The Gamblers

Art stars Dave Hickey and Libby Lumpkin bet big on Las Vegas’s potential as an international art spot. Turns out the city was bluffing.

Dave Hickey and Libby Lumpkin
Photo: Jacob Kepler

Dave Hickey and Libby Lumpkin are an unlikely looking couple with complementary talents who came to Vegas and spent almost two decades pursuing a dream: that Las Vegas was in a unique position and ready to become a player in the art world. Over their years here, Lumpkin became a respected art curator and museum director, while Hickey became a legitimate star as an art critic. But the dream of making Las Vegas a hot center for the art world—or at least a place better than, as Hickey says, “having everything to look at but nothing to see”—did not happen. Maybe it could not happen? They wonder about that now. “I think, looking back, Vegas will always be a cowboy town with a lot of libertarians,” Lumpkin says. Hickey adds, “I was wrong to think that something else was coming and that Vegas was going to leap into it.”

But in 1990, like many arrivals in Vegas, Hickey and Lumpkin had a dream that to others may have seemed crazy: Champion this as a serious art town with a first-class museum of record and a graduate art program that would attract the sort of artists who could thrive in Vegas. With the Mirage newly opened and Vegas transforming into a future of unknown potential and appeal, this notion did not seem so far-fetched for the hard-working couple. Hickey spent much of the ’90s mentoring a group of artists at UNLV who, inspired by Vegas, went on to find successful careers in the art world. He wrote essays extolling Siegfried & Roy and the Liberace Museum. In 2001, he won a MacArthur Foundation grant, the so-called genius award, but by then the moment was already passing—he was leaving UNLV’s art department, his chance to foster art talent in Vegas coming to an end.

But there had been a moment of potential: “For Las Vegas and the university,” Hickey later wrote, “it was just a flicker, a bright moment, but, if the cards had fallen as they might have fallen, we could have had it all.”

What happened instead was that the couple wound up with nothing. Hickey is now in the UNLV English department teaching writers, his tenure position uncertain, and Lumpkin is unemployed after resigning from the Las Vegas Art Museum. But they had a run, as Hickey would be the first to admit, and there was some real promise that came from their efforts before everything fell apart.

Even at home and casual, Libby Lumpkin offers a formal front. She is immaculately dressed and radiates elegance. She holds a cigarette like a Hollywood star from another era. She is a familiar face at Vegas society events. Recently she was one of the lucky few to attend the annual Keep Memory Alive gala dinner featuring Siegfried & Roy’s farewell performance. Lumpkin looks exactly like the woman you would invent who can run a multimillion-dollar museum.

At 70, Hickey still has a youthful vigor, though his movements are languorous and sensual, slowed not by time but by choice. He enjoys holding his cigarette up and letting the tobacco settle before lighting it. Hickey always looks casual. It is in his posture, relaxed; the way he smokes, lingering, enjoying the moment; in the way he draws out his words, emphasizing the remains of a Texas accent. He offers his insights and stories with an anybody-can-do-it shrug which is convincing despite not being remotely true—the ease of his thoughts, the quality of his work, the nature of the experiences.

Before teaching, Hickey had an eventful life spent among the academic, countercultural (when there was such a thing) and cosmopolitan bohemian elites. He has variously been a newspaper editor, a songwriter and the owner of an art gallery. His social circle over the years has ranged from self-destructive rock writer Lester Bangs to artists Ed Ruscha and Robert Mapplethorpe. He is at home in any crowd without being part of any group. “Dave has all the charisma,” Lumpkin says, modestly.

For all that they share, Lumpkin and Hickey could not be more different. If you want to see just how different, listen to them talk about the Allman Brothers Band.

Lumpkin recalls: “They did a concert here. And we got to sit in the wings while they played the concert. That was very interesting. What is the blond guy’s name?”

That would be Gregg Allman.

She isn’t even a little bit rock ’n’ roll. Befitting her career, Lumpkin can appear intimidating and patrician and intensely intellectual. But when she talks about art, her passions overwhelm the formality. Then there are the other times her veneer vanishes, often after her husband says something, which he often does, that reduces her to giggles, displaying warmth all over her face. If a reporter is present, which happens a lot, when she stops laughing and composes herself, the first thing she usually does is ask: “You aren’t going to quote him saying that?” We do of course quote Dave Hickey. He is a quote machine.

