Can Casinos Be Art Galleries?

Hoping to grow their audiences, gambling halls are luring new visitors with old masterpieces

Beyond van Gogh
By adding art exhibitions like “Beyond van Gogh,” casinos are hoping to become known for more than gambling. Courtesy of Timothy Norris / Beyond van Gogh

If guests at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock casino venture to the second level, just above the table games and slot machines on the lavishly decorated casino floor, they will find 30,000 square feet of swirling colors projected onto the walls and floors of a ballroom. 

This is an art gallery—as seen through the filter of Atlantic City extravagance.

Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” projects elements from Vincent van Gogh’s paintings onto the space. Stars flicker in and out; vases of flowers flow into each other. The traveling exhibition, which opened in Atlantic City this month, is expected to draw some 100,000 visitors to the New Jersey casino, per Philadelphia Weekly’s Chuck Darrow.

The show’s goal is to make Atlantic City more than “just a gaming destination,” casino president Joe Lupo tells Wayne Parry of the Associated Press (AP). “The van Gogh exhibit has been successful in every major market in the country, and Atlantic City needs to be looked at as one of those major markets.”

Across the country, casinos like the Hard Rock are hoping to lure new audiences with fine art and immersive art experiences, reports the AP. In Las Vegas, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art has displayed works by van Gogh, as well as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Andy Warhol. In London, the Hippodrome Casino hosts an art competition that it bills as a chance for artists to display their work “at one of the most prestigious casinos in the world.”

As part of a $620 million renovation, Palms, the iconic Las Vegas casino and resort, opened a collection of contemporary and street art in 2018, featuring more than 100 works by the likes of Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, reported CNBC’s Jimmy Im at the time. The following year, Palms announced it would hang Las Vegas’ first permanent Bansky piece in its lobby restaurant. 

“We’re seeing more and more that guests … want to be impressed visually and experientially,” creative director Tal Cooperman told CNBC. “We are in a hyper-visual society that has created even more interest in art.”

These new galleries perhaps align with broader trends in casino design. Until recent decades, the biggest name in casino design psychology was Bill Friedman, who studied dozens of Nevada casinos to determine what makes people spend money. His conclusion: Low ceilings and labyrinthine layouts beat lavish decor, and the design’s exclusive purpose should be to place the gambling machines front and center. As Friedman told the New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer in 2012, casinos should draw people in and make it hard for them to leave.

But these days, casinos have moved toward an opposing philosophy, sometimes dubbed “playground design.” Championed by designer Roger Thomas, the idea is to surround guests with extravagance and luxury; in these spaces, they are more likely to spend money and take risks. 

“[T]he traditional layout makes no sense,” Thomas told the New Yorker. “People don’t want to make bets when they feel trapped or overwhelmed or confused.”

Instead, he argued, “People tend to take on the characteristics of a room. They feel glamorous in a glamorous space and rich in a rich space.”

Surrounding guests with famous art could be a step in this direction. For “Beyond van Gogh,” at least, the goal is very much tied up with how the displays make people feel. Even though no original paintings are on view, the exhibition is billed as an “experience,” a chance for visitors to feel immersed in famous art. (Whether “Beyond van Gogh” and similarly immersive experiences constitute fine art is another debate entirely.)  

“The whole point of an experience like this is to bring people in,” Fanny Curtat, the exhibition’s art historian, tells the AP. “For a lot of people, museums are intimidating. It’s all about exploring and having more ways of experiencing art.”

Curtat argues that displaying art in casinos will appeal to audiences in both directions. If casinos can make gamblers out of art lovers, perhaps they can make art lovers out of gamblers, too. 

Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” is on view at the Hard Rock casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, through August 28.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.