Casino hubs Macau, Las Vegas, use art to draw visitors from around the world

With the five-month Art Macao event now drawing to a close, the Macau government has been quick to call it a success. The wide-ranging event saw 21 international art exhibitions, 6 outdoor art installations, 11 large-scale performances and 3 international youth festivals presented at more than 50 locations across the city. The gambling industry prominently participated in the event, helping to bring some of the most notable exhibitions to Macau, and the city’s Cultural Affairs Bureau has claimed that more than 16 million of the 17 million visitors during that time period participated in the city-wide event. While the Bureau’s definition of ‘participate’ may be relatively loose, Macau is clearly growing into its new image as a hub of fine art, much as Las Vegas is doing across the Pacific.

Damien Hirst’s Unknown Bar shark installation at the Palms Casino Resort

Las Vegas might have a slight early adopter’s edge over Macau on art tourism, thanks to the organic explosion in its downtown art scene several years ago. Downtown’s Life is Beautiful music and art festival, started in 2013, has seen a sell out attendance of 175,000 in recent years. The city has also recently seen high budget investments in the private arena, most notably at the Palms Casino Resort. The off-strip casino, which recently completed a $620 million renovation, hired creative director Tal Cooperman from the Los Angeles street-art scene to ensure that the casino would not only be visually stunning, but feature notable works from contemporary artists. Embracing Las Vegas’ “anything goes” image, the Palms now features such notable pieces as the Damien Hirst-designed bar which is now dominated by one of Hirst’s preserved sharks “swimming” above the liquor bottles and a Dustin Yellin chilling Psychogeographies. Pieces more commonly seen in art galleries across the world now sit near slot machines and next to dinner guests.

After a VIP gambling crackdown, Macau has struggled to match the peak GGR it attained in 2014. However, tourism numbers have remained strong, and mass GGR has shown signs of improving at a much faster rate than VIP GGR, due to tourists coming to the city for more than just gambling. The recently completed Morpheus building at the City of Dreams complex is a visual masterpiece, and Melco isn’t leaving it up to guesswork who designed the building – Zaha Hadid, the-now retired Iraqi architect. At Morpheus, the building is the art, and Hadid is the artist. Similar to Palms, the building also features several contemporary art installations. While walking through the shopping center, you may bump into Fat Convertible by Erwin Wurm, a funny contrast to the Ferraris often seen in the City of Dreams. Look up, and you may find yourself under the glimmering Continuel Lumière au Plafond by Julio Le Parc. While City of Dreams might not have the mass of individual installations Palms has, the various views of Morpheus more than make up for it.

A map of exhibitions for Art Macao

Art Macao has made huge strides in helping develop an appreciation of and platform for art in Macau. The event, held for the first time in 2019, saw a private/public collaboration to bring an unheard-of number of simultaneous art events to Macau. The gambling industry’s participation was not mandatory, but they ended up spearheading the movement. Head over to the official Art Macao program and one sees many familiar names. Borrowing from the collections of the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, Galaxy Entertainment created a fine art tribute to legendary movie star Grace Kelly. Melco presented the more contemporary Unexpected Encounters, a structured showcase of art the company has recently invested in. MGM sponsored a display of the delicate inkwork of Jennifer Wen Ma which emphasized the artist’s Chinese heritage. And Sands China hired curator Caroline Cheng to put together a gallery of over 80 masterpieces of ceramic artwork from around the globe.

Art Macao is already set to return in a similar format for a second year; Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture Alexis Tam said that he hopes “in future we can continue with this effort to build Macau as an art brand.” Both Las Vegas and Macau are, each in their own way and perhaps unexpectedly, growing fine art into a tourism draw. And, while Las Vegas’s private and organic efforts are admirable, Art Macao’s concentrated effort to encourage visitors to explore the city’s temporary, but pervasive, blanket of art might well be something Las Vegas can learn from.