When the Dark Mountain of the Fine Art World Fell

Artist couple, elli and john milan

John and I are in a private cocktail lounge at the Wynn in Las Vegas just days before Christmas. It’s the end of 2012. This is supposed to be the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. But we are dressed in our best formal cocktail attire and feeling excited, nervous, and like we are living a dream.

Only a couple of months before, I got a phone call that would change my life forever.

Opportunity Comes Knocking, but What's the Catch?

“Hi, this is David. I’m contacting you on behalf of the World of Art Showcase. We have chosen the top living artists from around the world to participate in an exhibition in Las Vegas this December 20th to 22nd. Are you interested?”

David had a British accent but I was trying to decide if it was phony or not. I had my doubts and was sick of all the art scams, so thought I would bypass the flattery carrot and get to the bottom line. “Okay, how much and how much space?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It won’t cost you anything. We would be honored to have you and your husband, John, and you can honestly have as much space as you like.”

No way! I thought. This can’t be true. There was a catch and I was going to find it. “So where is this big art show and who is putting it on?”

“Yes, of course. The show will be held in the ballrooms of the Wynn Resort. Owners of Jerry’s Artarama, Jerry and Ira Goldstein, are investing millions into this show. They have hired a top PR company who are actively promoting as we speak. Go online and you can learn all about it and see the other artists involved.”

“Let me understand. John and I can come to Vegas and put as much art on the walls of a ballroom at the Wynn and not pay you anything? How can that be?”

John milan in the art studio packaging paintings

“We will take a 30% commission from all sales. You are responsible for getting your artwork to the show and providing marketing assets, but yes, that’s right, all expenses paid.”

“I don’t get it – why aren’t you charging for the showrooms? Or taking a bigger commission? How will they make their money back? What is the catch?”

He chuckled a bit. “They will make money, don’t worry. No one is trying to take advantage of you. Jerry and his son, Ira, honor artists and have a long history of collecting art through their generations. They have spared no expense to make history with this show. Never before have so many world-renowned artists been gathered in one place at one time. They have hired over 200 salespeople to manage the sales for the artists so all you have to do is show up with your artwork and be the artist. So what do you say? Are you ready to be a part of history?”

That last bit got me. “I am. Let me take a minute to check this out and I will call you back this afternoon with a final answer.”

“Fair enough. We’ll talk soon.”

Running Through the Progressions of a Life-Changing Opportunity 

I stood there with my phone in my hand, stunned and completely reeling. I had never been offered anything close to this. I ran through the details in my mind.

  • WHO: Jerry’s Artarama, a legit business serving artists, wouldn’t want scandal.
  • WHY: They were personally investing millions. They were on the hook. They must profit.
  • WHERE: Location, the Wynn Resort, owned by Steve Wynn, the largest living art collector.
  • WHEN: December 20th through 22nd – busiest time in Las Vegas. It will be packed.
  • HOW MUCH: Totally free. What do I have to lose?

I researched the show for ten minutes online as my heart soared and my belly fluttered with excitement. There were too many articles to read about the show, like it was the most premier art event of the century. Celebrity artists like Vladimir Kush, Nelson Shanks, Cesar Santos, and many others would headline the event. I felt honored to be grouped in with these famous artists and started to feel like truly this show was significant to shift culture and would make history.

The World of Art Showcase - Las Vegas

The Opening Reception - Making Friends in the Artist Sandbox

Fast forward to the Wynn and a waiter in a black bow tie brings a silver tray of tiny spoons filled with a morsel of culinary delight for us to try while sipping our cocktails. This is the official opening reception for artists only – a chance to meet each other. I’m standing there feeling a bit stupid, fidgeting around, not knowing what to do with myself. Normally at events like these, I’d be talking with collectors and wouldn’t have to insert myself in any conversations. I’m looking around at all the artists who are looking confident, successful, and like they already know everyone. There are at least three different groups near me and I’m trying to see where I can jump in. I’m feeling like a schoolgirl trying to get in on a Double Dutch jump rope – hands up, bobbing in and out – looking for the perfect moment to take the leap.

At that moment an exuberant woman and her husband come up to us and introduce themselves: “I’m Debbie Arambula and this is my husband, Steve. I’m the Heart Artist. Don’t stand there all alone – come sit at our table and meet a bunch of cool artists.”

