by Tony Frankel on November 9, 2010

in Extras,Theater-Las Vegas


{UPDATED November, 2022}

Las Vegas has been trying to crack the cultural market for some years now – it seemed the collection of Liberace memorabilia was the only show in town for tourists. Hopes were high that Vegas could become a cultural Mecca to rival Los Angeles and New York, but it seems that the two million residents here are not ready to support high art, as evidenced by the 2009 shuttering of the Las Vegas Museum of Art, the two Guggenheims at the Venetian, and the Gallery at Wynn. However, as the dust settles from demolished hotels of old, there are exhibitors finding a niche within the swanky new hotels and the remodeled hotels of the 80s and 90s. Wisely, these exhibitors are targeting mid-west tourists with high-end, entertaining shows that, paradoxically, might have ended up touring museums around the country.

Art mavens have only one space left to see fine art on the Strip: the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. Steve Wynn, former owner of the Bellagio, opted to bring a bit of class to the Strip by establishing the Gallery of Fine Art, which hosts rotating exhibits (the gallery does not have a permanent collection) that are organized in partnership with museums and foundations from around the world. Nov. 17 through April 28, 2019, you can enjoy the debut of two immersive-experience installations by renowned artist Yayoi Kusama, a unique wonderland of lights and reflections where guests are invited to experience each artwork from within. Both installations, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity and Narcissus Garden, will awaken a sense of wonder and showcase Kusama’s exploration of infinite space.

When I visited, MOCA San Diego and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston joined works from the MGM Mirage Fine Art Collection to create Figuratively Speaking: A Survey of the Human Form. Being that the human figure is one of the most frequently depicted subjects in art, it is a pleasant surprise that just over 40 pieces (paintings, photographs, video installation and others) capably demonstrate a myriad of artistic interpretations. While a few works may not be the best example of their creator’s oeuvre (Giacometti lithographs offer insight into his vision of almost body-less figures, but they are no match for his ubiquitous statues), others are astonishing in their vitality, and represent a pinnacle of artistic achievement (Keith Haring’s Elvis Poster drips with Sumi ink and gold paint, offering us a melting icon that is mesmerizing).

You will be amazed at what a respite this tiny gallery is for your jangled nerves, (no doubt a by-product of those jangling slot machines). Get lost in Chuck Close’s geometric grid work and slowly back up to reveal an impressionistic oil portrait of fellow artist Paul Cadmus. Be amazed at Picasso’s influence on Lichtenstein by comparing Woman with Beret with Art Critic: after painting a face from both a front and side perspective, Lichtenstein ironically criticized his own work, saying, “Picasso himself would probably have thrown up looking at my pictures.” And you will no doubt be titillated by Morimura donning Frida Kahlo drag in his photographic self-portrait of Collar of Thorns.

Some of the other 29 artists in this dense but satisfying show are Renoir, Degas, Hockney, photographers Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts, and Bill Viola (with his compelling video installation Eternal Return). The gallery is located directly across the entrance to the Bellagio pool, or you make a left for the VIP Casino Lounge.

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition and Bodies…The Exhibition both reside in the atrium of the Luxor Hotel. Both are to be applauded for taking what could be gruesome subjects and turning them into palatable, educational and sobering experiences, although you will find that only at Titanic will your heart go on forever.

Legal, philosophical, and ethical diatribes abound regarding both exhibits, but the consumer’s fascination with death and tragedy has won out; you can be assured that both exhibits are done tastefully. That these exhibits are side by side is more than ironic (come on, dead bodies next to the relics of a doomed ship..?).

Regarding Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition: most folk are fascinated by history detective work but remain prurient about disturbing graves. You could argue ethics ad nauseam about shipwreck salvaging versus archaeological education (including the notion that some artifacts were retrieved miles away from where the doomed ship lies), yet here we are spellbound by the remnants of what is surely one of the most mind-boggling disasters involving man’s hubris and his ultimate inability to conquer nature. As an extra-added emotional impact, you are handed a card at the onset with information about one of the passengers – you will learn their fate at the end of the exhibit. (But that tear in your eye will be immediately vanquished once you spot the “Gin and Titonic Boat” and “Iceberg-Shaped Ice Cube Tray” in the gift shop; we humans are odd little creatures, aren’t we?).

