Liberace Museum to Shut Down in Las Vegas
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LAS VEGAS (Sept. 11) – The Liberace Museum, long one of this city's best-known and unusual attractions, is shutting down next month, the latest victim of a brutal recession that has hit Nevada particularly hard.
A singular landmark since its opening in 1979, the two-building spread topped by a skyward sculpture of a keyboard contains thousands of artifacts from the career of its namesake, who once reigned in the Strip's showrooms by pounding sonatas out of rhinestone-encrusted pianos while donning outlandish sequined capes.
The museum is operated by the Liberace Foundation, whose board chairman announced plans for closure today and said his organization would narrow its focus to raising money for the music scholarships it has awarded for decades. More than 30 employees will lose their jobs.
Liberace Foundation board chairman Jeffrey Koep told AOL News the organization's endowment has shrunk from $12 million to $5 million because of the stock market's meltdown at the same time visitation has fallen from 450,000 in the museum's heyday to 50,000 last year. The amount of scholarship money given out has fallen from as much as $500,000 a year to $65,000 in 2010.
The foundation owns the entire strip mall where the museum is located about three miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, but vacancies have curtailed the rental revenues as well. That distance from Vegas' major resort corridor also hamstrung the attraction, Koep said. Some artifacts, including several of Liberace's awards, pianos, candelabras and outfits, may be shown in other cities on a tour.
"In order to keep the museum open, we have had to go into our endowment account, and we're hitting a point where we can't do that anymore," Koep said.
This news comes on the heels of last year's closure of the Las Vegas Art Museum, leaving Las Vegas as the largest city in America without a public arts museum. Two Guggenheim-related outposts at the Venetian Las Vegas resort also have closed in recent years. In 2007, casino mogul Steve Wynn replaced a museum at the Wynn Las Vegas showing off his private art collection with a Rolex store.
Still, the news is not all bleak for the arts scene in Las Vegas. A monthly festival in the downtown area draws thousands who hopscotch between small independent galleries, and MGM Resorts International spent $40 million on a public art program for its 67-acre CityCenter complex on the Strip that includes pieces by Maya Lin, Henry Moore and other major figures. Also, two museums dedicated to the history of the mob are due to open by the end of 2011.
But for all things Liberace, this has been a bad year. AOL News reported in March that a Vegas home he once owned, which has been used in recent decades as an events hall, is in foreclosure. The foundation does not own the home and is in no way involved in its upkeep, though the property and the museum did face a common challenge: significantly waning interest in (or even awareness of) the gaudy musician, who died in 1987.
"It's always been something our customers have talked about and written about and made mention of return visits," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter. "It's something that, since it opened, has always been a significant attraction in Vegas. But I think that people who would even know who Liberace was are dying off. Young kids don't care about Liberace."
Liberace's dwindling fan base is one reason Rebecca Zisch, the museum's first professional curator, tried to expand the center's focus to include other more modern Vegas stars when she was hired in 1999 from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She left the museum in 2000 and has remained active in the Las Vegas arts scene.
"It could have been a museum for the history of entertainment in Las Vegas," Zisch said. "That was the ultimate plan, but it was never enacted. That's unfortunate."
Koep said the board hopes to reopen some day when its fiscal situation and the Vegas economy are stronger. They have sought alternative locations for the museum closer to or on the Strip, but are still looking.
He added that a much-discussed Steven Soderbergh biopic about Liberace, set to star Michael Douglas as the pianist and Matt Damon as his lover, would "give us a shot in the arm." Douglas, in an interview with USA Today about his recent throat cancer diagnosis, said he still plans to make the film.
Curtis is doubtful any casino property would take an interest in showing Liberace's memorabilia, given the drop in his cultural currency.
"It doesn't seem to really jive," he said. "This is sort of a link to the past and old Vegas, and I don't think anyone's going to want it unless it goes into one of the aging Strip properties."
Beyond the loss of the cultural attraction, the museum's closure also means the end of its showroom's three-year run as a performing outlet for singers and songwriters employed in Broadway shows on the Strip.
Keith Thompson, the conductor for the Vegas production of "Jersey Boys," has been hosting a monthly Composers Showcase in the Liberace Museum showroom since April 2007. The Liberace showroom, he said, has been a rare artistic oasis in this desert locale, which lacks the kind of venues found in large performing communities such as New York and San Francisco.
It also was appreciated by locals; the events consistently drew capacity crowds and a fundraiser last year brought in more than $15,000 to upgrade its audio equipment.
"It was just such a jewel," Thompson said. "We will look for those spaces, because the performers need an outlet. They need some place to express themselves away from their jobs."