Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2019

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From art to dining, Cosmopolitan aims to be ‘accessible and fun’


Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

John Unwin, CEO of the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, stands atop the resort-casino’s marquee.

The Cosmopolitan

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is seen on Dec. 13, 2010. Launch slideshow »

By the Numbers

  • Opening: Dec. 15, 2010
  • Groundbreaking: Oct. 25, 2005
  • Initial cost estimate: $1.8 billion (Oct. 2005)
  • Final Cost: $3.9 billion
  • Land: 8.7 acres between CityCenter and Bellagio
  • Strip frontage: 335 feet
  • Permanent jobs: About 5,000
  • Rooms: 2,995
  • Rooms with terraces: About 2,200
  • Casino size: 100,000 square feet
  • Restaurants: 12
  • Bars and lounges: Four
  • Nightclubs: One
  • Retail space: 36,000 square feet
  • Convention space: 150,000 square feet
  • Spa: 43,000 square feet
  • Pools: Three

When asked to explain the aesthetic of a casino resort lacking a defined theme, major chains or celebrity brand names, the CEO of the $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan Las Vegas resort begins to unpack a series of boxes the size of cigarette packs stacked on his desk.

Out of one slips a small book of Andy Warhol photos that appear to move, like a cartoon, as he flips the pages. Another contains tiny clay figurines: a cactus, armadillo and other icons of the desert.

“It’s accessible and fun,” John Unwin said. Both sensibilities, he said, are lacking at many of Las Vegas’ luxury resorts.

Art may not be the most dramatic thing on display at the Cosmopolitan, which boasts rooms with terraces and a three-storey crystal chandelier that loops around a bar off its main lobby. But it’s probably the best metaphor, Unwin said, to describe the kind of visitor — artistically-minded, bohemian sophisticates — the resort hopes to attract.

The Cosmopolitan’s eclectic display of public art is more than symbolic of its intended audience, though.

In a town where culture is defined not by museums and public art displays but by the bigger, flashier attractions for which its casinos are known, art — the free or inexpensive kind — is a major part of Unwin’s vision for creating a different kind of resort on the Strip.

“People have this vision of Las Vegas as being almost a caricature of itself,” he said. “This is not more of the same.”

One small example of that are these boxes containing signed, original art, which will be sold for $5 each out of recycled cigarette vending machines, called “Art-o-mat,” and located throughout the Cosmopolitan, which opens Dec. 15 on the Las Vegas Strip.

Proceeds from the art will be split between the artists and a third party that seeks them out and provides the machines — hardly a money-making enterprise for a major resort.

Critics have called CityCenter’s $40 million public art collection a waste of money on visitors who come to Las Vegas to party, eat, gamble and shop rather than contemplate works of art — a significant pasttime in other major urban centers. Other say not so fast. CityCenter’s carefully chosen works by major artists will become a significant draw that withstands the test of time, MGM Resorts executives say.

Critics also question whether art maximizes the urge to spend money, like the bigger or glitzier attractions, like bustier-wearing go-go dancers and elaborate production shows, for which Las Vegas is known.

Even Unwin has a dim view of resort art collections — at least those residing in admission-only galleries. Museums, after all, have failed to gain much traction, either as cultural attractions in their own right or attempts to attract a new breed of moneyed tourist to Las Vegas, he said.

For its part, Cosmopolitan obtained its eclectic array of public art relatively inexpensively. Several artists were referred to the resort by the Art Production Fund, a New York nonprofit that helps artists display oversized works in non-museum settings and is establishing its first Las Vegas partnership with the Cosmopolitan. Some of the artists were paid market prices for their work; others were paid negligible amounts for their efforts.

The trend among artists to donate their creative output for the opportunity to display their works in more accessible, commercial surroundings no doubt benefits the for-profit mission of the Cosmopolitan. For these artists, a resort located at the heart of the nation’s most-traveled tourist destination is something of a new frontier. Among the negligibly-paid artists who contributed to the Cosmopolitan was Shepard Fairey, a graphic designer who created the famous blue-and-red poster of President Obama and was one of several people invited to paint graffiti art on the walls of the resort’s underground garage.

Will any of this make money for the resort?

If the art gets people to stop for a glass of sangria, a sushi platter and a few hands of blackjack, then yes, Unwin said.

“We’re not doing it because we have a very altruistic vision. We think it’s interesting and relevant and will get people to visit us.”

That may not be a given. The art is supposed to be casual as well as accessible, blending in with the atmosphere so that customers can choose to ignore it if they so choose.

“We’re not trying to teach people about art,” Unwin added.

This includes “steampunk” art made from recycled materials and inspired by a curious mix of science fiction and Victorian style, an artist in residence program that will kick off with Fab 5 Freddy, a hip-hop singer and graffiti artist who decorates old boxing photos with Swarovski crystals. Freddy and other artists will display their works in a glass-walled gallery in the Cosmopolitan’s second-floor dining district and chat with passersby. The Cosmopolitan also will feature Argentine artist Judi Wertheim, known for setting up a nail salon inside the Bronx Museum of Art and reproducing nearby masterworks in miniature on customers’ fingernails.

Giant LED panels in the lobby will display looped videos by known and unknown artists. The resort’s outdoor marquee also will make an artistic statement, interspersing two-minute commissioned videos by artists including Yoko Ono and T.J. Wilcox with resort advertising. Upstairs, customers can take in the sights, including an Art Deco billiard table, while sitting on benches not otherwise located in for-profit zones like bars or restaurants.

Even the Cosmopolitan’s amenities are a nod to indie culture. There are no formal restaurants at the resort, Unwin said, nor will customers find headliner luxury boutiques like Gucci and Prada. Instead, the resort’s retail lineup features little-known brands selling the likes of, say, candy-colored sneakers, vintage sweaters and furniture made from rags.

“You can still buy $10,000 items in those stores but they’re much more accessible. You can feel comfortable exploring on your own,” Unwin said. “Same with the restaurants. You don’t have to be an urban sophisticate to enjoy them. They’re not highbrow in the sense of what’s been done.”

Exhibit A is the tiny clay cactus atop Unwin’s desk.

“This is my favorite,” Unwin said, turning the cactus in his fingers. “It’s not one of the masters. It’s not a gallery you pay to enter.”

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