In the middle of the main gallery of the Las Vegas Art Museum stood a work by LA artist Katie Grinnan, titled “Jackpot Guitar,” which featured a giant, curving plastic-and-wire-framed guitar next to a speaker that played the tranquil sounds of casino slot machines.
The work was part of LA Now, an exhibit of contemporary artists from Los Angeles. But, given that this was the final exhibit at the museum, which closed its doors on Saturday, another victim of the recession, it could have been part of a show called Las Vegas Now—the soft casino noises floating through the forlorn gallery seemed a particularly telling symbol of the city’s current, beaten-down mood.
Founded in 1950 as the Las Vegas Art League, the museum took its current name in 1974 and moved into its current space, adjacent to the West Sahara Library, in 1997. When respected art scholar Libby Lumpkin came on to run the museum a few years ago, she helped transform it into a respected showcase for contemporary art. Though LVAM only had around 1,000 members, it was a dedicated base, and attendance had been on the upswing for the past couple of years. There was even talk that the museum would eventually relocate to a larger space, perhaps even in a new building.
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“Libby truly believed it was time—and Las Vegas was ready—to have a fully functioning art institution that was worthy of what Las Vegas is in the international arena,” said Anne Kellogg, the museum’s spokesperson.
But Lumpkin unexpectedly departed late last year amidst growing budget woes. And at the end of last month news broke that the museum itself would close its doors. Lumpkin called the news disappointing, and said she didn’t see it coming. I asked her how easy it would be to revive the museum one day, and she didn’t sound very optimistic. “I think it would be very difficult to hire professional staff.”
Apart from the staff of the Weekly, which came to tour through the space last Thursday, there were not many other visitors. The few I found were from out of town: Margie Cuckler, from Alabama; Ann Snyder, from Los Angeles; and a woman who declined to give her name but cheekily referred to herself as “Pearl Rose.” (What can you expect—she’s a Texan.)
I asked them what work struck them, and they mentioned another work by Grinnan that featured dismembered cheerleaders. “Cheerleaders are staples in university culture, and it doesn’t matter who inhabits the uniforms,” Cuckler suggested. “They’re ephemeral.”
“It’s grim,” offered Pearl Rose. “It’s a sad statement about cheerleaders.”
About art museums in Las Vegas, as well, because as they sauntered out of the galleries, I was the only one left. The LA Now show was successful, but museum employees taking tickets told me that on average only about 20 people were coming through the museum per day.
As I prepared to leave, a woman approached the gallery entrance with her young son. One of the employees stopped her. “Actually there’s a fee to go in there—$6.”
“Oh … okay …” she said, hovering by the entrance to LVAM, then turned and led her son toward the library.