Picasso in Vegas

Picasso in Vegas

As a first-of-its-kind auction arrives at Bellagio, Jonathan Griffin reveals how MGM Resorts International is securing its reputation as an innovative centre for art
As a first-of-its-kind auction arrives at Bellagio, Jonathan Griffin reveals how MGM Resorts International is securing its reputation as an innovative centre for art

L as Vegas pays little attention to its naysayers. Thumbing its nose at those who consider it unworthy of the international status it enjoys, the city consistently attracts the highest calibre practitioners in virtually every cultural field. The finest chefs open restaurants there; the biggest acts in live entertainment perform there; the best sportsmen and women compete there; the most sought-after architects build there.

A dining table with glasses on it and a painted portrait of a man wearing a hat above it
Bellagio’s Picasso restaurant features works such as Picasso’s Pierrot, 1917. his page Photo: © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the spirit of such superlatives, at the Picasso restaurant in Las Vegas’s Bellagio resort, diners can savour Spanish chef Julián Serrano’s warm quail salad and butter poached Maine lobster beside windows that open onto the resort’s euphoric musical fountain display, while original paintings, drawings and ceramics by Pablo Picasso hang on every wall.

Las Vegas has traditionally never been wary of appearing too obvious, too “on the nose”. On my first visit to the city, I remember walking through Bellagio’s lavish conservatory garden, while parakeets hopped amongst the foliage and U2’s Beautiful Day played from hidden speakers. It was undeniable, perfect on its own terms, even transcendent. When, some years later, I was fortunate to be invited to dine at Picasso, the dessert course was a huge purple sugar sphere, marbled like a bowling ball, which I cracked with my spoon to reveal several smaller desserts inside. It was magnificent, unashamed of its opulence, and utterly delicious.

On 23 October, 11 works by Picasso from the restaurant will be offered in an evening sale held by Sotheby’s in Las Vegas. The first time Sotheby’s has ever conducted a marquee evening sale in North America outside of New York, the event will take place in a recreation of its New York saleroom inside Bellagio. Accompanying this sale will be an exhibition of luxury property, including automobiles, jewellery, watches, sneakers and handbags, on view at MGM’s Aria resort from October 21–24, and available at auction on Sothebys.com and at Sotheby's New York at the end of October.

Painting of a woman with green hair wearing a beret
Pablo Picasso, Femme au béret (Woman with Beret), 1938. Photo: © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When it opened in 1998, Bellagio was the first resort in the city to distinguish itself with a commitment to exhibiting fine art at the very highest level. (Founder Steve Wynn is a noted art collector, most famously the former owner of Picasso’s masterpiece Le Rêve, which he sold to Steve Cohen in 2013 for $155 million.) Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art has presented works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol and Ansel Adams, among other titans of the canon, as well as themed exhibitions of contemporary art.

Silver sculpture in front of large windows
Maya Lin’s Silver River, 2009, at Aria Resort & Casino. Photo: MGM Resorts International

Works of art both historical and contemporary appear throughout the properties operated by MGM Resorts International, which boasts in its portfolio not only Bellagio but also MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, Park MGM, Delano Las Vegas and Aria Resort & Casino, among others. The MGM Resorts Fine Art Collection has grown in depth and breadth over the last 20 years. Some pieces, such as Maya Lin’s sculpture Silver River (which stretches panoramically above Aria’s registration desk), are permanent works of public art, while others rotate periodically, such as the quarterly exhibitions of local artists at Delano. Ninety-five percent of the collection is on display at any one time. MGM Resorts has also been involved in the commissioning of public art pieces, most notably Ugo Rondinone’s vibrant Land Art installation Seven Magic Mountains, unveiled in 2016 in the Nevada Desert 10 miles south of Las Vegas.

Three multi-coloured sculptures in a desert
Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains, 2016–21, on interstate 15 near Las Vegas. Photo: © 2021 Ugo Rondinone

Since 1998, and especially within the last few years, priorities for the MGM Collection have been evolving, however. “Diversity has been part of our DNA in this company for a really long time,” says Ari Kastrati, chief hospitality officer for MGM Resorts. “We thought that it was time for us to double down and further our commitment to diversity, here in the art space; we want to give a voice to underrepresented artists.” The sale by Sotheby’s of these works by Picasso will allow the collection to broaden its support of high calibre artists whose names might be less well known to many of MGM Resorts’ visitors.

Large foyer with white fabric hanging off of a golden structure
Sadamasa Motonaga's Work (Water), 1956, at Aria Resort & Casino. Photo: MGM Resorts International
“Diversity has been part of our DNA for a long time; we want to give a voice to underrepresented artists”
Ari Kastrati, chief hospitality officer for MGM Resorts

Demecina Beehn, curator for MGM Resorts Art & Culture, also points out that to include living, underrepresented artists in such a prestigious and highly visible corporate collection offers significant support to them in their careers. Kastrati says that the company recognises its responsibility to educate its patrons as well as entertain them: “Our goal is to create an environment where questions are asked – and answered – in the appropriate way.”

A gallery featuring two artworks depicting boxers
An installation view from Bellagio's Leather Throwers exhibition, featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat's Sugar Ray Robinson, 1982 and Andy Warhol's Ali, 1977. Photo: © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Despite such changes, Picasso – both the artist and the restaurant – is here to stay. The thriving restaurant will continue under Serrano’s culinary direction, rehung so that most guests will not notice the missing masterpieces. (There are currently 23 works by Picasso installed on its walls, along with photographs of the artist.) Kastrati says that, surprisingly, there were never safety or security concerns about such valuable pieces hanging in a busy restaurant. Most are protected behind acrylic or glass, and are hung at heights that place them out of reach of stray food or curious fingers.

The joyous, late-period Buste d’homme currently hangs above an array of liquor bottles behind the restaurant bar. It was painted between January 1969 and February 1970, around the same time as the imposing Homme et enfant, one of the largest works made by the Spanish master, which dominates the restaurant’s foyer. A tender work showing a bearded father sheltering the smaller figure of a child wearing a pointed Pierrot’s hat, Homme et enfant reflects the 88-year-old artist’s awareness of his own mortality, as well as his position in a line of patrimony – both metaphorical and actual. (The bearded man resembles Picasso’s own father more than Picasso himself.)

A painting of a man and child, created using a mixture of reds, blues, greens and yellows
Pablo Picasso, Personnages II (Figures II), 1969. Photo: © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Perhaps the standout work in the sale is Picasso’s Femme au béret rouge-orange, an exceedingly rare portrait of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter painted in 1938, the year he met and fell in love with Dora Maar. The painting, which Picasso retained in his personal collection for many years, is fond and admiring, even as he was transferring his devotion to another woman.

When they are deaccessioned from the MGM Collection this October, these paintings will no longer have to compete with Bellagio’s dancing fountains or Chef Serrano’s spectacular desserts. Instead, new art treasures will find their way into MGM properties around the world, and will help redefine what a future generation chooses to revere and celebrate.

MGM Resorts × Sotheby’s: A Celebration of Art, Luxury and Culture takes place in Las Vegas, US from 21–24 October

LEAD IMAGE: The Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. Photo: MGM Resorts International

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