Perfect! Saved! I was about to jump in somewhere and probably make a fool of myself. I needed this easy inroad to find my ground.

Debbie is the life of the party – except for Csaba Markus, who is strutting around in his Dali mustache, top hat, and cane, loudly squealing in a high-pitched giggle. At Debbie’s table, we meet Daniel E. Greene and his 30-years-younger girlfriend, a sweet artist couple from Poland, and a street artist from Miami named “Nobody.” Debbie and Nobody each have a shtick, Csaba has an interesting mustache, and Daniel has a noticeably young girlfriend. John and I seem really normal in comparison, but we feel like the weirdos. We are trying to keep it cool and not let on that this might be the best weekend of our lives. The others seem like this treatment isn’t so extraordinary and just flow in it.

As the night wears on, we all let our guard down and start talking about the set-up experience earlier that day. “Has anyone done the New York Art Expo show?” I ask. “That was exhausting. I had to hang all those paintings by myself. I was blown away today that they hired professional art installers to get everything lined up and placed how I wanted, even down to moving the lights. Our art was hung in only an hour!”

“Yeah! They truly went all out for us. Did you guys know they rented a bunch of suites on the 8th floor for us to relax in, with snacks and drinks? They even have Carlo’s Bakery cupcakes!” Debbie says, adding to my enthusiasm.

“Whoa! Is that the Cake Boss guy?” I ask.

Caught In the Romance of Making Art History

Then I decide to be real in front of my new friends: “Guys, I’m not trying to be a downer. I’m super grateful to be here. But our exhibit space is in the very worst spot it could be.”

“I saw your showroom and it's in the far back corner of the first ballroom. You are right – it’s like the last space anyone will see. I'm so sorry. But I think with the turnout tomorrow it won’t matter and you will be super successful.”

I’m feeling reassured by my new friend from Poland, but still hugely disappointed. It really stings to have the very worst position in such a prestigious show. It’s not like I’m looking for the best spot, but just not the worst. It feels like a divine appointment to even be here and I’m caught up in the romance of making history. I feel cheated that we wound up in the far back corner.

I had spent most of the afternoon walking around both of the ballrooms to look at all of the work. These ballrooms were not like anything I had ever seen. They were enormous. Each ballroom held at least fifteen aisles of showrooms each with 30 to 100 feet of wall space. Our ballroom alone had around 70 artists. When they asked us how much wall space we wanted I said 60 feet as if I knew what I was talking about. In New York, I had 20 feet, so I thought, let's triple it. That was the extent of my plan. Some of the artists had more and some had less.

The Pinnacle of the Dark Art Mountain 

framers installing artwork at art exhibition

As I walked around, I saw some really incredible art that was truly inspiring. I stayed in Hsin-Yao Tseng’s space the longest, mesmerized by the perfection of his brushstrokes and the richness of his color. His paintings looked effortless in their beauty yet masterfully non-duplicatable.

I also couldn’t help but see the pure darkness of most of the art, particularly from the headliners. There were twenty or so of the most famous artists from around the world and their art felt ensnared in moody, gloomy, sinister debauchery. The paintings were hard to look at. All of the headliners were men and they seemed to like to paint women objectified, half-naked, and victimized. The paintings were over-sexual or violent. I saw creepy suggestions of pedophilia. This was not projection or imagination, but literal depictions of young girls dressed provocatively holding teddy bears and looking traumatized. Why? Why these images? Who would want to live with this?

Near the entrance, I found the main headliner: Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who was the artist behind the vision of the blockbuster movie Aliens. I walked toward the entrance to this smaller ballroom he had to himself and something inside of me recoiled immediately. I could feel a cold damp presence, like the embodiment of terror, wafting my way from the room. I peeked in and saw horrific scenes of lacerated women being raped by toothy, slimy aliens. I turned immediately and ran away quickly. My heart was beating with fright. It was awful. Disgusting. Pure evil. Why was this guy the main attraction?

If this exhibition – this World of Art Showcase – represented the best living artists of our day, why was so much of the art dark? I did not see artwork that inspired me or brought me hope. There were some exceptions, but most of the artwork was hideous or dingy, or depressing. I didn’t see much that was beautiful, hopeful, or inspiring.

