Pop Culture on the Rocks: Lost Guggenheims, Fallen Showgirls and the Liberace Museum

The last time I visited the Liberace Museum, an older woman invited me to try on a giant, patchwork coat. Providing the requisite opportunity for participation the way almost all American museums now do, this coat allowed visitors to feel the added weight Liberace experienced while parading across the stage in one of his elaborate garments.  The woman overseeing the coat was a museum volunteer and clearly a lifelong Liberace fan.  As I tried on the 40 lb garment and posed for the camera, she let us know the coat’s cacophony of shimmering  fabrics were handmade by another volunteer and consisted of fragments from the ensembles of former showgirls.

The room in which I tried on the coat was the highlight of the museum: the costume gallery. Spread across two buildings in a strip mall on east Tropicana Avenue, the Liberace Museum showcased five primary collections; biographical photographs, a handful of vehicles, and a melange of pianos were displayed in the building nearest Tropicana Avenue, while the space on the other side of the parking lot housed the costume collection and selections of Liberace’s Baroque home furniture.

Costume gallery, Liberace Museum, 2008

This week, the Liberace Museum closed indefinitely. While many news sources have reported on this closure since its announcement in early September, I suspect few people under the age of fifty actually visited the physical space.  Dave Hickey’s seminal essay “A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz” in 1997 book Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy provided incentive to visit and reconsider the value of Liberace to American society’s acceptance of the gay community. Likewise, Lady Gaga’s popularity and overt derivations from the piano star’s approach to celebrity suggest Liberace remains relevant to contemporary audiences (see Eric Felten’s “Lady Gaga and Liberace: Separated at Birth?”). Yet, the two instances I visited suggested there was not an enormous body of Las Vegas visitors clamoring to get into the modest space so far east on Tropicana Avenue that the museum ran free, hourly shuttles to and from the hotels on the Strip.  The one occasion I took the shuttle back to the Strip (as opposed to taking a $30 cab ride or renting a car; public transportation is reportedly not for tourists) the only other party enjoying the footage of Liberace performances shown on the shuttle’s TV was a group of three from Australia visiting Las Vegas for a week.

Liberace Museum, 2008

In general, Americans do not visit Las Vegas for the form of culture found in museums. Some have suggested that the closing of the Liberace Museum might be attributed to its isolated location, away from the tourist areas of the city. While the free shuttle was one solution to this concern, the closure of museums throughout Sin City over the past decade demonstrates that its site was not the only reason for the Liberace Museum’s demise.

In some ways, museums seem a natural fit for Las Vegas between of the constant flow of people in and out of the city and the high concentration of resident performers, architects, designers and other creative individuals required to support the entertainment excess for which Vegas it is known. Considering how the shopping, dining, sexual opportunities, spectacle and general branding as a place where one can do anything without regret play a significant role in Las Vegas “culture,” it is easy to forget that gaming is the single reason for the city’s position as a destination in America.  Gambling makes all other things Las Vegas is known for possible, and ultimately, all roads in the city’s tourist districts lead to (and are paid for by) gaming.  This situation creates an interesting relationship with culture, particularly because Las Vegas has spent so many decades creating a culture around gambling that makes it appealing to a mass audience, as opposed to only those who consider themselves “gamblers.” Contemporary popular culture is essential in Las Vegas’s ability to sell itself, and hence the city is designed to reflect the most present of moments in American consciousness.

In the 1990s Sin City capitalized on the public desires for “edutainment” and family friendly activities through the addition of cultural amenities to casinos.  A few remnants of this era still exist, including the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and the Mandalay Bay’s American Zoo and Aquariums Association accredited Shark Reef. The Venetian Casino opened two museums affiliated with the Guggenheim and designed by Rem Koolhaas in 2001: the Guggenheim Las Vegas and the Guggenheim Hermitage.  The Guggenheim Las Vegas exhibited only The Art of the Motorcycle before its closure in  2002. The Guggenheim Hermitage lasted until 2008, showing works from the collection of its namesake Russian institution and the New York affiliate by big-name modern painters, such as Picasso, Lichtenstein, Mondrian and Kandinsky, among others.

Guggenheim Hermitage, Venetian Resort Casino, 2001, image from rex-ny.com

When the Guggenheims opened in the Venetian, they made sense in terms of the casino’s theme through their adherence to the American perception of Italy as a place for high culture and artistic mastery. Yet the permanence and preservation that  define museums are antitheses to the way visitors approach Las Vegas, as a place without a past, consequences or a future that is definitive; anything can happen with a roll of the dice. Likewise, museums defined by history struggle to find a place in the community (both tourist community and residential community) of such a place; here, “Las Vegas history” is merely a theme equated to the “French Riviera,” “Old West” and “Tropical Islands” represented within the casinos .

The role of Las Vegas’s history is made clear on the Zeigfield Stage in the Bally’s Casino, where Jubilee! continues as last remaining showgirl production on The Strip.  Similar to the fate of its museums, Las Vegas has seen a dramatic loss in the showgirl productions that once dominated the city, beginning most prominently with the closing of the Stardust’s famed productions in 1999 and the end of the Tropicana’s Folies Bergère in 2009. 

Jubilee! perseveres in an almost parodic production that includes an original “Titanic” number that borders on the absurd; when I attended a performance earlier this year I found myself surrounded almost entirely by tourists from Asia.  The vintage styling of the rhinestone costumes, pronounced smiles and homemade backdrops now appear more like the “living history” component of a historical museum than a contemporary performance. If the inclusion of former showgirl outfits in the participatory coat at the Liberace Museum isn’t evidence enough, the showgirl production’s relationship to museums is made even more pronounced by the opportunity to take a formal tour of the Jubilee!’s wardrobe and sets on select days of the week.

Jubilee!, Bally's Casino, image from nytimes.com

As a physical manifestation of popular culture and mainstream American interests, Las Vegas is known to exist in a state of constant flux. Even the community-based Las Vegas Art Museum shut its doors in 2009; hence while Liberace’s legacy may have suggested the museum he built would have an endless audience in Las Vegas, the city in which his career was cemented, a part of me was not surprised when the announcement came that it too would disappear. Las Vegas is not nostalgic, only temporal.  Popular culture does not remember; if it did, at least a portion of the hoards of Lady Gaga fans that visit Las Vegas annually could be expected to flock to Liberace’s pianos and costumes as a means for better appreciating their favorite star.  Instead, I suspect a very small minority of the Little Monsters even know who Mr. Showman was.

Ultimately, the outcry of the press regarding the Liberace Museum’s closure has been surprisingly pronounced for an institution that received relatively little notice when it was doing anything but closing. While there is a natural inclination blame the Las Vegas environment for its lack of recognition of the past, that would be the easy way out. Las Vegas, as a money-driven city, feeds from mainstream trends and culture.  In the case of the Liberace Museum’s closure, the question to ask is the following: what it is that prevented us, the Americans who created what Las Vegas has become, from remembering to visit, or simply remembering at all.