Hickey will say most anything that falls into the category of things that infuriate the politically correct and the defenders of what he calls “ugly art.” For example, in one recent interview, Hickey compared the design of the Rem Koolhaas Guggenheim gallery in the Venetian to a concentration camp. Or he can offhandedly make a punning gay joke out of Cirque’s name. And he has no problem dismissing UNLV’s current graduate art program and its faculty as pathetic mediocrities. Not that they should feel especially slighted: In the March issue of Art in America, Hickey dismissed the entire enterprise of graduate programs credentialing another class of artists, year after year: “My optimum solution would be to abolish graduate studies in art altogether,” Hickey wrote. Is it any wonder that he could not find a comfortable place in a university art department, even in Vegas?

Earlier this month Newsweek ran a profile calling Hickey “the bad boy of art criticism.” It probably says more about the state of art criticism than Hickey that the reigning bad boy is 70 years old. But Hickey’s words are still so powerful in the art culture that the same Newsweek article, after reminding readers of some of his greatest hits, compares the impact of his writing to a “flamethrower.”

This is the sort of press Hickey is used to getting. His inflammatory statements are why reporters line up to talk to him, but unlike, say, quote machine Ann Coulter (who, it is a safe bet, will never win a MacArthur), he brings intellectual heft to his views, whether he is writing about the New York Dolls, Andy Warhol or Michel Foucault. And in general, not much is wrong with the media’s shorthand view of things: Hickey vs. the art establishment. But what gets lost in that debate is that overwhelmingly his writing celebrates and talks about the work Hickey likes rather than attacks the academic aspects of the art world that he loathes. And he is frequently misunderstood on that score, as well. Defending “beauty” from academic theorists in the ’90s with a book of essays, The Invisible Dragon, made him beloved by conservatives who willfully ignored the beauty Hickey was specifically celebrating: sexually explicit works by Robert Mapplethorpe (Hickey compares them to Caravaggio). In Hickey’s view, “beauty” refers to those properties of art that makes it enjoyable to look at—and that enjoyment makes it more effective, and therefore more persuasive, than knotty, theory-driven art. “Beauty takes us by surprise,” he says. “It is an instantaneous, involuntary positive response to anything or everything before our eyes. It makes us rhyme with the world. It means that just for a moment, we belong.” And if beauty makes you belong, you require much less interpretation by the academic experts Hickey so dislikes—an idea that alienated the left.

Misunderstood by friend and foe alike, Hickey pulled The Invisible Dragon from print for years. “I didn’t want to be the beauty guy anymore. People thought that meant I wanted to look at paintings of flowers.”

The book’s moment has come back around: An expanded edition will be issued next month.

Neither pretends there is a bright side to their situation now. Hickey and Lumpkin are two hardcore realists, whose initial bond formed in New Mexico in 1989. Lumpkin was finishing her Ph.D. in art history when she was assigned to be a teaching assistant to Hickey, a one-year visiting professor. His collection of writings, Air Guitar (1997), had yet to make Hickey moderately famous, and MacArthur had yet to declare him a genius, but Lumpkin was impressed. He happened to have spent the previous year teaching in Vegas. He liked Sin City a lot better than New Mexico, a point he made to Lumpkin, though she was not an initial believer in the potential of Vegas. But if they could not agree exactly on Vegas, New Mexico proved to be perfect for their relationship. They bonded over how little they liked about it.

“Everyone in New Mexico believes in some shit. We were the only two atheists in New Mexico,” Hickey says. Lumpkin puts it this way: “The students who came there were mystically inclined. They all had crystals under their pillows and wanted to make art out of sticks with feathers tied to them. In Vegas I did not have students like that anymore.”

Libby Lumpkin, the celebrated and influential director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, suddenly resigned in December 2008 .

When they arrived in 1990, Vegas was Hickey’s choice, but Lumpkin was the one who became immersed in Vegas’ cultural and social scene. According to Hickey, “There are people here who know about art. But Vegas is really a working town. And all the people you know who are smart are working all the time. You don’t just drop by and talk to Steve Wynn about art. He is busy.”

“Sometimes,” Lumpkin interrupts. In fact, she had many conversations with Wynn about art as she helped him develop the collection for the opening of the Bellagio Gallery. But she insists every piece bought was one chosen by Wynn. “It was a very unique collection in that nothing tied it together except that every individual work was a masterpiece,” she says.

Her first meeting with casino executives about art produced a shocked call to Hickey: “I can’t believe how smart these people are.” She still seems a bit amazed. “The casino executives were more interested in what I was writing on than the people at the university.”

