Victoria in Vegas: Day Five – Is Las Vegas a Cultural Wasteland?


It’s always an easy shot to take at Vegas, to dismiss it as shallow. It’s never really had a reputation as a cultural centre, and I didn’t come here expecting to be overwhelmed with art. And even I, desperately trying to keep my cynicism at bay, raised my eyebrows at the copies of the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David in the courtyard of Caesar’s Palace.

But there is some light in the darkness.

An obvious starting point was the Gallery of Fine Art at the Bellagio. A place that has recently hosted exhibitions on Warhol and Picasso, amongst others. When I got there, however, it was a show on Samurai Warriors and I wasn’t particularly keen. Instead, I took the time to adore the Bellagio’s fantastic lobby, whose ceiling is covered with wonderful glasswork masquerading as flowers.

A few years ago that would have been the beginning and the end of my arts fix on The Strip but relatively new hotel, the ARIA, has clearly made a statement of intent to fill that void with a collection of a dozen contemporary artworks hiding in plain sight around its venue.

I say “hiding” as, though the pieces are clearly on display (there’s even an online map to help you find them), I wouldn’t say they’re exactly drawing the crowds.

The biggest attraction is a beautiful Henry Moore. One of his hefty yet sublime pieces, it’s the sort you’d fear getting lifted these days in the UK. A great heaving slab of Roman marble wonderfully chipped and smoothed down to depict a mother cradling her baby. You’d think there’d be at least a small crowd of people taking snapshots of this masterpiece – but no. Not one. Just me.

The piece is even situated outside the shopping mall, The Crystals, adjacent to the hotel – a location with plenty of walkthrough. But no one was stopping to admire this artwork. I wouldn’t have even cared if they hadn’t heard of Henry Moore; I just wanted people to admire the beauty. But none did. Instead they passed by more confused at the lonely tourist taking breaks from her endless snaps of the sculptural wonder to implore them with puppy dog eyes to stop and admire the work.

Clearly I need to work on my puppy dog eyes.

There are some other big names in the collection – an Antony Gormley swirl hangs high in an atrium, easily overlooked. And there’s also a magnificent work from Jenny Holzer, a huge LED installation of truisms.

It’s one of her largest works to date and I adored it – but, would you believe it, they’dstuck it in the valet car park! WHY?? This piece should be up front, or even inside the casino itself where its lighting would really stand out against the darkness?

Though I didn’t have a car in valet (obviously) I sat and watched the text scroll past. Those few actually waiting for their cars were only passably interested and, rather tellingly, none were recording it on their phones. I was a little crestfallen. Did they not find it engaging? Were they not even interested in the text? I guess those coming to Vegas are not really be up for “recluses always get weak,” or “feelings of entitlement clash with the awareness of imminent scarcity,” being flashed out at them. Shame, as you could argue that’s *exactly* why this piece works.

There are more easy-on-the-conscience works in more public spaces elsewhere.

Laura Kimpton’s much instagrammed LOVE sculpture outside the Palazzo draws visitors in itself – which is pretty cool. The piece was actually unveiled last year, but in a city still recovering from a mass shooting, it’s become a rather potent symbol of unity.

And there are more than enough works from Jeff Koons around town. And, to me, “more than enough Jeff Koons,” equals about one work. There’s his oversized shiny Popeye at Wynn, (which the man Steve bought for an eye-watering thirty million bucks) and why have just one of his famous ballon-style sculptures when every Vuitton store in town (and there’s a couple) has got a Koons bunny in the window holding thousand-dollar bags, each with paintings from Turner and Monet stitched into their surface?

Popeye was surrounded by tourists. They loved him, all bright and shiny, superficial and not demanding anything of the viewer. Instantly recognisable, fun and kitsch. Of course, they loved him. Why am I surprised? Koons and Vegas seem a perfect match. All we need now is a Damien Hirst in a hotel lobby and we’ll be away!

Can you tell the lure of Vegas is beginning to fade for me now and the cynicism is beginning to kick in?! I’m glad there’s quality art here, really I am. I guess I’m just feeling that prickly rush that comes from seeing people more admire a Koons than a Moore.

Food & Drink

A very late breakfast was at Drag Brunch at Senor Frogs where, the pitch was, you get to eat a buffet breakfast with bottomless mimosas whilst being entertained by RuPaul’s Drag Race royalty. It sounded amazing and, by the grace of Groupon, I got a ticket for forty-five dollars.

Only it became one of the biggest wastes of money yet this trip.

The performers were AMAZING, giving us Tina Turner, Nicki Minaj and an extraordinary Nefertiti. However, it was a great show in a shit venue. The bar itself would make Coyote Ugly look like the Russian Tea Rooms and the food was rough as. (I can’t remember the last time I got to mix watery scrambled eggs with spring rolls for brunch.) Plus there was the added bonus of even ticket holders having to queue for an hour to get in. But, credit where credit is due, the mimosas were indeed bottomless.

Dinner was only marginally better. I went to the Peppermill Fireside Lounge, an iconic venue that was all low lighting and purple furnishings. It’s been here for years and has been in every Vegas film going, from Casino to the mighty Showgirls.

The place was half-empty though – maybe Sunday evening lack of tourists, maybe the state of Vegas. And we didn’t get off on the best foot with the ‘Table for one, please / Sure, can I sit you at the counter?/ No, I’d like a table please,’ exchange that bedevils solo travellers.

The portions were Americanally huge; I felt defeated as soon as my burger arrived. It was cooked beautifully, though way too salty. I barely touched the fries but the chocolate milkshake went down a treat.

I thought this place, given its reputation, would be far cooler than it actually was. I ate barely nothing and sunk a milkshake and it still cost me thirty bucks. I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting a bit jaded.

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