Mobbing the Mob Museum

One year later, is Oscar’s dream a box-office hit?

When the Mob Museum opened a year ago, expectations were high. Championed by former mayor and mob lawyer Oscar Goodman, designed by Dennis and Kathleen Barrie—the duo behind Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum (he also did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland)—and set up in the old Federal Courthouse where the Kefauver Committee hearings took place in 1950, the museum was aiming for more than to be a cozy local institution. Rather, it was tasked with bringing both cultural luster and tourists Downtown. All this in a town that buries museums the way a hit man dumps bodies in the desert.

For a long time, the consensus was that people didn’t come to Las Vegas for culture. Then Steve Wynn started showing Manets and Picassos at Bellagio, and the Guggenheim opened two museums at the Venetian. When Wynn opened his namesake hotel in 2005, he displayed some of his personal collection in a public gallery, while Bellagio’s gallery shifted to hosting traveling exhibitions.

Fast-forward a few years, and both Guggenheims and Wynn’s gallery were gone. Even a place as unmistakably Vegas as the Liberace Museum closed. It looked as if Las Vegas might not be the best environment for a museum.

But the Mob Museum—together with the 2012 openings of The Smith Center and the Neon Museum—signaled a new era for Las Vegas’ cultural institutions, and a commitment to Downtown. These institutions have deeper local roots, and it seems more likely that they’ll have staying power.

That being said, was the Mob Museum a (box-office) hit in its first year?

It certainly drew a crowd, attracting about 225,000 visitors. True, the Spy Museum, D.C.’s tribute to spooks, celebrated its 10th year in 2012, and it averages about 600,000 visitors a year. But that’s in Washington where, front-row seats to legislative gridlock aside, there’s not much to do outside of visit museums (the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum notches 8 million visits a year).

“By every measure, we’re very pleased with the results,” says Jonathan Ullman, the museum’s CEO and executive director. “For a museum of our size and resources, located where we are, that’s pretty impressive—200,000-plus is a lot of people, for Las Vegas or any city.”

Ullman cites an American Alliance of Museums study that put the average attendance for U.S. museums with annual operating budgets over $4 million at 180,000—evidence that the Mob Museum is more than holding its own.

One of the museum’s biggest lessons in its first year, Ullman says, was to focus on community outreach. “It took us about four to six months to figure out how to operate as a new museum,” he says. “In the last quarter of last year, we stated to develop new programming as part of our educational mission to bring greater depth to the museum, and also to broaden out to different niche audiences, to give them a reason to come back.”

The highest-profile program has been a series featuring speakers such as FBI agent Joaquin “Jack” Garcia, global organized crime expert Mark Galeotti and law professor G. Robert Blakey (who helped to draft the RICO Act that torpedoed many organized crime families). Other special events, like the November 15 Kefauver Day (free admission for Nevada residents to celebrate the anniversary of the Kefauver Committee’s testimony in the third-floor courtroom that is a centerpiece of the museum), helped the museum add members.

Now that Downtown is no longer a gritty underdog urb but a generator of local and international buzz, the question is whether the Mob Museum will ride the wave. Will it be a niche curiosity or a must-see for visitors who figure to increasingly come to Downtown to see what all the talk is about?

The first boost should be increased foot traffic following the opening of the adjacent Downtown Grand (formerly Lady Luck). If all goes well, the Mob Museum will not only benefit from the Downtown renaissance, but also help drive it.

“We see ourselves as having an important role in the Downtown community,” Ullman says. “And we’ll continue to strive to be as accessible to locals as possible.”

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