It’s 5 p.m. inside the Water Street Gallery on a Third Thursday in August, and Henderson artist Chris Waters is making final preparations on one of his paintings. For Waters, it’s a strange and lonely homecoming. The 30-something artist hasn’t shown his work in downtown Henderson since his own city-subsidized gallery, the acclaimed contemporary-art haunt A6 Gallery, closed 14 months ago—a victim of high-rise condo economics.
“In a way, contemporary art in downtown Henderson seemed to have died with A6,” he says. “And I don’t know if it will come back.”
But as condo projects stall out, art galleries close, city-based subsidies to lure in artists vanish and the national economy tanks, the future of Henderson’s Third Thursday and downtown art walk, once championed as an alternative to Downtown Las Vegas’ First Friday art scene, faces an uncertain future: How to stay artistically relevant while preserving the thing that some organizers say is central to the art community, the sale and presence of kitschy arts and crafts.
When CSN professors Gary Reese and Fred Sigman founded their first joint gallery in downtown Henderson two years ago, they and the Henderson Art Guild—a group primarily composed of elderly amateur artists—were the only ones around. Art on Water Street was basically a pastiche of Sunday watercolors, dynamic-looking bird-feeders and watercolor portraits of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reese founded Third Thursday at the same time in “an effort to mix up the artists and the patrons so that they would go into supporting businesses and visit other galleries,” Reese says. “That’s the most important thing.”
But some argue that Reese’s formula—which embraces family-friendly art—not only simplifies but also nullifies the idea of serious art (and the serious collectors who buy it). Dennis Salon, a Henderson contemporary artist and member of CityLights arts co-op and gallery, feels that crafts and what he calls “traditional” art are setting a mediocre standard. “Art needs to be controversial and current,” Salon, who’s in his 60s, says. “What’s going on mostly in Henderson is neither.”
“It seems like the community has regressed artistically,” adds Waters, who spends most of his time painting in his studio blocks from his former gallery. “It’s nothing more than a glorified arts and crafts fair.”
Sigman, more diplomatically, agrees. His gallery stands out against the three other galleries in the area. “I do sometimes feel alone down here,” Sigman says. “But it’s not my point of view to dismiss others’ art in the first place.”
But Reese disagrees, citing his July student art show, Appetite for Destruction, held at his Plaza Gallery, as the example of contemporary art still living on in Henderson. “I think we’ve proven that it’s no longer a valid argument,” says Reese. “High-end buyers do come down here. The exhibits incubate in Water Street, then [in my case] go to museums around the state, and then the buyers purchase the shows.”
Of course, with only a handful of galleries left, and dwindling crowds at Third Thursday—the art walk brought in hundreds of visitors when A6 was open but now only garners a few dozen—everyone agrees that Water Street needs more people and restaurants in the area before the local art scene can really take off. Still, Reese remains an optimist. “Our scene is in its infancy,” Reese says. “And you can’t just judge Third Thursday’s numbers by the people who come down.” Reese says you have to consider other events—this week’s annual Super Run Classic Car Show, the weekly farmers market, performing arts at the convention center—that bring people to Water Street. “Bureaucrats judge us based on how many people come to downtown Henderson in total, not just on one night.” It remains to be seen whether those people feel the same way.