Hickey can’t resist adding: “You don’t go to the university in Vegas if you are looking for the smart people. You go to the Strip.”

After Hickey settled into the art department, he began to recruit graduate students from around the country as his renown grew throughout the ’90s, thanks to outlets like Vanity Fair and others that allowed him a forum for his unorthodox opinions on everything from Norman Rockwell (unfashionably, Hickey is a fan) to American education (“the most malign failed bureaucracy since the monastic system of the middle ages”). In Hickey’s view, UNLV’s art department had never really embraced Vegas nor looked for the sort of students meant to be here. So Hickey did both. When he taught art at UNLV, Lumpkin notes, “He gave them permission to look at the Strip and to get visual inspiration from the spectacle of Vegas, and that was a healthy thing to do.”

Hickey says, “The city has its pace even for an artist. You can’t just sit around like it is Austin here and smoke dope and stare at the trees. Our rule was the Strip is not art, but you have to make things that exist in the same world as the Strip.”

Despite what some of his former students and Hickey recall as consternation by other art faculty at UNLV, his students would proudly hang out at Olympic Garden strip club. He was averse to traditional methods of pedagogy (which at the time included a lot of theory) and had little use for the standard workshop critique format. In short, he tried to take the academic out of the university. Rather than campus classrooms, Hickey found Vegas and the Strip ideal for art students of the kind he appreciated. “The best thing about Vegas is sex and drugs are not enough to preoccupy students. You need to be able to survive in Vegas, and a lot of people can’t.” Hickey looked for the students whom he thought could. He also helped them through his network of contacts in the art world.

“I would tell them they had to go to LA and see the shows. They have to know what is going on in the art world. I have been an art dealer. And I know how to do that. And if you can hang out with rich people and not get your feelings hurt, you’re fine. And my art students in Vegas weren’t needy people. You can’t make it in Vegas if you’re scared, or care that you lost all your money gambling, or have lots of personal issues.”

Still, Hickey downplays any impact he had on his students beyond hipping them to the odd rituals of the art world: “I could tell them the best thing to wear to their first opening is a $10,000 Armani jacket and a Joy Division T-shirt. I gave them good tips of that sort.”

Among Hickey’s students to develop careers in the art world were Tim Bavington, David Ryan, Angela Kallus and Victoria Reynolds. Kallus moved to Las Vegas specifically to study with Hickey. “I read a magazine article by Dave in, I think, Harper’s, and it put a lot together for me,” she recalls. Bavington was already living in Las Vegas and familiar with Hickey’s writing, but simply had no idea the famed critic lived in the same city. It never occurred to him UNLV could actually be where Dave Hickey taught. When he found out, he quickly enrolled in the graduate program. “UNLV was an easy decision when I found out Dave was there,” Bavington says. “I would have never thought to go to graduate school, because most art teachers I would not click with at all. But Dave is on the side of visual pleasure, and pragmatic.”

According to Bavington and Kallus, Hickey was charismatic not only as a professor but also as a recruiter of students, and for that period he formed a remarkable group of students. Bavington recalls, “The feeling of the program at the time is we were in Vegas and we should have a lot of freedom and fun. As Dave would travel around and lecture he would find students who didn’t fit where they were at and recruit them for UNLV.”

During many of these years, Lumpkin also taught at UNLV as well as doing what Hickey had done when they met, being visiting faculty, including guest stints at places like Harvard and Yale. She advised Wynn on his assembly of the original Bellagio Gallery, perhaps the most successful art exhibit Vegas has ever hosted. Certainly it was the only time in Vegas history people day after day would wait hours in line on the Strip to get into see a collection of great paintings. Maybe Vegas and art would work? Guggenheims were opening at the Venetian, there were serious private art collectors in town, casino corporations were building collections ...

In 2005 Lumpkin became executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum. “The really promising thing is that edgy contemporary art has exotic appeal and can work in Las Vegas,” Lumpkin says. Or, as Hickey put it in a catalog for Las Vegas Diaspora, a 2007 show at the Las Vegas Art Museum made up of work created by his former UNLV art students:

“We [Lumpkin and he] fell in love with Vegas. We saw in it the possibility of a major art scene and a wonderful art school. Vegas had everything. It was streamlined for working hard and playing hard, without a lot of downtime in between. The city was full of state-of-the-art popular art—and it was mostly bad, of course, but this still made Vegas better than cities with no art at all. … One didn’t have to invent the idea of art in Vegas or sell it to a visually impaired population—in Vegas one need only make better art to challenge the not-so-good art, and let the good drive out the bad, as it usually does in the realm of the visible.”

