Department Article
Las Vegas shows off its own version of highbrow culture

by Chelle Koster Walton

“Las Vegas is getting classier,” she told the audience, then paused for the chuckles. “What, you didn’t notice? Here’s an example: We now have ballet!” Another pause for effect. “They dance topless, of course. But then everything in Las Vegas is topless. It’s the law.”

Comedian Rita Rudner’s comments on stage at Harrah’s weren’t all in jest. The naked truth? Las Vegas does have its own culture and arts scene. And not all of it involves exposed body parts.

I have to admit, though, that our favorite performance, during a five-day whirlwind girls’ getaway to Sin City, did. Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil’s witty, satirical, and sensual extravaganza skillfully, uh, straddled the line between artistic and bawdy.

Let me mention that Crazy Horse Paris, which advertises as an artistic nude show, isn’t. Artistic, that is, unless you consider random incongruities artistic.

Now don’t get the idea that we booked only nudey shows. Sure, we could have seen Mamma Mia!, Spamalot, The Producers, or a variety of other higher brow productions. Most of us had seen the Broadway shows, however, and my goal was to experience culture as one can only find it in Vegas (where, as the saying goes, it must stay). For the city of neon boast its own brand of art, and you find it places expected and unlikely along the Strip and beyond.

Fine Art Finds
The Bellagio hotel, smack in the center of the Strip, dazzles you as you enter the lobby with its knock-you-speechless ceiling by artist Dale Chihuly. Called Fiori de Como, it consists of a bouquet of two thousand hand-blown glass flowers. When the sun sets, the hotel’s magical nighttime fountain show can also be considered a work of art itself.

The Bellagio’s Gallery of Fine Art hosts major traveling art exhibitions featuring works by artists like Ansel Adams and Picasso. Through December 2008, the American Modernism exhibition spotlights turn-of-the-twentieth-century art, including works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, and Arshile Gorky.

Not to be outdone, the Venetian resort is home to the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, where changing exhibits from the collections of its two namesake art repositories have included master artworks from Picasso, Monet, Cezanne, and more. The hotel’s Streetmosphere Performances in the Grand Canal Shoppes further add to its cultural cachet with living statues, roving violinists, and other acts.

Other hotels decorate property-wide with pieces of fine commissioned artworks. THEhotel at Mandalay Bay, for instance, boasts an Arturo Herrera mural behind the registration desk and Andy Warhol prints in the foyer.

Away from the glitter and glitz of the Strip, the Red Rock Hotel in the up-and-coming Summerlin community decorates with the works of such name artists as Paul McCarthy, Takashi Murakami, and Vik Muniz. Also off-Strip, the Las Vegas Art Museum rotates its exhibitions of masterful contemporary works.

Fine-art galleries blanket the city, from the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) to the Art of Peter Max Gallery in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, where I also watched a living-statues performance of mythical proportion. The Strip’s historic downtown district is becoming known for its arts scene, specifically the Arts Factory, a funky collection of studios and host to First Friday art night celebrations.

The Art of Imitation
With its Elvis impersonators, illusionists, and faux European architecture, Las Vegas has mastered the art of creating knock-off fantasy. Shopping-entertainment centers such as the Forum Shops and the Miracle Mile Shops give visitors the sensation of strolling city streets under air-conditioned blue skies. Paris Las Vegas resort takes you up in the Eiffel Tower and seats you in a sidewalk brasserie. At the Venetian, you can ride a gondola or gaze up at frescoed dome ceilings à la the Sistine Chapel.

New York New York Hotel & Casino whisks you to the Big Apple without the traffic and attitude for an all-American hot dog and a rooftop roller coaster ride. Go medieval at Excalibur hotel or Polynesian at the Mirage. Watch volcanoes erupt, visit a lion habitat, applaud pretend Beatles, or walk through a tropical rainforest: Vegas has got your fantasy covered. Faux real!

A Little Razzle and Dazzle
Nothing glitters like Vegas. It’s a rhinestone town, and to delve into its sparkly legacy, you must visit the Liberace Museum, a short drive off the Strip. Here, Wes Winters pays tribute to the shinier-than-life showman on Liberace’s own rhinestone-studded piano. The museum also holds more of the musician’s flamboyant costumes, cars, and instruments, plus some pieces of fine art and furniture from his estate.

The Neon Museum is another place to explore the city’s shimmer, but walking down the Strip and popping into the strobing casinos are enough to put you into sensory overload. The flashy floor and stage shows take it all over the top.

Stripping and Las Vegas are synonymous, and the celebration of the human body, as Rita Rudner pointed out, is practically mandated. From skimpy clothing on the streets and topless adult swimming pools to endless strip clubs and even “Stripper 101” classes that teach pole and lap dancing, Vegas thrives on liberal attitudes and sexual freedom.

So it’s little wonder that Zumanity evolved from Cirque du Soleil’s pricey brand of upscale, European-style circus entertainment to debut in Las Vegas. Part burlesque, part cabaret, it titillates all senses. Our celebration of the body also took the form of massages at the beautiful Aquae Sulis Spa at the JW Marriott in Summerlin. Its treatments put a creative spin on the typical with such offerings as Fire & Ice Massage and Cherry Mud Wrap.

If the risqué is not your idea of theater, Las Vegas does offer options along more conventional lines. The Nevada Ballet Theatre, contrary to Rudner’s jesting, does not perform topless. Neither does the Las Vegas Philharmonic. UNLV offers a variety of performing arts at its concert hall, black-box theater, and traditional 550-seat theater.

Art on the Plate
And now for my favorite form of Las Vegas art. Celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, and Bobby Flay have elevated the restaurant landscape on the Strip and off way above the buffet standard of old. In addition, to the benefit of art lovers on all levels, many of the best restaurants enhance the meal with fine commissioned art displayed throughout their space.

Our favorite experience took us to Vintner Grill in Summerlin, well worth the twenty-minute trip from the Strip. Here in a dramatic setting of art, sheik’s tents, and chic modern decor, chef Matthew Silverman whips up masterpieces such as golden heirloom tomato gazpacho, grilled pesto shrimp “BLT,” wild salmon with celery root puree, chocolate tiramisu, and flights of paired cheese and Vosges chocolate.

Other recommendations include anything at the Venetian’s TAO Asian Bistro, the chili cheese fries at Caramel in the Bellagio (the chili’s made with Kobe beef; also try the lychee martini), the tabbouleh salad at MGM Grand’s Studio Cafe, and the French-boned chicken wings at Spago in Caesars Palace.

So next time you’re looking for an art-intensive getaway, forget New York, Paris, and Venice. Get it all, or at least a facsimile of all, in one spot: Vegas, baby.

Chelle Koster Walton is the cuisine and travel editor for Times of the Islands and RSW Living.