The kids are in fourth grade, and because of the
Warren-Walker School's dress code, the girls wear knee-length skirts,
the boys slacks. They're making their way to the casino's art gallery,
where 21 of the MFA's Monet paintings hang. It's Thursday morning on
the Strip, and Rogers has come west to usher in the exhibition, "Monet:
Masterworks From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston," and to spend time
with a group of MFA patrons who have signed on for a three-day,
museum-run Vegas vacation.
Rogers knows that the destination, for
both his art and his supporters, is unorthodox. He knows that many
art-history types disapprove of the deal, which has the MFA making a
loan to a private dealer for a minimum of $1 million. Just a day
earlier, Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times art critic,
criticized the Bellagio show, arguing that "it's without intellectual
merit, is educationally corrupt, and puts a fast-buck premium on
Rogers disagrees. He has taken to calling the
dust-up "Controversy 101" and casting his critics as the sort of
self-righteous, culturally conservative art puritans who have no notion
of what the people want. Where were these complainers when other
museums rented out paintings to Japanese department stores during the
'80s? How could they be so critical of a show they hadn't seen?
"There may be an issue here," Rogers says, "but it is not an earth-shattering issue."
the kids arrive. For these fourth-graders, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine
Art and the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum -- a larger space located
inside the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino -- are pretty much the only art
shows in town. So their school bus rolls down the Strip, past the
billboards for Celine Dion, Wayne Newton, and a series of topless
revues, and turns in at the Bellagio's quarter-mile-long man-made lake.
Inside the casino, they march down the marble hallways, parting a sea
of blackjack tables and slot machines. Then a doorway opens into the
mall area and the gallery on the right.
Cindy Ellis, chaperoning
her daughter, has been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the
Smithsonian. But for many of the kids here, she says, the Bellagio is
providing the first chance they've had to see real art.
"This is it around here," she says. "And you never know when you'll get the opportunity to see this again."
Ellis tells a reporter to pass word along to the MFA.
"We're indebted," she says. "Thank you."
sentiment is welcomed by Rogers, and not taken for granted. Every time
he is thanked -- by a community-college art professor, a TV weatherman,
the manager of the Liberace Museum -- Rogers mentions it to Dawn
Griffin, the MFA's director of communications, who often accompanies
him on these trips. The thanks justify one of his notions about the
deal: This isn't just for the money, it's to spread the MFA's name and
to bring world-class paintings to the art-starved Glitter Gulch.
the 20 MFA patrons who have signed up for the trip, the Vegas weekend
isn't only about art. To be a patron, they must have given at least
$2,500 over the last year to the MFA. To come on this trip, each must
pay $1,300 (plus airfare) and $250 in the form of a donation to the
MFA. In return, they will get to dine in the casino's finest
restaurants, tour the Monet show with Rogers, and visit a series of
Vegas attractions. They will see "O," the Cirque du Soleil show that
features a stage full of shapely acrobats in skin-tight costumes
darting through a partially underwater set. They will marvel at the
marble in their bathrooms, the casino's botantical garden, and the
2,000 glass-blown flowers hanging from the lobby ceiling.
they're willing, they'll also get a quick introduction to blackjack
from the museum director himself. Most nights, Rogers can be found at a
table experimenting with his newfound fascination for the card game. "I
would never have thought of going," says Gerard Townsend, 74, an
investment manager. "But then the MFA had this trip, and I thought it
would be a good cover."
Rogers defends Las Vegas at every turn. He raves about what he
considers the beautiful lighting in the Monet gallery, and he says that
he's impressed by the Guggenheim's Las Vegas branch; it's three times
the size of the Bellagio gallery. He doesn't hesitate when asked,
during an appearance at the local National Public Radio affiliate,
about the MFA's decision to come to town.
"A number of people say, `Why are we sending an exhibit to Las Vegas?' " Rogers says. "The answer is, we were asked."
not by just anyone. The Bellagio gallery is run by Pace Wildenstein, a
New York City gallery with close ties to the MFA. Though the Bellagio
gallery is a mere 2,750-square-foot space, it comes with a reputation.
Steve Wynn, a casino mogul known to leave art auctions with a $25
million painting, opened the space in 1998. When he was forced to sell
the Bellagio, the gallery changed hands. Since 2002, Pace Wildenstein
has run the shows, including exhibitions of Faberge eggs and Andy
The MFA's deal with Pace Wildenstein has raised
concerns with a growing list of critics. Paul Tucker, a professor at
the University of Massachusetts Boston who organized the MFA's
blockbuster 1998 Monet exhibit, recently added his voice to the chorus.
Tucker saw the Monet show -- he was in Las Vegas on a trip with his
wife, not with the museum group. He left shaking his head. "I'm
certainly not one to criticize museums for making money," says Tucker.
"But if you're going to be in bed with a dealer, you're essentially
crossing well-defined lines. That makes me very concerned."
Snobs be damned
What even the critics can't deny is the appeal of the paintings. So
far, the Bellagio's Monet show has been a smash, drawing 18,000 people
in the 10 days after its Jan. 30 opening. At that pace, and with its
$15 ticket price, the MFA could earn even more than $1 million -- the
total figure hinges on attendance -- by the time the show closes in
" `Viva le controversy' has really done wonderfully
for us," Matthew Hileman, the gallery's director of marketing, tells
the MFA patrons as they tour the gallery on Friday, the first full day
of their visit.