Meanwhile, our own art hung in the back, on the farthest wall from the main door. It frustrated me and made me feel defeated by the dark forces that plagued the art world.

Opening Day of the World of Art Showcase

In spite of the frustration of the day before, it is now Opening Day and I am really excited. At 11:00 am the two grand doors of each ballroom will open to the throngs of people waiting in line out front and I will get to be a part of it. John and I are at our showroom at 10:30 am to meet the salesperson assigned to our space. She is really positive and loves our artwork. She reassures us about having the worst spot in the show, saying our artwork is so beautiful and stands out so much that our location won’t matter. I’m thankful we have such a kind salesperson who already believes in us.

We wait for 11:00 with great anticipation. I look at the clock, full of hope and nervous butterflies. I anxiously crunch breath mints, look at the clock again, and calculate how long it might take for someone to make their way all the way to the back. Maybe it will take half an hour? Maybe longer. The butterflies swirl in my gut and my heart beats faster than normal.

It’s 11:00 am. Two security guards walk toward our booth with purpose and stand directly across from our red horse painting entitled, Government. They position themselves in front of two double doors I hadn’t paid attention to because I thought they were emergency exit doors. One of the men looks at me, smiles, and says, “Are you ready?”

They fling open the doors to 180 degrees. They tap open the kickstands to keep them from closing. I look outside and see that our exhibition space is actually the very first space anyone will see as they walk down the only hall on their way to the main front entrance.

The security guard tells me, “You must keep these doors open the entire duration of the show for fire safety and crowd control.”

I say, “No problem, sir. You got it!”

As soon as they leave, John and I grab each other and jump for joy. We can hardly believe it. I run outside the doors to see the view from the hall and realize we are it. The red horse is the very first painting everyone will see. I race to the front main entrance where the two ballrooms meet and grab a stack of show directories. I begin dog-earing the page that has our artwork and exhibit space number. I take a pen and mark our booth on the map of the ballrooms so people can know where to get out easily.

My whole upside-down world is now turned upside right again. We have by far the best exhibit space in the show. No one enters from the main entrance. They, of course, enter the show at our booth. People start to come and I am the completely unbiased and totally objective show greeter. I meet everyone and remind them about the exit and how to get back to it.

High Expectations, Low Turnout. Where are all the art collectors?

Elli and John Milan's artwork hangs in art exhibition

I spend a long time talking with everyone, pointing out all my new friends' spaces and Hsin-Yao Tseng’s showroom. I am so caught up in my new role and on cloud nine about having the best space, I don't realize that for a show this size maybe only about fifty people come through in the first three hours. John points it out to me. “Don’t you think it’s kind of low attendance for a Saturday afternoon?”

He is right. I imagine fifty people spread over three hours in these two giant ballrooms. Since there are probably 150 artists to see, fifty people is pretty anticlimactic. This is not a nighttime event. The show closes at 8:00 pm and today should be the best day.

Our friends start visiting us at our space and seem genuinely happy for us with our fortunate spot. But they are also shocked at the lack of attendance. Some of them have yet to see a person come to their space. At least I got to meet every single person that came through. I decide to start counting the people to get a real gauge. Debbie tells us that Giger, the creepy Swiss artist, was so enraged that he left for the airport and was out of there. Rumors begin to form that Jerry and Ira Goldstein were seen up in one of the suites with some artists, already blitzed before 3:00 pm.

Around 4:00 pm we are getting pretty hungry, so I decide to take a break from greeting and ask our salesperson to keep counting people and handing out the directory. John and I go to one of the suites, finding Debbie and our friends sitting at the dining room table with some drinks and cupcakes having a good time. They tell us they found the showroom too boring so they came up to just hang out.

Everyone in the suite is talking about it, sharing stories and theories about what happened or what will happen. Some optimists are saying that 6:00 pm is the magical hour, while others are saying that closing day is when the true collectors will come to get a better deal. I’m not so sure. I feel like the first few hours are a huge indicator and this surreal moment of such poor turnout is not looking good.

Anticlimactic sales, colossal failure, but we have cupcakes..

The following day is somber and quiet as the doors open once more. As the day progresses the same very slow trickle of people come through. The artists that still remain are grumbling and asking to speak to Jerry or Ira, who are nowhere to be found, and the salespeople are left to deal with all the disgruntled artists.

