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January 26, 2022

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At CityCenter, art for the masses right next to the slots

Sculptures and paintings sprinkled with great care throughout Las Vegas’ newest Strip attraction

Tiffany Brown

Artist Henry Moore’s “Reclining Connected Forms” is seen Wednesday in the pocket park between Aria and Crystals at CityCenter.

CityCenter Art

Frank Stella's Launch slideshow »

CityCenter grand opening

Guests enter the Aria hotel-casino for the first time Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Aria opens its doors to the public

CityCenter's Aria has opened its doors to the public. Fireworks exploded over the centerpiece of the $8.5 billion CityCenter project, and people eagerly awaited to be the first inside Aria, which is a partnership between MGM Mirage and Dubai World.

CityCenter's Aria Makes Debut

CityCenter's Aria makes it long awaited debut to the public.

Aria Opening

CityCenter President and CEO, Bobby Baldwin, bottom center, speaks during the opening of Aria at CityCenter in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Aria Preview

Employees ready the bar at the Skybox Bar at Aria, the centerpiece of the $8.5 billion CityCenter project, Monday, December 14, 2009. Launch slideshow »

On the northwest side of CityCenter’s Aria, near an escalator leading to the parking garage, are three polished metal sculptures that look like pooling streams suspended in midair.

Designed by British artist Tony Cragg, the three sculptures are part of a large body of his work on display in major museums such as London’s Tate Gallery and the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands.

Here, a stone’s throw from neon-colored slot machines with names like “Jackpot Party” and “Cleopatra,” a poker room and a coffee bar, the works blend into the surroundings of a 4,004-room hotel that is part of the world’s most expensive resort complex.

That is exactly the point, says Michelle Quinn, who oversees the art collection at CityCenter.

Art galleries and corporate collections ensconced in private spaces represent an “old model” for displaying art, she said. “This art is meant to be experienced in a new way.”

Indeed, short, inconspicuous barriers encircling the sculptures are the only hint that they should not be touched, let alone used by inebriated customers for support or for handy surfaces to support purses or highball glasses.

Even with CityCenter’s hefty budget and unprecedented collaboration of brand-name designers and architects, the 67-acre campus of hotels, condominiums, and retail and entertainment venues contains many of the familiar trappings of other high-end resorts in Las Vegas, such as a nightclub, lounge and theater.

One exception is its $40 million modern art collection, which has instantly put CityCenter on the map as one of the world’s largest public installations of corporate-owned art.

Although some industry observers worry CityCenter isn’t revolutionary enough to generate strong profits in a recession, art publication recently hailed it as a “cultural destination of worldwide significance” and “a bench mark for enlightened corporate involvement with the arts on a global level” — strong words for a big city without a major art museum.

In true Las Vegas fashion, CityCenter may have outdone itself on the art front: A 50-foot by 25-foot clump of about 200 aluminum canoes that comprise Nancy Rubins’ sculpture — much larger than a similar Rubins work installed at New York’s Lincoln Center — sits in a traffic circle behind Aria. A giant typewriter eraser of steel and fiberglass next to the Mandarin Oriental on CityCenter’s campus is the largest of three such works by artist Claes Oldenburg.

Unlike most attractions in the casino industry, including paid-admission art galleries at the Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas, these masterworks aren’t intended to make money for CityCenter owners MGM Mirage and Dubai World.

Executives hope the collection will draw a significant number of art tourists who travel the globe to view major works of art. The works aren’t merely window dressing, but are a key part of the sales pitch for CityCenter, envisioned as a kind of idealized urban playground and one company’s attempt to establish a cultural gathering place like those in other big cities.

That’s a departure from the traditional way of doing business in Las Vegas, where attractions — even free ones — serve the bottom line. With the Mirage’s fire-belching volcano, Treasure Island’s pirate show and the dancing fountains at Bellagio, casino developer Steve Wynn re-envisioned the role of carnival barker by creating free, elaborate entertainment to lure the masses inside.

Although CityCenter’s art collection contains bold, large-scale pieces that complement the larger-than-life structures and other elaborate attractions, they aren’t declared so much as quietly offered. Even the buildings’ entrances resemble modern art museums more than Las Vegas profit centers, with lofty glass skylights, walls of sheer glass and sandstone, minimalist landscaping and delicate water features.

