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This transcript has been typed at speed, and therefore may contain mistakes. Newsnight accepts no responsibility for these. However, we will be happy to correct serious errors.

Las Vegas gets a Guggenheim museum 4/4/01

Take the road across the desert, head straight on, cross the railway track, and then, like a mirageż The Doge's Palace, St Mark's Square, a jewel of European culture. Except this isn't Venice, it's Las Vegas, built not on water, but gambling. But the city of slot machines is more than it seems at a glimpse. Alongside the casinos and strip shows, there will soon be its biggest gamble yet. A vast new gallery complex, the Las Vegas Guggenheim. An internationally renowned museum here? Is the idea as barmy as it is brave?

On the one hand, it's exciting that there's more museums. On the other hand, I am fearful of what the result will be. There's not enough Picassos to go around. It really is like the McDonald's of art museums, when you have shows, basically, you're just filling space.

But Vegas likes a challenge. Beneath a forever dusky sky, at the Venetian hotel where the galleries will be built, the gondoliers sing. This is the Grand Canal, on the second floor! This city is built on fantasy, an oasis of escapism in the dry Nevada Desert. Now it's taking another leap of imagination, trying to reinvent itself as a centre for fine art. But for a city built on the profits of the roulette wheel, is it a dream too far?

This is a magical moment for culture in Las Vegas. Even the word "culture" here sounds like a confusing concept, so we have to put our best foot forward.

Goldstein found space for his new hotel, by blowing up that old icon of old Vegas, the Sands Hotel. In the 1950s, it was the haunt of Sinatra and his rat pack, and the Mafia too. Then, the city was about jackpots, not Jackson Pollock. Now, gambling accounts for only a third of its income, and that's falling. Vegas has developed diverse new attractions, from luxury shopping to spa treatments. The people transforming the city say gambling is on almost no-one's mind.

It's a total fallacy to think that this town is driven by gambling. If you ask the average Las Vegas visitor why they come, nine out of ten wouldn't mention gambling.

Want to bet on that? So, ladies, why are you in Vegas?

To gamble.

Shopping and losing money in the casino. Actually, we've made a few dollars.

Been in a lot of casinos!

Would you be interested in going to see an art gallery while you are here?

No, not me!

I'm not really into art. My idea of art are my Marvin the Martian animation cells at home.

Would you be inclined to see any art while you are here?

We have been to Madame Tussaud's.

An art gallery?

It might be nice.

It's this rather more positive reaction the Guggenheim Museum is betting on. From their Frank Lloyd Wright HQ in New York, one of the world's richest charitable arts foundations in the world is throwing its money around. It's become unashamedly commercial and expansionist. Its director told Newsnight why they are trying to conquer Vegas.

If you combine the concept of expanding the museum idea within the physical definition and space, taking on Las Vegas, reaching a wider audience, and maybe having a strong revenue stream to boot, one asks why hasn't anyone else gone to Las Vegas before us?

Under Krens' leadership, the Guggenheim has grown from two museums to five. One's the extraordinary Frank Gehry masterpiece in Bilbao, in Spain. Worldwide, the foundation has tripled its attendance, to nearly three million a year. Then there's Vegas, some within the art world are crying "McGuggenheim". They claim it's becoming a world brand, behaving more like a corporation than a museum. Michael Kohn deals in modern art in Los Angeles. He trained at the Guggenheim, and has supplied it.

I suppose a criticism of McDonald's, and this is what one would want to say about the Guggenheim, is that the price is right, but the quality of what they serve is not very good. Those qualities the Guggenheim risks adopting, by spreading itself too thin.

All of a sudden, you're in the business of creating hamburger stands. That's not true. It's an entirely false criticism or accusation. It's not about establishing a Guggenheim flag on a foreign shore. It's about bringing content into the curatorial and intellectual system.

Krens has picked the radical designer, Rem Koolhaas, to bring off the transformation of Vegas. The Dutch architect is famous for his spare, chic buildings. At the Venetian, he's designing not one, but two galleries. This space will hold a small collection of paintings, mainly European masterpieces. Then there's this, a far bigger gallery, some 70 feet tall with walls of steel.