Rogers leads the patrons through the space. He
points to a favorite frame, highlights the advances in Monet's
technique over the 30-odd years represented in the paintings, and calls
the artist "a poet of light."
He stands in front of a pair of
winter scenes. "There are very few places in the world where you can
see two snowscapes side by side in a place of such quiet and calm and
intimacy as in this gallery," Rogers says.
To attract visitors,
Hileman's staff rented out eight billboards and pasted them with the
image of the 1905 painting "Water Lilies." Also, a series of Monet
images are broadcast constantly on the Bellagio's 36- by 29-foot video
screen, which faces the busy Strip. The gallery has taken out full-page
advertisements in three Japanese travel guides and produced an audio
tour in four languages: English, French, Spanish, and Japanese.
"We couldn't hope to afford that," says Rogers.
be damned, his every move seems to say. Which seems to infuriate them
more. Maybe it's the way Rogers takes their body-blows without showing
even a shimmer of self-doubt. Or perhaps it's that this Englishman,
with a speciality in the decidedly unrebellious area of 17th-century
art, is unwilling to reject a place that many high-minded Americans
He sits at the blackjack table, wearing a navy blazer and
shirt open at the neck, and learns how to split his hand, milk his
remaining chips, and cash in. He watches a performance of a Liberace
wannabe who plays a cheesed-up version of "Memory" from "Cats," and he
doesn't allow even the slightest hint of a dismissive smile to curl. He
knows that this town's teeming with short-skirted cocktail waitresses
and Elvis impersonators. So what?
"Yes, Las Vegas is all those
things, but why get uptight about it, why analyze it to death?" Rogers
asks. "It's an exciting place. The senses are bombarded by different
styles, the sheer American vim and vigor. Being able to escape into a
beautiful art gallery is a wonderful thing to do."
on the trip has such an open mind. Other recent patron jaunts -- there
are typically three a year -- have taken supporters to Paris to tour
the Musee D'Orsay with curator George Shackelford, and to Spain for
stops at the Prado and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with curator
Before the Las Vegas trip, Cambridge psychiatrist
Judith Wolfberg, 54, told one of her patients about her plans. "Why do
you want to go there?" the woman asked.
Wolfberg's husband, Steve, found himself wondering if they had made a mistake after one night on the Strip.
pretty gross," says Wolfberg, 71. "It's just so unattractive and
unappealing except that it is something to see. It is a spectacle."
Touring the town
On Friday, the MFA patrons pile into a tour bus and head to an
attraction called the "Neon Graveyard." In a dusty parking lot, they
walk among the rusty, broken-down signs of the first wave of Las Vegas
casinos. Steve Dowling, a senior vice-president at Morgan Stanley here
with his wife, Patricia, knocks on the hollow composite skin of a
silver nugget. Marvin Schorr, a retired physicist and the founder of
Tech/Ops Inc., spots a battered sign for the "El Cortez" at his feet.
He remembers staying there back in the early '50s, when he spent time
in Nevada working on A-bomb tests.
"Marvin, look at the license plate," says his wife, Lee, 74.
A car in the lot has a colorful plate that reads: "Nevada -- Rich In Art."
"It's a bit more cozy than `Live Free or Die,' " Rogers says.
Saturday, the tour bus stops in at Steve Wynn's gallery -- about a mile
up the Strip in the former Desert Inn. It's a tiny room, with space for
just 12 paintings. But the works -- from Picasso's 1932 painting "Le
Reve" to a Renoir, "Dans les Roses," that Wynn bought for $23.5 million
last May -- are stunning. Rogers even points out a Van Gogh painting
that the MFA once tried to borrow. (Wynn declined.)
Wynn, the MFA group heads to the Guggenheim Hermitage. The space,
defined by its high ceilings and industrial, brownish-red walls, was
designed by Rem Koolhaas. As the group wanders through the gallery,
Rogers spots Bill Cottingham, an executive vice president at Sotheby's
auction house who lives in Cambridge. Cottingham and his wife are in
town for a friend's 25th anniversary. They met the MFA group the day
before to hear Rogers lead the Monet tour.
At the end of his
run-through that day, Rogers mentioned that the MFA needed another
good, late-period Monet. A third haystack, or a picture from the
artist's renderings of the Rouen cathedral. The picture, Cottingham
knew, could cost as much as $15 million.
Whispering in the
Guggenheim on Saturday, Rogers tells him he is, indeed, serious.
Perhaps they can find someone to donate the work, or to at least offer
it at a lower price.
"I know where some are, and I'll see if people are interested in releasing them," Cottingham tells him.
the tour, the MFA group heads into the casino, which is meant to
reproduce Venice. They walk over fake cobblestones until they arrive at
a restaurant. There, in a second-floor balcony, they gaze down at the
man-made canals and listen to a gondola driver sing to his cargo. They
see a wedding in progress in the reproduced town square.
before anyone can get too misty, the group is back out on the
cobblestones, walking toward the exits. And there he is. Pavarotti! Not
the living, breathing Luciano, mind you, but a life-size,
Breaking his stride, Rogers
cozies up to the plastic icon. Smiling, he poses as the patrons snap
photos. He looks up at the painted ceiling meant to simulate the
Venetian sky. "Going to Mars doesn't sound like a big deal after you've
been here," Rogers says.
Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.