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Art fans take a Vegas vacation

With MFA's Rogers leading, Liberace and Monet go together

LAS VEGAS -- "Oh my God, they're so corrupted," Malcolm Rogers snickers as he watches a group of schoolchildren pass in the hallway of the Bellagio Las Vegas hotel and casino. He's poking fun at his own critics, who say there's something terribly wrong with the Museum of Fine Arts director for making a deal to place the MFA's works inside these walls.

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 financial gain."

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."

Then 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."

The 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.

For 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.

If 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."

Raising eyebrows 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."

And 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 Warhol works.

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 September.

" `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.

Snobs 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 mock.

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."

Not everyone 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 Ronni Baer.

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.

"It's 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.

On 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.)

After the 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.

After 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.

But 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, three-dimensional approximation.

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 gedgers@globe.com.


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