Stephanie Balzer | February 14, 2023

The Art in Vegas Edition

On Akhob, Meow Wolf, and Shepard Fairey

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Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart
Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart

Omega Mart at AREA15 is the city’s most popular curated artistic attraction, housed in an old warehouse off the Strip. It's compared to a Picasso or Monet blockbuster show, with an aura of DIY credibility.

Stephanie Balzer (SB) is a writer, coach, and founder of Mission.  

Stephanie here. In 2014, I attended a conference for researchers and data analysts in higher education at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Everything about the experience was new to me—I’d never been to the Strip for work before, and hadn’t been at all in years. 

Vegas, I would have told you, wasn’t my scene. And yet, I remember walking through the Cosmo’s conference center halls and thinking, “I like that painting.” Then, “Wait, that can’t be right, can it?” 

Over the course of a few days, between seminars and networking events, more and more installations, photographs, and digital displays caught my eye from artists all over the world. I had to grapple with the idea that this wasn’t your average “hotel art.” 

I realized I might be a Vegas person after all. 

It wasn’t only because my suite offered condoms next to the mixed nuts in the mini bar. (Did they mean this to be funny?) It was also the milky pink Venetian glass chandeliers that looked like beautiful sea creatures dropping from the ceiling outside the Boulevard Tower elevators. It was the towering columns in the lobby that projected digital displays of strange and wonderful images, including “Voyage,” a gigantic glowing library of old books (also funny). 

Perhaps the Strip wasn’t only a place where you could sleep in Paris, tuck a dollar in a Chippendale’s thong, and buy a plastic calculator shaped like a yellow M&M all in the same day.

Something else was going on. It was the mishmash of culture in near proximity. Everywhere you turned there was more art, hidden in plain sight, across from poker tables and slot machines.

A few months later, I went back to Vegas, this time for pleasure. A poet friend in L.A. recommended that we check out Akhob, the James Turrell immersive art experience tucked away on the fourth floor of the Louis Vuitton store in The Shops at Crystals. 

Akhob is like stepping into a sensory deprivation tank of pastel light. It’s a bath you only enjoy for 15 minutes, however, while accompanied by a polite, chatty host who is there to ensure that no one gets rowdy or hurt.

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Why is this interesting? 

When the opportunity to move to Vegas presented itself three years later, I leapt at the chance—in part due to these encounters with art.

Southern Nevada is one of the largest metros in the U.S. without an accredited art museum, but there’s visual and installation art, murals, and sculptures everywhere you look. Some of it is decorative and complementary in nature, sure. Casinos want you to be impressed but also stay in the zone of feel-good fun. 

Here, art is a secret brand beneath the wrapping of a city of sin. Part of the value lies in discovering it for yourself—it becomes something to take in after the money runs out and the party winds down. For locals like me, it is a scavenger hunt. An experience that’s been gamified by accident. 

The Aria, for example, advertises a tour of its fine art collection, which includes 23 installation pieces from artists such as Maya Lin, Sanford Biggers, and Frank Stella, among others. But the tour, it turns out, is self-guided. The concierge desk even stopped printing the tri-fold tour maps and instead tells you just  to look at a PDF of the print version on your phone. Imagine trying to read the brochure as it squirrels around under your thumbs, then wandering around the property, lost and disoriented in time and space. That’s the tour.

Akbob isn’t advertised either. And while you can find information on The Cosmo’s art collection in general on its website, if you want to know about a specific artist or piece, you’re Googling on your own. 

I only discovered “Vegas,” a 7-panel painting of waves and clouds at the Delano, by accident when I met friends there for dinner. I recognized it as Sush Machida’s work because he’s my neighbor. 

Then there’s “Tulips,” Jeff Koons’ metallic sculpture, acquired for nearly $34 million, which sits amidst the Wynn Plaza Shops. Down the way is Takashi Murakami and Virgil Abloh multi-media sculpture, “Arrows and Flower Neon Sign.” I walk past both, and their security guards, all the time. I’m usually the only one who stops to look.

For years, casinos tried to build on the concept of a traditional gallery, and The Bellagio still has one. (Remember Julia Roberts played a gallery curator in the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven?) But Santa Fe-arts collective Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart at AREA15 is probably the city’s most popular curated artistic attraction. 

Meow Wolf’s heavy advertisements turn it into the equivalent of a Piccaso or Monet blockbuster show, except it has an aura of DIY credibility and is housed in an old warehouse off the Strip. And because it is hyped so much, it adds even more currency to the allusivity of the resort collections. Luxury does not like to be loud.

Meow Wolf

Maybe art in Vegas works better broken up and strewn about, or maybe this is a temporary waystation in a city that’s perpetually anew. It’s tough to believe this secret brand is accidental, though, when every other casino aesthetic element is intentional and controlled, from the loud carpets, to the nondescript clubby version of elevator music, to the floral or beachy scents. 

Speaking of scents, I finally figured out that The Cosmo smells like a mall, which is to say an amalgam of new clothes, makeup and perfume, electronics, and leather. Oh, and make sure you check out the murals and graffiti art along the Cosmo’s parking garage walls—the Shepard Fairey is my favorite. 

Pass it on. (SB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Stephanie (SB)

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