LAS VEGAS CASINO MOGUL STEVE WYNN IS NOT ONLY chairman of Mirage Resorts Inc.; he's also a gallerist. His Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (in the casino we've been hearing so much about) looks more like a museum, as it is loosely modeled after the Frick Collection in New York and the National Gallery in London. The marquee out in front is a work of art in itself: The old masters' names appear one by one in colored flashing lights like some kind of weird lounge act. Conforming to Vegas aesthetics, the gallery is not a white cube but a resplendent little jewel of a space. Inside, it is filled with works by Cézanne, Degas, Gaugin, Manet, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, Oldenburg and Rauschenberg. (The only thing missing — too perfect for Vegas — is work by Jeff Koons.) The walls themselves are upholstered with a plush, forest-green mohair treatment, accented with stained maple and figured sycamore polished to a high gloss. The mosaic gallery floor is an elegant latticework of crema valencia marble inlaid with rosa aurora. No detail was overlooked, even down to the lighting — special Wendell Lighting framing projectors have been precisely adjusted to illuminate only the artwork, making the paintings so vibrant as to appear hyperreal, like virtual-reality apparitions floating in midair. In a town where fake is the name of the game, seeing something truly authentic seems all the more unreal.

Wynn's notion of bringing art to this desert boomtown has a long, in the context of Las Vegas, history. In 1944, famed pianist Liberace, clad in his bejeweled and rhinestone-studded costumes, brought classical music to regular folk with his first recital at the New Frontier casino. The tradition is carried on today by the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, which has funded scholarships in the arts since 1976. The foundation runs the Liberace Museum, one of the most popular attractions in town. In the early 1980s, artist Steven Molasky exhibited a series of boxer paintings, including portraits of many renowned prizefighters, at Caesar's Palace. In 1986, sponsored by the Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art, Jenny Holzer found a perfect venue for her work on the Caesar's Palace marquee, flashing the text “Protect Me From What I Want.” Throughout the '90s, Vegas artists have exhibited in casinos and other unorthodox locations such as the Debbie Reynolds Casino, the Magic and Movie Hall of Fame at O'Shea's Hilton Casino, the Liberace Museum, Ron Lee's World of Clowns, and the Cranberry Museum. In 1996, the Rio Casino commissioned a series of works by contemporary artists that are currently on display. The Rio just had an exhibition entitled “Treasures of Russia” from the Peterhof Palace of the Czars, featuring various royal objects such as Peter the Great's gilded throne and a Fabergé egg. Harrah's recently commissioned artist Jim Pink to make one of his classic Vegas landscape paintings for its casino.

Heck, right down the street, the Whitney Museum façade is included in the New York, New York Casino skyline. Directly across from the Bellagio at the new Paris casino (now under construction), they're building the damn Louvre. And during the festive holiday season, the Bellagio displayed a majestic 32-foot Christmas-tree sculpture designed by homemaking goddess Martha Stewart.

THE FRENCH IMPRESSIONISTS LOOK PARTICULARLY great in the Bellagio, possibly because they are the blockbusters of high art. But it's equally amazing to see a de Kooning hanging in a casino. The Bellagio's Rauschenberg, a deliciously grubby combine painting (with a strange little globe of lights on top echoing the lights of the Strip), looks especially good amidst the pantheon of masterworks. The Pop artists, too, seem completely at home here — Warhol's now-departed Orange Marilyn in the garish lights of Sin City! Oldenburg's monumental Clothespin — 45-Foot Version (Model) seems tailor-made for the fantasy architecture. Another Oldenburg sculpture, Flashlight, looms over UNLV, its gigantic black shaft pointing down at the ground, its light swallowed by the earth — a contrast to the heavenward lights of the Strip. Flashlight refers to the Illuminati symbol of the downturned torch, signifying hidden knowledge. “If Nevada had just one of these paintings,” says Dave Hickey, art critic and Vegas cult figure, “the visual culture would improve a thousand percent.”

The Bellagio Resort features another venue for fine art, the Picasso Restaurant. The interior is like a giant canvas — the walls are gesso-covered burlap. You dine surrounded by Pablo Picasso paintings, ceramics, tiles and sculptures. Even the freaking carpet is designed by Pablo's son, Claude Picasso. (Be careful not to splash marinara sauce on the paintings.)

One must remember the function of the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art: It is a Vegas attraction, like the erupting volcano, the pirate battle, the dolphin show and Siegfried & Roy. It's fine art on a par with P.T. Barnum — the greatest art show on Earth. With the population now skyrocketing past a million, Steve Wynn could be a Vegas visionary — casinos may be the exhibition spaces of the future. Get all the art out of stuffy institutions and haul it to Vegas, America's aesthetic capital, the art center of the new millennium.


Professor Jeffrey Vallance divides his time between Las Vegas and Lapland.

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