Spending public money on arts and culture habitually draws thorny comments from critics, making Sen. Tom Coburn’s recent rant about the $5.2 million in federal funding awarded to the Neon Museum no real surprise. But the Oklahoman’s trite description (“neon signs no longer in use at Las Vegas casinos”) shows how little he knows of its historic value. The more than 150 signs include that of the Moulin Rouge hotel, which played a critical role in Las Vegas’ civil rights movement, says Bill Marion, chairman of the Neon Museum board. The integrated hotel was the site of the 1960 Moulin Rouge Agreement, leading to desegregation in Las Vegas.
“The only thing left of the Moulin Rouge is the sign,” Marion says. “The Desert Inn was one of the original properties on the Strip and a home for Howard Hughes. Hughes’ buying of a gaming property changed gaming forever in Nevada. This isn’t simply a museum about neon. It is much more than that. We have a rich history here and a rich aesthetic.”
The nonprofit museum is a result of grassroots efforts, decades of collecting, long volunteer hours and costly rescues. Most signs are the only remnants of landmark casinos and local businesses. Part of the $5.2 million, allocated to the city of Las Vegas from Southern Nevada Public Land Management funds, was used to construct the Neon Boneyard Park, an enclosed city park next door. Visitor center construction begins in spring inside the La Concha lobby, moved from the Strip to the Boneyard in December 2006. An $809,000 National Scenic Byway Grant was also awarded to the museum.
Boneyard officials say Coburn’s comments merit little action, citing them as a direct slap against Sen. Harry Reid and an attempt to embarrass the state. Danielle Kelly, the museum’s operations manager (and a Weekly contributor), says that, if anything, Coburn’s comments help draw attention to the much-adored collection. Thanks, Tom.