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September 17, 2014

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Bellagio’s art collection is a treasure for Nevada

Though it's about the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, this won't be your typical review.

And that's okay, because I'm neither an art connoisseur nor critic, and you're probably not either.

So rather than stumble through a lot of art history that I'd probably mess up and you'd probably ignore, I'll dispense of my obligatory critique with a single sentence:

The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, a $300 million collection of 19th and 20th century masterpieces by Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol and others, is something you simply must see.

Now let somebody far more qualified than me tell you why:

"Many people deprive themselves of ... art's rewards by defensively assuming it requires grueling intellectual preparation," writes Village Voice art critic Peter Schjeldahl in a book about the collection that's on sale at Bellagio.

"In a real way, it requires the opposite: a suspension of intellect in sheerly beholding. If we manage to silence our chatty brains in the art's presence, the art will explain itself with wordless eloquence straight to our hearts.

"Come to close quarters with all of the works here assembled," Schjeldahl continues. "The arousing touch of one immortal master after another will reach and hold you if you let it.

"Why not let it? You have nothing to lose except your fear, and a life-affirming rapture stands to be gained. No onerous effort is required, but only openness."

I took up Schjeldahl's challenge, and will tell you what happened in a moment. But first, let me make a couple of personal observations, as a layman, not an expert.

Consider the magnitude of the collection. At $300 million, the art cost more to assemble than the price of constructing the 3,000-room Monte Carlo, the Belle Epoque hotel-casino that opened just two years ago a few hundred feet south of Bellagio. Monte Carlo throws off about $75 million in cash flow annually, a 25 percent return on investment.

Yet neither Mirage Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn nor Bellagio will directly make a dime's worth of profit from displaying the art, though it's hoped the collection will attract high-rollers who will contribute to Bellagio profits. After deducting about 37.5 percent of the proceeds from $10-a-person ticket sales to cover the expense of displaying the art, they'll contribute the remainder to local charities. Personally, I'd rather see the money go to charities than politicians.

Then there's the irony accompanying the furor over the tax break Wynn sought to bring those masterpieces to Southern Nevada. As far as I know, not one of the many thoughtful, well-meaning people who say the break would benefit only Wynn has actually seen the collection.

I have. And I can tell you this: The benefits will extend far beyond Wynn.

I remember vividly what happened the first time I saw some of the masterpieces at The Mirage, where they were on private display awaiting Bellagio's debut.

First, I was stunned at the emotions those masterpieces evoked. And when I walked out of the casino, I felt far richer than I had when I'd walked in. (For someone who usually walks out of a Las Vegas resort feeling far poorer, it was a wonderful experience indeed.)

Let me try a sports analogy. You may love watching Michael Jordan soar above the court, Mark McGwire swing for the bleachers, Barry Sanders skirt a tackler or Jack Nicklaus split a fairway because you know they're masters of their craft, the best their profession has to offer.

Even if, like me, you know more about Mark McGwire than Claude Monet, I'm convinced you'll experience something akin to an ardent sports fan's exhilaration at seeing the works of the art world's greatest performers.

I'm also convinced that once they've experienced what's displayed at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, many tax-break opponents will have a change of heart. And that's only fitting, since the heart is the organ great art is designed to touch.

And if the collection doesn't convince all Wynn's critics (some of whom, I'm certain, are blinded by envy), it may do something far more important. At least 40,000 Southern Nevada school children will get free access to the collection each year, and it's bound to move at least some of them.

Might one or two, inspired by the masters and blessed with talents of their own, aspire to become an artist? And if Las Vegas can give birth to the world's greatest hotel, why not some future great artists?

Wynn says the tax break would encourage other collectors to display art here, as well. And I believe once you've seen what's at Bellagio, you'll agree that's an admirable goal, one that would enrich Southern Nevada's cultural diversity to the benefit of us all.

"There are few areas of universal agreement about what is truly lovely, graceful or admirable," Wynn writes in the forward to the Bellagio art book.

"One of the subjects on which there is some general agreement, in spite of cultural, economic or social differences, is that of fine art."

Noting that more people go to museums than professional sports events, Wynn continues: "This surprising statistic seems to represent a popular and fundamental yearning in our diverse cultural souls for a glimpse of beauty, a desire to be near examples of singular creative energy."

Think, if not about your own fundamental thirsts, about the 40,000 Southern Nevada school children who will be exposed, and perhaps inspired, by experiencing this collection each year.

I can't tell you much about art, but I can make you a promise: When you experience the Bellagio collection, your wallet may be $10 lighter, but your soul will be greatly enriched.

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