Of course, as the term “diaspora” implies, that did not happen. Instead, the audiences didn’t turn out, first one Guggenheim and eventually the other closed, and Steve Wynn stopped displaying his art in his casino. Even the Bellagio Gallery, instead of creating its own masterpiece collection as Wynn had, outsourced instead—bringing in work from other institutions (the current show on loan from a museum in San Diego). Still great art, but no longer a collection you could only see in Vegas. And then the economy fell apart. Despite the occasional upbeat indicator—CityCenter’s purchase of millions in big-ticket public art being one—Las Vegas again barely had an art scene worthy of international attention.

The Weekly staff takes a tour of LA Now at LVAM two days before it closed.

At the end of 2008 Lumpkin resigned from Las Vegas Art Museum rather than implement a budget that would have meant cutting members of the staff she had convinced to move to Vegas to work with her. She had hoped her resignation (and the salary saved), along with a plan she had left for the museum to run through 2009, would save it. It didn’t. LVAM closed in February.

By then, Hickey had long since abandoned his tenure in the art department in a gallant if misguided belief that without his contentious personality around, Lumpkin would have a better shot at tenure. It did not help, and it is a decision Hickey—who eventually wound up in the English department—still lives with:

“I liked to teach art better, because artists are self-evident. They have better fashion sense, they are more external, and they are more gregarious. Writers tend to be internalized, they are very mysterious, and they wear plaid shirts, and so I am confused a lot.”

Still, the couple came tantalizingly close to realizing their vision for Vegas. Hickey did teach a number of students who went on to successful careers in the art world. And Lumpkin did set up the foundations for a museum that, if not for the economic collapse of Vegas, might well be on the way to achieving her goals for the institution.

And, while things could have turned out better, the two admit they sure have had fun chasing the dream. “I like Vegas because it is a heart’s destination. And the people who live here, except maybe my colleagues at the university, generally are happy to be living here,” Hickey says. “And I really believed that Las Vegas could get there, and that artists would be drawn here to work, because it is fun to live here.”

But at this point, some might ask: What did they expect from Vegas? Of course, that is why all this had to happen for this story to exist; this could not work as fiction, because of the unlikely altruism at its core. Why, for the sake of culture in Las Vegas, did this talented couple pursue their dream into a dragon’s mouth of brutal business decisions, academic politics, bad timing and a devotion by the city to the idea of art that was less total than their own? In fiction they would have to be naïve people. And that would amount to bad fiction. Neither is naïve. They bet on Vegas and lost, like so many others. It is that sad and that simple.

In one of his pre-teaching lives, Hickey wrote fiction, but he swore off writing that stuff years ago, after publishing an acclaimed volume of short stories, Prior Convictions. In fact, he quit fiction in an afterword to the volume. He has occasionally lapsed over the years and fallen into make-believe—but only occasionally. Hickey loves living in Las Vegas because this town lacks fiction. To him Las Vegas has no secrets of the sort fictions thrive on. This is a point he has made in many of his writings: the odds are posted on the machines in Las Vegas, by which Hickey means things are exactly as they appear. And right now evaluating how things have turned out for him and his wife, he is brutally candid: “We lost. We bet everything, and we lost. Vegas will never in any foreseeable future be a serious art destination.” To Lumpkin there is an extra tragedy. Las Vegas has world-class art all over the Valley, which she has seen and we have not. That art is privately owned, and without a local museum, the amazing private collections of Las Vegas’ wealthy elite, if ever placed on public view, will one day be donated out of state.

For a long time, Hickey has been aware of the caricature that an art critic who lives in and embraces Vegas risks being reduced to. “I realize,” he wrote in an essay collected in Air Guitar, “that claiming Las Vegas as my home while practicing ‘art criticism’ in the hyper-textualized, super-virtuous high culture of the nineteen nineties probably seems a little studied—a bit calculatedly exotic—as if I were trying to make a ‘statement’ or something.”

In that essay he denies that his presence in Vegas is any sort of statement. But there is a striking similarity to the pleasure Hickey claims to find in Vegas and the “pleasant surprise” he defines as crucial to his experience of art.

Hickey on Vegas from the essay “A Home in the Neon” in Air Guitar: “Vegas lives in those fluttery moments of faint but rising hope, in the possibility of wonder, in the swell of desire while the dice are still bouncing, just before the card flips face-up.”

