The atmosphere is lively inside of the Guggenheim Hermitage on the last Wednesday that the gallery will ever see in its short lifetime. Crowds of people, mostly tourists, shuffle around the Monets, the Van Goghs and the two Picassos, grabbing a glimpse and steadily walking to the next one. In a way, it’s like watching an assembly line, with the movement more required than organic. It’s so strange, and yet in the ADD-afflicted environment of the Strip, it’s strangely normal. It’s certainly not art appreciation, though, and that could be why the Hermitage—which opened in 2001—will be closed by the time you read this. Combine that with struggles in the Downtown art scene and consider: Is art in Vegas dead?
The answer seems to depend on where you’re looking. The attempt to make art an appeal of the Strip may be hurting, but some say art in Vegas actually could be preparing for a renaissance.
“Downtown is the future,” says Libby Lumpkin, Las Vegas Art Museum curator and executive director. Although the Downtown arts scene, which thrived from 2005-07, is struggling to pull in recognizable talent, Lumpkin sees a tremendous opportunity for art aficionados of all types—First Friday lovers, museum-goers, collegiate artists, collectors—to combine forces and regroup Downtown. LVAM, which pulled out of its initial plans to relocate from its Summerlin location in favor of finding a spot to build Downtown, has the opportunity to be the focal point. “And we’ll be making a difference the minute we break ground,” says Lumpkin about the as-yet-to-be-specified location.
But the Downtown area has had a bit of an identity crisis lately—is it an artist party hub or home to a legitimate art community?
Rick Dominguez, Fallout Gallery co-owner and rising voice of Whirlygig Inc., the nonprofit that runs First Friday, says that while there have been difficulties Downtown—including the implementation of a $2 suggested donation to enter the wildly popular festival area to raise necessary funds—the crowds are still coming (about 5,000 people on May 2), and galleries are still being rented out.
“We’re at the highest leasing capacity thus far,” Dominguez says of the Whirlygig-owned Commerce Street Studios. “When we have a vacancy, three or four people come in to check out the gallery. It’s far from being boarded up.”
Dominguez says that the latest round of activity in the Downtown area seems to be coming from UNLV art students looking to get their work out into the art community.
“For students, that is important,” says UNLV art professor Catherine Angel. An award-winning photographer herself, Angel has nearly given up selling her work in Vegas. Instead she travels everywhere from LA to Argentina to sell it.
“I tried a lot to sell my work in town for the first couple years,” Angel says, “and I broke even. But the art scene I’m involved with now is more of a national and international one.”
So when it comes to bringing in big names or having the ability to sell some of the higher-end work from either local or national artists, the Downtown Vegas art community is still lagging. And while the Guggenheim, a nonprofit, couldn’t make the Strip economics work, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, a for-profit, is still kicking—it’s making plans to lure more locals to the Strip for fine art. Additionally, the city’s art landscape will include a $40 million contemporary collection on the Strip when CityCenter is complete in 2009.
In the end, art in Vegas may have taken a few hard hits with the loss of the Guggenheim and an identity crisis Downtown. But it’s hardly dead. The next stage—LVAM’s relocation giving a solid identity to Downtown—may just require a little patience.
The one thing the Vegas art community needs more than anything is time.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” local artist and Clark County Recreational and Cultural Affairs Supervisor Diane Bush says. “It’ll take time for the art scene to evolve … there are only positive things ahead, and Downtown is where it’s going to be.”
Illustration by Adam Neckel