Want to go to Vegas for the weekend? The Las Vegas you may be thinking of probably consists of showgirls, endless buffet lines, and seas of gaming tables. Vintage Vegas. But in recent years, things have changed. Las Vegas’s cultural landscape underwent a face-lift and it now includes an impressive collection of… drum roll… contemporary art.

The story begins back in 2009, at the height of the recession, when the Las Vegas Art Museum’s board announced that the museum, located several miles off the Strip, was closing its doors due to difficulties retaining donors and steady visitation. To make matters worse, the closure of the museum was preceded by the May 2008 departure of the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum inside The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. This left the Bellagio’s Gallery of Fine Art, located within the deluxe Bellagio hotel and displaying MGM Resorts International’s fine art collection and works on loan from museums across the US, to operate as the sole art attraction on the Strip. Although the gallery offers a steady rotation of some of art history’s most circulated names (the current exhibition is “Claude Monet: Impressions of Light” and is up through January 6, 2013), Las Vegas’s attempt at carving out a place for itself among the larger contemporary-art-market mainstays of LA and New York City seemed unlikely. But as Patrick Duffy, art collector, philanthropist, and president of the Las Vegas Art Museum Board, speculates, “Does Las Vegas truly want an art museum? Maybe there doesn’t need to be one… maybe there [could be] something just as important as a museum.”

And perhaps there is. In late 2009, the mixed-use, 67-acre complex CityCenter opened its doors. Part luxury hotel, part residential condos, all sprinkled with a plethora of entertainment options, the sleek industrial towers of the CityCenter megaplex house one of the world’s largest corporate art collections, which includes an unprecedented permanent public art collection sited in Vegas. The extensive assemblage includes works by art-world heavyweights such as Frank Stella, Jenny Holzer, Nancy Rubins, Richard Long, and Henry Moore.

Because of Las Vegas’s inherent event-based nature, public art may give the city the edge it needs toward becoming a destination for contemporary art. Michele Quinn, principal of Michele C. Quinn Fine Art Advisory in Las Vegas, was the curatorial advisor of the CityCenter Fine Art Collection. Quinn worked alongside the development team of the center commissioning and selecting new works of art to include as plans developed— and not as a decorative afterthought. “I thought about the [monumental] architecture of the buildings, [and] they needed monumental pieces of art,” says Quinn. “I also saw that there could be a community benefit instead of something just for the property.” If you’re worried that it may be difficult to identify an authentic piece of art amid the fantastical façade of the Strip, CityCenter created a self-guided, iPhone app-cum-art tour to ensure visitors experience the collection as a whole.

Sprinkled throughout the complex, artworks are integrated in the most unexpected of places. The stunning Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas offers not only a spectacular view of the city from its 23rd-floor Sky Lobby, where you can choose from numerous cafés, restaurants, and lounges, but it also provides a glimpse of the massive eight-foot-by-eight-foot acrylic painting by famed conceptual and Southern California–based artist Jack Goldstein. The work, Untitled (Volcano), 1983, is a vibrant depiction of an eruption, capturing the dramatic yet fleeting moment of a natural occurrence—and connecting visitors in the modern, industrial hotel with a rural, natural landscape. Nature is again the theme at The Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino’s Natural Wonders Gallery, which houses a magnificent collection of contemporary nature photography.

Just outside the Mandarin Oriental and en route to Crystals at CityCenter, the 500,000-square-foot retail and entertainment hub, you’ll see Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, a collaborative piece by the famed married duo American sculptor Claes Oldenburg and artist/art historian Coosje van Bruggen. This towering 19-foot sculpture of a giant red and blue typewriter eraser with upturned bristles symbolizes both a nod to our technological past and a point toward the future. Nearby, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas resort began an artist-in-residence program called the P3 Studio in December 2010 in an effort to support emerging contemporary artists. The hotel has incorporated a wide variety of mediums into its collection—even its underground parking structure is outfitted with work by boldfaced art-world names such as Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, and Retna as part of the “Wallworks” series of murals from top-tier street artists.

There’s also good news for those wondering what happened to the Las Vegas Art Museum collection. Just a few miles north of the Strip, toward downtown Las Vegas, dozens of cafés, galleries, bars, and specialty restaurants have been popping up. Among them is The Smith Center, located in the 61-acre Symphony Park urban development, which hosts an annual rotation of Broadway musicals, dance performances, readings from literary entertainers such as David Sedaris, and concerts by musicians like Bryan Adams and various philharmonics from around the globe. The Smith Center also currently houses some of the Las Vegas Art Museum’s collection on display throughout the building and in the administrative offices. Many of the pieces are on loan from the museum, which recently relocated the bulk of its collection to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

If you think Las Vegas should attempt to re-create the gallery rows of Los Angeles or New York City, don’t hold your breath. “Trying to force [what works elsewhere] in Las Vegas won’t work. The less we try to be something we aren’t, the better off we are. [Our art community is] evolving slowly but growing organically,” Quinn says. It might be helpful to think of Las Vegas as akin to other small but art-rich destinations like Marfa, Texas, and Kassel, Germany—places you go to actively seek out specific art experiences. Duffy explains, “Whenever you are in a city, you want to find the jewels, and you’d be surprised what you’ll find here… [But] you have to want [to find them].” One of those “jewel” experiences may be the unique opportunity to see a Jenny Holzer projection, have a drink poolside, and get a facial while gazing at a Maya Lin sculpture, all in the same place—and all before dinner. How’s that for art tourism?

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