Hickey on art from the expanded edition of The Invisible Dragon: “... the pleasant surprises we experience in the presence of art will function as a hedge against habit and rhetoric—will routinely preempt blandishments of vested interest, tribal authority, transcendental religion, metaphysical ethics and abstract philosophy. ... The past may create an object and the object create a future … if we are sensitive to the past, alive to the present and alert to the possibilities of the future.”

In other words, Vegas and art both suggest the freedom of the unknown, a brief second of infinite possibility.

So, here is how Dave Hickey begins his Allman Brothers story: “I completely made up an interview with Dickey Betts that was so good that Dickey thinks I am a genius, because I read his mind so profoundly. For rock ’n’ roll, after a while you just get it.”

Who knows how truthful he is being about the Dickey Betts interview, or how untruthful he is being about how untruthful he was back then. To Hickey these lines can be fluid to a point. When I suggest we meet at one spot for an interview, he suggests instead I edit him into whatever location I want him to be in. In Air Guitar he writes: “The pieces in this book are quite literally ‘speculative writing,’ neither stories nor essays but something more like fables: compressed narratives, grounded in real experiences and as true as they need to be, with little ‘morals’ at the end.” One piece is narrated from the beyond by Hank Williams.

Not that Hickey is indifferent to truth or to what is said about him. Casually, as if asking me to pass a joint, he at one point says: “You are going to run this stuff by me so I can put it in typing.” He is totally disarming and charming and vastly more articulate than the “huh” I offer in response. Hickey is all confidence: “You will run direct quotes by me so I can fix them,” he clarifies. He doesn’t really expect me to agree. He was a journalist, after all. But Hickey is a writer dedicated to lucidity; he really thinks that his writing would be a valid substitute for quotes of him speaking. And I am probably wrong to decline the opportunity to let him improve my story.

Of course, for Hickey that would be a lot of stories to fix. To journalists from out of town Hickey’s presence still offers the allure that Las Vegas has more to offer than surfaces. This is despite the fact that one of the things Hickey says about Las Vegas is that it is all surface, but at least when he says that, the quote comes from a certified MacArthur genius, the sage of Las Vegas, who lives in a sort of self-exile from the power centers of the art world. Not that Hickey and Lumpkin are exactly in hiding. The world comes to their door. In recent weeks, in addition to Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times has interviewed Hickey twice and Lumpkin once. And, of course, in the wake of the Las Vegas Art Museum closing Lumpkin has also been doing her share of interviews. “People always want to talk to us when we get fired,” Lumpkin jokes. In fact, the national attention she’s received is a measure of the success the museum had achieved under her leadership. In the art world, everyone knew a promising institution had just belly-flopped.

But the fact is that, though she was not fired, now that Lumpkin has walked away from the Las Vegas Art Museum (and it has collapsed), there are few opportunities in this town worthy of her credentials, and so the couple reluctantly faces leaving Las Vegas. “I love Vegas. I really do,” Lumpkin says of her home of almost 20 years. “If I could have an academic career here, I would be in heaven.”

But that seems unlikely. According to UNLV art department Chairman Jeff Burden, during the 18 months he has held the job there has only been one new hire in the department. Now the threat of budget cuts makes more hires in the near term unlikely. And that is leaving out the factor of being married to the bad boy of the art world, whose favorite target is the UNLV art department. Burden says views on Hickey would never be an issue with Lumpkin, and adds that he likes Hickey, respects his work and even has lunch with him occasionally. But Burden also dissents from Hickey’s view of graduate art programs and feels that even without Hickey in the department, UNLV is on its way to having a world-class art program. Of course, the reality is that the most famous person in the art world connected to UNLV now teaches in the English department.

Hickey does not want to leave Las Vegas, but he is the more mobile of the two, with book contracts and a high profile—the MacArthur grant—that guarantee in his view a good chance at a certain salary level wherever he goes. He, as always, is willing to gamble. And the current situation is unsustainable: “The best art curator in the United States is in the back tending the garden. That is not right.”

In fact, Hickey, for all his worldliness, and Lumpkin, with her conservative demeanor, turned out to be huge risk-takers. They bet heavily on the future of fine art in Vegas, and then came the moment after the moment of possibility—after the dice settled and the card flipped, the moment Hickey, like most gamblers, acknowledges but rarely dwells on in his writing, the moment when you lose, and what happens next?


Richard Abowitz

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