An older couple looks through our space and talks with John for a long time. They choose a small-sized piece to purchase. Our saleslady takes the piece and walks with the couple back outside down a very long hall to the “purchase room” where they make the transaction. It’s so formal and weird. There are at least twenty-five cashiers in the purchase room waiting to be of some use. This piece is priced at $1,100 and is the very first piece of artwork that sells – halfway through the last day of the World of Art Showcase.

The show ends uneventfully at 8:00 pm Sunday night with the security guards closing all of the double doors to the ballrooms. The salespeople leave. Then the team of art installers come to pull down the work. A total of three paintings sell the entire show equaling $53,000 in sales. The Goldsteins receive $15,900. There were less than 200 hundred people that came through the entire weekend. Millions invested. A PR company, hundreds of salespeople, cashiers, and security – not to mention the cocktail party and the cupcakes in the suites – all paid for by Jerry and Ira Goldstein. A hundred and fifty artists from all over the world traveled to Las Vegas and shipped their artwork, yet less than 200 people witnessed it. This was a colossal failure! It made every failure of mine look microscopically tiny. In fact, I have gotten more than 200 people to an art show many times with sangria and Greek BBQ.

The Day the Dark Art Mountain Fell

Elli Milan setting up art exhibition booth for World of Art Showcase

As I watch the installer pull down all of our artwork and lean it against the walls for John and me to bubble wrap, I think how impossible this failure is. It is three days before Christmas when half of the world is in Las Vegas. We are in the ballrooms of the Wynn on The Strip. How can less than 200 people find their way into a free art show? What can this all mean? What I thought would be the greatest weekend of my life is turning out to be the weirdest.

The images of the toothy aliens and half-naked women swirl in my head, and I begin to understand. It is like a kiss from Heaven and one of the most meaningful revelations of my life.

History was indeed made that weekend. David wasn’t wrong about that in his original sell to me.

A new dawn, a new day, and a new epoch of love, hope, and faith 

It was the very end of 2012 and, in perfect poetic fashion, the world ended as we knew it and I was there to witness it. I got to see it firsthand. That was it – the moment the dark mountain of the arts fell. It was leveled and washed into the sea. I saw it happen.

That was the catch.

God didn't bring me to that show to sell a bunch of art or make history or to be gathered among the greats. He brought me there to show me the failure of this dark world. Giger, being the tip of this mountain, ruled with the most evil images anyone could fathom – and no one came to see it. No one came to see the naked objectified women painted by these perverted men.

God positioned us at the front door to welcome in the new day of the new art world teeming with glory and life. It is set to lead culture into a new epoch of love, hope, and faith; an age where beauty is esteemed, women are empowered, and men are good kings who open doors and stand strong to protect. This new world holds freedom precious and liberty as a virtue. Government is the people and joy and peace abound in every nation.

As artists, we fight for this. We are the overcomers, the courageous ones who share our heart and believe for a better tomorrow. As we love, we paint our future.

What does a future of immense beauty look like to you?

Share your thoughts in the comments below! 


18 comments


  • patricia

    This is by far one of the most inspiring artist experience and message sending article I have personally read. It is as if reading my mind. I even read some of it twice because it was talking to me. Thank you for waw article
    ———
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    I’m so glad this blog inspires you! Thank you!


  • Adele Dallas Orr

    An eye opening account of the world of dark art. Exposed, not salable, not wanted by the people with love in their hearts.


  • Jeanne Elliott

    WOW! What a story! I can not imagine. Thank heaven, the dark, sinister, objectifying world is crumbling! It can’t be fast enough!!!! I am so appreciative to hear ‘the straight truth’ from you on all these subjects!!!


  • Ronnie Bogthanis

    Your story has a message about the current art world. It’s easy to differentiate from the good, the bad and the ugly. Your paintings capture joy and peace and it’s so inspiring. I’m so grateful for artists such as yourself and your family. Thank you for sharing your experience!
    ———
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Hi Ronnie. Thank you 😊 it does seem easy to differentiate. I see more and more evidence that the dark art world is crumbling each and every day.


  • Vernal Pope

    Thank you, Elli, for sharing this experience. It was uplifting and encouraging! I thought of the verse in Matthew 5:14, “Let your light so shine that men might see your good works and glorify your father in heaven. Thanks to you and John for paving the path for other artists of light to follow.


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