Some 5,500 artifacts have been taken ashore by RMS Titanic, Inc. Fortunately, you will not be barraged with that many pieces; instead, the exhibit (which uses over 300 relics) is set up as a time line: planning and building the ship, navigation, passenger bios, recreation of areas of the ship (love the deck and the staterooms) and retrieval of relics. The Grand Staircase, made famous in James Cameron’s film, is authentically rebuilt and positively breathtaking, as is the recreated iceberg, which uses sheet metal and compressors to create the chilling chunk (although I got more chills when I was invited to have my photo taken on the staircase by an employee than when I touched the icy sculpture). Most impressive is the largest Titanic artifact ever retrieved: a chunk of the starboard side with portholes intact named “The Big Piece” – it weighs an astounding 15 tons and measures more than 26 feet long. The well-explained retrieval and conservation efforts are a staggering story in itself.

Personal stories and discovering the identity of a belongings’ owner, such as a sparkling platinum pendant with diamonds, make this a much more touching experience than was expected.

Do you remember Body Worlds, the exhibit of human and animal cadavers that took the world by storm in the 1990’s? The figures are plastinated (a technique of replacing water and fat with plastic) and displayed with expanded or selective organs shown in positions that enhance the role of certain systems. Real human organs and organ systems are displayed in glass cases, some showing various medical conditions. Over 26 million people at over 50 museums around the world have witnessed this astonishing exhibit in various forms (I saw one that had a vivisected camel). The success has given rise to several similar shows, such as Bodies…The Exhibition, which centers on education-based displays versus a gamut of dead human bodies (there are no animals).

The technique used to preserve the bodies and organs is intriguing enough and there is a lab technician on hand to explain the process. I prefer this exhibit to Body Worlds because the collection is not as overwhelming and centers even more on unhealthy habits and how they affect our bodies. Glass cases contain organs before and after disease and they are explained in very simple terms. Although some people may find it vertiginous to have to bend over to read the tiny placards – don’t worry, vertigo is explained in the inner ear display.

It’s downright silly that warning signs abound upon entering a room of fetuses at different stages; the exhibitors clearly understand that red-state visitors could find this offensive (but the vivid display of sexual organs is not?)

The exhibit is just the right size and miraculously does not create “museum burnout.” It is more than acceptable to bring kids here.

Please be aware that coupons and specials are teeming throughout Vegas. Even so…

With the price tags of exhibits soaring to about 30 bucks, it’s amazing that their size does not rival the ever expanding casinos. It may be thrilling to find sharks in Vegas, but I would rather have spent time in a museum about loan sharks and predatory gangsters than the fishy (as in dubious) Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay. Now in its 21th year, and with a $29 price tag without extras (less for kids and seniors), one would expect an aquarium that rivals Monterey Bay. Not even close.

Don’t get me wrong, the exhibits are beautiful, whether mimicking stone temples in an Amazon forest, or a shipwreck where (mostly tiny) sharks glide to and fro. Many of the exhibits on hand are fine examples of a high standard of animal care and conservation (we especially loved the Komodo Dragon and Giant Pacific Octopus). It just somehow feels like the example of a very nice aquarium that hopes to grow up some day. The photos are somewhat deceiving: it appears that you will be surrounded by an entire ocean filled with sharks, but the main viewing hallway of glass is, well, just a hallway.

The reef is located all the way at the end of Mandalay Bay’s Convention Center, so you will probably spend as much time getting there and browsing the gift shop as you will in the entire aquarium. The audio wands assist with helpful information, but it is a mite frustrating if you don’t know what you are looking for in the multi-stocked tanks.

Certainly, youngsters will delight in the touch pool where you can gently caress a ray. And possibly conventioneers may find this a diversion from a boring afternoon session. But you would be wise to take this off your “must-see” list and add it to the “if we’re in the area and have a discount coupon” experience.


Even though a visit to these exhibits can be rewarding, it is clear that Vegas is still suffering from growing pains. As the city burgeons into what may one day be a Disney World for adults, Las Vegas exhibits are in a category of small, diversionary escapes from the larger diversionary escapes that you came to the city for in the first place. They are not the reason you come to Vegas.

Just remember to get the coupons.


for tickets to Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, call 888.488.7111 or visit Bellagio

for tickets to Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, call 800.557.7428 or visit Titanic

for tickets to Bodies…The Exhibition, call 800.557.7428 or visit Bodies

for info on Shark Reef Aquarium, call 702.632.4555; for tickets, visit Shark Reef

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy Murphree June 20, 2014 at 8:55 pm

I have acquired a poster of Picasso’s Nude, a part of the Steve Martin collection exhibit at the Bellagio from 2001. I would like to know more about the poster: How much did it cost? Is there a market for this type of poster? How can I find out its value? Are/were other posters from this exhibit available?

Thank you for your time.


Tony Frankel June 20, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Your best bet, Cathy, is to contact Bellagio.


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