Although tourists probably won’t come to Las Vegas just to see art, CityCenter represents a new chapter in the town’s slow but promising cultural evolution, said Elizabeth Herridge, who ran the Venetian’s Guggenheim Hermitage Museum that closed last year for lack of visitors.

When it opened in 2001, a rarely seen Picasso on loan from the Hermitage Museum in Russia prompted a surge in visitors to Las Vegas to view the painting, Herridge recalls. Although such interest is rare, CityCenter’s “exquisite” collection will likely become part of the circuit when tourists are here, she said.

“It will add to people’s experience, I’m certain, and if it turns them on to something they weren’t aware of, it’s all to the good,” she said.

Fifteen giant works of art and about 10 smaller, lesser works are scattered throughout CityCenter’s 67 acres, making the viewing experience, without the benefit of signs, something like wandering through a billionaire’s eclectic estate.

Small plaques like those in museums are near the largest works, offering a brief description of the artist’s style, genre and background as well as where some of the artist’s other works are on display.

CityCenter executives won’t be offended if visitors take only brief note of the works, or pass by unobtrusive plaques rather than stopping to read as people dutifully do in museums. These are hotels, after all.

There’s a marker by a Robert Rauschenberg collage painting in Vdara’s lobby, for example, that might prove to be heavy reading for bleary-eyed travelers pausing for a quick latte. The artist’s “juxtaposed, disconnected images with distinctive characters presents what the artist has self-described as working within the ‘gap between art and life,’ ” the marker explains.

Extra planning went into the placement of the art, given the high traffic expected at CityCenter, which will offer museumlike pamphlets on the art and guided tours through the concierge desk, Quinn said. Public tours for schoolchildren and other groups are in the works.

Quinn grew up in Las Vegas but earned her stripes in the New York art scene buying and managing art for such giants as Christie’s and Mellon Bank. A curatorial adviser to the Bellagio Gallery of Art, Quinn also oversaw the installation of art at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay.

Guards will keep tabs on potentially rowdy or drunken visitors who might damage the collection, which is covered by an extensive insurance policy. When considering which art to purchase for CityCenter, Quinn avoided some works that might have been problematic in the presence of crowds, including a low-slung piece by sculptor Anthony Caro that could have quickly become an expensive trash can, she said.

MGM Mirage executives selected pieces for maximum effect and accessibility, while Quinn worked with architects and designers to place the art in strategic locations. A giant Frank Stella painting behind Vdara’s registration desk and a set of Andy Warhol prints set high by a bank of hotel elevators within Aria are impossible to miss, but well protected from errant elbows, for example.

Quinn thinks visitors will respect the masterpieces — perhaps, she says, because the works will mentally transport guests from the places typically associated with Las Vegas, such as slot floors and loud nightclubs.

Expenses such as insurance, lighting and installation make up about 40 percent of the collection’s $40 million price tag. In the case of the Rubins artwork and an 84-foot silver Maya Lin sculpture overhanging Aria’s front desk, the engineering process took years and the installation process several weeks.

Quinn thinks Las Vegas owes a lot to Wynn, the first casino boss in town to display major works of art.

Wynn introduced high culture to the city by creating public, admission-only galleries for selected works in his extensive private collection. Wynn was criticized on Wall Street for spending more than $200 million on a corporate art collection and caught flak locally for lobbying to lower sales taxes on art — a move Wynn says he didn’t benefit from personally and has helped bring major works of art to Nevada.

CityCenter’s art collection won’t get any tax breaks, though for the erudite crowd it is expected to become the equivalent of free drinks for gamblers.

“This is so physical and so immediate ... it adds life to the space,” Quinn said, referring to a massive Henry Moore sculpture in a tree-lined courtyard between Aria Crystals.

That explanation probably isn’t enough to satisfy some casino executives who think such trifles are a spectacular waste of money.

On the contrary, Quinn calls it a smart investment.

Masterworks are portable assets that gain in value, unlike buildings, furniture, fixtures and just about everything else in a hotel, which depreciate over time, she said. Executives bought smart, avoiding art deemed too expensive, such as the works of Jeff Koons, she added.

Although much of CityCenter was built when the cost of construction and materials were high, the company lucked out with its art collection, buying much of it after demand for fine art had peaked.

“We are going to bring new people to Las Vegas,” including a “huge audience” of art lovers, Quinn said.

Spoken like a hotel executive.

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