A small crowd spills out of Bar+Bistro on a warm summer evening. Some settle around the outdoor fireplace on the patio and gaze at the glowing paintbrush across the street. Others slip into neighboring Artifice, disappearing through its front door beneath Juan Muniz murals. The galleries are closed for the night and cars whiz past on Charleston Boulevard. The mood, as usual, is jovial. But it’s been a long haul to get here.
Few local communities have poured as much emotion, sweat and money into a neighborhood as the residents, artists and gallery and business owners have into the Downtown Arts District. Its story over the past 15 years has been filled with drama and marked by setbacks and successes, as it has struggled to stay viable.
Some say the landscape hasn’t changed much. The area retains an industrial feel, sprinkled with grit and closed storefronts. Empty lots sit where condos were once planned. But there’s much more life now than there was—and more stability. Creative types have taken over, and the Arts District, like the rest of Downtown, seems to be moving upward, growing comfortably into its next phase.
Now, with all the chatter about Downtown revitalization—from Zappos to Symphony Park—and the neighborhood once again in transition, the Weekly takes a look at the history of the Las Vegas Arts District.
Main and Charleston
In 1991, a guy named Wes Myles (then Wes Isbutt) moves his photography business into a warehouse space at Main and Charleston, not far from the bohemian Enigma Cafe. The area has long drawn creative businesses, and four years after setting up shop, Myles buys the building, dubs it the Arts Factory and turns it into a multi-unit space where artists and designers can come together to work and show. Myles sees the neighborhood as a future arts hub for Las Vegas. The Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art moves into his Arts Factory, as does the Contemporary Arts Collective.
The intersection of Main and Charleston is emerging as the new centerpiece for visual arts in the Valley. To passersby, there are hints something artistic is happening in that building, an anomaly in an area dominated by auto shops and furniture stores.
Spring 2002: Cindy Funkhouser, who owns the Funk House antiques shop on Colorado and Casino Center, has started a monthly arts festival. She’s calling it First Friday, and it seems to be taking off. Several hundred people have attended the events, where galleries stay open later on the First Friday of each month. She assumed it would die out in the winter and restart in spring, but people continue to come. The idea was inspired by a similar event in Portland, Ore., and she formed a group, Whirlygig Inc., with art collector Naomi Arin and Julie Brewer (who owned Enigma Café) to manage and promote the event.
It’s a January evening in 2005, and we’re sitting in Godt-Cleary Projects, a storefront gallery on Main Street where a predictably wine-sipping crowd of professionals, artists and gallery owners is listening to heavyweight art collectors—casino executives and bon vivants—talk about their collections. The panel includes Roger Thomas, Glenn Schaeffer, Jim Murren, Patrick Duffy and Wally Goodman.
The word of the evening seems to be “milestone.” These guys are big-time, and here they are talking art in a blue-chip gallery with an inventory of Rauschenbergs, Ruschas and Rosenquists. Members from Guggenheim Hermitage’s Young Collectors Council are there, as are local artists, and though there is worthwhile criticism about the lack of foot traffic in the neighborhood, “milestone” isn’t a stretch. It has been just five years since the city designated this 18-block area the Arts District.
Artists and gallery owners are dealing themselves in. Godt-Cleary Projects, owned by Schaeffer, relocated here from Mandalay Bay shortly after Dust Gallery set up shop. In the Arts Factory, a Kentucky-born artist from Ireland named Marty Walsh has opened Trifecta Gallery, and artists are living in cottages across from the Funk House. 5ive Finger Miscount artists have put up murals on nearby buildings, and the city agreed to pay artist Yaacov Agam $30,000 for a scale model of a sculpture to go in the proposed plaza behind the Arts Factory. SEAT Theater is in its second year in the Factory, and Tinoco’s Bistro is feeding the Downtown lunch crowd. There’s momentum now, a palpable sense of progress.
