posters, cards, note paper, art books. I'd guess those 20 percent spend, on average, about $25 each."
Some critics seize on such estimates to accuse Wynn of "crass commercialism," as if indirectly profiting from art is somehow profane and outweighs the good that comes from making it available to Las Vegas.
Yet, notes Eric Gibson in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "For all the lip service the art world pays to the corrupting influence of commerce, today's museums have more in common with Bellagio than most of their directors would like to admit."
Such as charging admission fees and selling posters, cards, note paper and art books.
Wynn's decision to display real masterpieces, rather then replications, in a Las Vegas hotel-casino has horrified a handful of snootier art connoisseurs.
While Wynn pays little attention to most of their plaints, criticism of the method of display in the small existing gallery may have been part of the reason for moving to larger quarters, says Harry Curtis of BancBoston Robertson Stephens.
The changing nature of the collection also benefits Bellagio in more subtle ways, the analysts say.
"The art gallery isn't a significant contributor to cash flow the way the casino, the hotel rooms and the entertainment are," Ader says.
"But I was at a restaurant in New York the other night and the people at the next table were talking about this great art gallery at Bellagio. The most important thing about it is that it gets people talking, and that's what Steve Wynn does best."
"It's an evolving collection, so that if you haven't been there for a year, there's a lot of new paintings you'll want to see," Zarnett adds. "It enhances repeat visitation."
It also enhances the community's cultural diversity, enriches the spirits of those who've seen it, and provides an oasis of serenity for those who can't stomach casinos but love fine art.
"In its cloistered atmosphere and mood of intense concentration, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is a world away from the carnival of gambling and shopping going on just outside its doors," writes Gibson.
And that's just what it was designed to be.