You will come into the Guggenheim Las Vegas, right off of the hotel escalators, elevators and the casino entrance. In terms of the strategy and capturing traffic, we speak in business terms of capturing traffic, this is along the beaten path. You will find your way, and make the time to get to this section of the hotel.

Design students are sure to come here. But will anyone else? The space being created here and in the other gallery, totals more than 70,000 square feet. That's absolutely enormous. They reckon to break even, they'll need to get 3,000 people a day to both exhibits, at $15 for each one. There's no shortage of potential customers, around 15,000 of them a day come here to the hotel's casino. But how will they persuade people to move on from poker to Picasso? There is some evidence from the hotel up the road, the Bellagio. Styled too, to look like something out of Italy, its founder first brought fine art to Vegas. The hotel gallery now hosts touring exhibitions. When we filmed here at 9am, it was already getting full. It gets 1,000 people a day, at $12 a time. It's estimated 15% have never been to an art gallery before. The pictures are sure-fire crowd-pullers, that's the trade-off.

We will be more populous. We probably wouldn't be able to take the chances of, say, the Sensation Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which was so controversial. We are most likely stay within the boundaries of a comfort level that the average visitor would enjoy. Museums have missions to educate, and open new fields to their members and visitors, by exhibiting space within a resort like this. Our mission is very, very different.

In other words, to entertain tourists and make money. The Guggenheim has shown, in its own way, it can be populist too. Its exhibition on motorbikes drew huge crowds in Bilbao and New York, and will open the main Vegas space in a presentation by Frank Gehry. The museum has just had a show on Armani clothes, reportedly by a donation from the design house.

If you're going to be an art museum, you have to show art. If you want to say that motorcycles are art, I guess. They can start selling it to whoever they want. It makes them look terrible at the end of the day. They're clutching at straws, trying to find something, elevate it, in other words, sell it to the public as culture, whether it is or not.

You have a Gehry installation in a cool house space. I think we can improve on the presentation of the art of the motorcycle, which I see as an interesting and valid metaphor for the technological and social development of the 20th century.

Yeah, right. More to the point, perhaps, bikes are bound to be a blockbuster in Vegas. It's the fastest growing city in the US. 35 million people visit each year, the Guggenheim is after just a tiny slice of that. Vegas is doing its best to attract a more discerning tourist from the outset. So far, it's managed to recreate itself as Paris, ancient Egypt, and New York. Where else? And now there will be a flavour of Russia. Joining the artistic invasion of Vegas will be masterpieces from one of the world's great museums, the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Going to Las Vegas, I was saying it's maybe my socialist education, we always learn and bring art to the masses. I went to Las Vegas where I began to discuss it. It's partly gambling, but it's where you have the middle class, a lot of people who are open for art.

The Hermitage is loaning some of its best works to the Guggenheim, which will put them on show at one of its new galleries in Vegas. It's a financial lifeline to an institution which, after years of neglect, is said to be more threatened now than at times of war or revolution. The deal means it gets a stack of dollars from visitors in Vegas to add to its uncertain supply of roubles back home.

It is urgent, because we need to develop. It isn't urgent in a way that walls are falling down. To develop, one needs money, new projects and new ideas. With new ideas, money comes. When you have money, money comes to money. That's how it works. That's a very new Russian attitude, but what's happening in Vegas is novel in so many ways. The Russians and Americans are united in their desire to make money through art. The bigger picture, to actually bring art to Vegas, is fuelled by the belief it's good business. It's what the customer wants, if not the arts establishment.

It's called entertainment, and that may make the purist gasp. But you have to pay respect to people coming here, and recognise they are not unsophisticated, and not without leisure time, and they are not without dollars in their pocket. They want to explore and see new things, that's why things are happening in the art world today. For those who can't handle that, sorry.

Forget the traditional role of museums to educate and challenge. The new rules mean art follows the dollar, and you can show almost anything, anywhere, as long as people will pay to see it. Vegas has seized the moment, and its remarkable cultural expansion could make waves beyond the desert.

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