A condo movement is wildly afoot. Everyone is calling it the Manhattanization of Las Vegas, and business owners in the Arts District are giddy thinking of the foot traffic it would bring to the area. But some of the neighborhood artists are worried. It’s an April evening in 2006, and they’ve gathered here at the cottages across from the Funk House to discuss concerns about gentrification and the potential loss of the area’s character. Artist Dray, the first to bring his studio to the run-down duplexes, has painted a mural on his cottage entitled “The Birth of an Arts Scene,” depicting a naked woman holding a flower. But a developer, Mythic Management, has bought the property the artists are living on for $3 million, intending to build a 43-story condo tower there.
About 70 people have piled into G-C Arts (formerly Godt-Cleary) on a June evening, as Scott Adams of the city’s business development office discusses ways the planned lofts and condo towers—10 approved projects in the Arts District—could rejuvenate the area. A few blocks away cranes mark the skyline where SoHo and Newport lofts are going up.
Two months later Dray destroys his mural after he and other tenants receive eviction notices. Outraged, he paints over all three of his murals. Soon, the cottages will be razed.
First Friday report
It’s a hot August in Las Vegas and First Friday, about to celebrate its fourth anniversary, is getting out of hand, according to critics at war over the direction of the monthly event. Some want a return to its early days as an art crawl. Bands, vendors and teenagers now mingle in close proximity to the alcohol in the galleries. The city’s report on the festival—put together by a paid consultant in Reno—concludes that First Friday needs to be professionalized using private funds. It also states that there should be more galleries in the area and “better art” on display.
The RTC is planning a bus line through the Arts District. LA developer David Mozes has moved to town and is working on a mixed-use venue along the route, just behind the Arts Factory. He says it will include galleries, office space and entertainment, and he’s not the only one eying the area. Jack Solomon has unveiled plans for a similar project (on the west side of the Arts Factory) that would include housing. He’s calling it Vegas Moderne.
You want to build what?
It’s April 2007 and there’s an informal neighborhood meeting inside Artistic Iron Works. There are sodas, cookies, contention and a presentation by Michigan-based developer Real Estate Interests Group (REI) on plans for a 22,000-seat arena, three casinos, hotels, condos and more than 550,000 square feet of retail space.
The plan would raze more than 73 acres of Downtown north of the Stratosphere and in the Arts District. Property owners have agreed to sell their land, but gallery owners who rent there are freaked, worried that the arena and its parking garage will wipe out the neighborhood’s creative personality.
“It will be great to see it all plowed down someday,” says Tom Prato, a partner in the plan and owner of Artistic Iron Works. “It would be a catalyst for things to be built here, for something great to happen.”
One Saturday morning
A subcommittee for the Arts Commission is deciding on a $700,000 public art project. It’s getting a little wacky at this October 2007 meeting at City Hall, where there have been a couple of awkward presentations regarding artwork that no one seems to like and that doesn’t appear practical. The art is to serve as a “gateway” to the neighborhood on Charleston Boulevard, one piece at Main Street, another at Las Vegas Boulevard. The subcommittee is made up of gallery owners, Downtown players, museum executives, collectors and professionals. Member Dave Hickey asks what happens if no artist was recommended.
Eventually, the committee votes (6-4) for New Yorker Dennis Oppenheim, an internationally recognized sculptor and conceptual artist with several public projects on his résumé.
August 2010: Oppenheim is sitting in a lawn chair in the parking lot of Brett Wesley gallery, watching as Jason Goldenberg controls the lighting effects on the 45-foot paintbrush jutting from the sidewalk.
It’s one of Oppenheim’s first large works using light, and he says guest programmers could be invited in “like DJs” to light the brushes. The community hasn’t exactly warmed to the project, which came in vastly over budget and has been scaled back considerably. Critics say the concept—oversized paintbrushes—is simplistic to the point that it’s insulting. They also doubt the works will ever be lit. Oppenheim shrugs off the criticism. Public art often creates compromise, he responds.
Sculpture park, not yet
It’s 2009, and Yaacov Agam’s scale model—18-foot towers designed for the Arts District’s Boulder Park Plaza—sits in S2 Art gallery four years after Agam’s mock-up was commissioned by the city. About $700,000 of public funds were used to design and construct the park, which is about to be unveiled. But there’s no money to pay the Paris-based artist to build the sculptures. For now, the park is closed by a locked gate, not open to the public.
In May 2010 the RTC launches its ACE Gold Line, intended to replace the bus line on Las Vegas Boulevard and shuttle all traffic through the Arts District. Visually, the project has been a great improvement: bringing new trees, wider sidewalks and a public art project embedded in the sidewalks, but the route isn’t replacing the one on Las Vegas Boulevard. Riders preferred the original route, so it was re-established, dividing passengers between the Strip and the Arts District.
Main Street is boarded up. A July 2010 explosion at a NV Energy substation has rocked the area on an early Sunday morning, blasting out windows and destroying the foundations of nearby buildings. A fire burned much of the Opportunity Village Thrift Store, and the Attic’s building is now unusable. Place Gallery is closed. It’s a sad day for business owners, who have finally seen the area achieve a better foothold.
Shops and galleries still come and go, but more are sticking around these days. Retro Vegas, a mid-mod furniture, art and antiques store has been open two years. Brett Wesley Gallery is hosting monthly art openings. Gaia Flowers, an eco-friendly floral and gift shop, has moved in across from the Arts Factory. And the area has seen a significant increase in visitors.
The city’s temporary 2010 waiver of its $50,000 tavern origination fee has resulted in three new bars in the Arts District. There’s music on the patio at Bar+Bistro, outdoor movies and a monthly pig roast. Across the street, Brett Sperry and Trinity Schlottman have opened Artifice, a playful lounge with a living room feel. And Lady Sylvia is setting up in SoHo Lofts. Nightlife has finally hit the Arts District.
The Zappos effect
Cindy Funkhouser and Whirlygig have sent everyone into a panic on a Sunday evening, announcing that First Friday will go on hiatus for August and September 2011 while the organization and city regroup and streamline the costly event. They neglect to mention that Arts District businesses will be open as usual, including Blackbird Studios on Commerce Street, one of many galleries that relies on its regular returning crowds each First Friday.
That news gets trumped in September, when word arrives that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and a small group of investors have bought the trademark and rights for First Friday, taking it out of Whirlygig’s hands and pouring money into the event. Gallery and business owners gather at Artifice for an introductory cocktail meeting that ultimately has most of the area supporting the change. The October First Friday is a smash, a return to artist tents, vendors and community masses milling about the Downtown streets.
Brian “Paco” Alvarez, a born-and-raised local and all-around man about town who has been at nearly every local art event, remembers the proto district and says he isn’t surprised the neighborhood developed where it did.
“The area around Charleston and Main has always been a nexus for creative businesses,” he says. “Desert Art Supply had its store on Main Street. The Las Vegas Arts League had a gallery on Las Vegas Boulevard near Charleston, and the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and the Las Vegas News Bureau used to be on Charleston and Third.
“There’s a whole history of things that have happened that set the stage for where we are today. To look at where it’s come from and to see it today is day and night. We’ve got bars popping up, First Friday, poetry and mixers.”
Marty Walsh has also watched the scene build from her front-row seat at Trifecta Gallery.
“It’s had its waves,” she says of the Arts District. “It would be very exciting for a while, then people and their drama slowed things down a bit. The ups and downs and setbacks have prepared us for where we are now.”
As for the other projects, Jack Solomon moved S2 Art out of the Arts District this summer, though he says he still intends to build his Vegas Moderne project Downtown.
“We had some good years,” he says. “Until the recession hit, we were flying high. Originally they were going to put a Monorail stop in the Arts District. We were intrigued that it would bring people from the Strip. But that didn’t happen. We haven’t completely left the area.”
Wes Myles might. The Arts Factory owner is planning his exit. He says he’s tired of fighting the city over codes and permits for his Downtown projects.
“Everything is going to the Smith Center [for the Performing Arts], Fremont Street and the World Market Center,” he says. “And then there’s the Strip. The 800-pound gorilla will always take it away, and the politicians will hand it to them. Anything we can do, they can do a hundredfold better.”
Some would argue, however, that the gorilla will never have the passion or sincerity that exists in the Arts District.