Desperate optimism

The subtle advantages of being an artist in Las Vegas

LA Now at the Las Vegas Art Museum —in better times.
Photo: Steve Marcus
Danielle Kelly

In a recent conversation with me, the artist Polly Apfelbaum described herself as a “desperate optimist.” As for my own state of mind, truer words were never spoken. The haters are winning, if only by a hair, and cynicism is looming at the base of my brain. Or maybe the haters are my brain.

Like any good mirage, the enigma of the Vegas Valley’s burgeoning visual-arts scene has shifted yet again with this spring’s closure of some of the community’s best and brightest institutions in rapid succession. Water Street Gallery, Main Gallery and Naomi Arin Contemporary Art (to name just a few) have folded in ripple effect. Others teeter on the brink.

The most towering sense of loss, though, comes from the closing of the Las Vegas Art Museum—for what is a civilized city without an art museum? This might be the Wild West, but it is also 2009. How did we let this happen?

I love a good challenge, but these circumstances are a big pill to swallow even for a DIY Pollyanna such as myself. Why bother? Why drag myself out of bed everyday to make art in a city that doesn’t seem to want any?

Everyone makes art for different reasons, some more tangible than others. Vegas’ tangibles are pretty good.

Economic feasibility is key. If you have a job or manage to sell work, you can live here, and live here well while showing your art … usually somewhere else. Vegas offers the space to breathe and move, mentally and physically. And since you aren’t preoccupied with survival, you can actually make art! Big art, scale-wise. This makes NYC and LA artist friends very jealous.

Looking to wrestle with the big guys? LA is four hours away, close enough to tap into a world-renowned art center on a regular basis. Here is the promise of tangible engagement, the possibility to see amazing art and explore career potential while maintaining a sane distance from the Art Machine. If an artist is more commodity-driven, this distance allows for focus and clarity, not to mention the huge gift of being able to take giant risks in your practice that the market (or what’s left of it) might not favor.

And have you noticed that we live in close proximity to some of the most stunningly beautiful natural phenomena America has to offer? (And I don’t mean poolside at Rehab.)

All of these things are well and good, but my own brand of desperate optimism thrives on the intangibles.

Las Vegas has an incomparable, indefatigable sense of promise. She is always, almost, really … something. The abundance of raw visual material, both in the city and the desert, is breathtaking. But for me, the city’s richest raw material is social. There is so much relevant and relatable art to be made in response to the social workings of this place—as a global destination, as a microcosm of immigrant culture, as ground zero for the housing collapse. The dramatic intersection of wealth and poverty is mind-blowing.

I am a sucker for marginal places, and spent many formative years in direct collision with DIY art scenes in Portland, Oregon, and Glasgow, Scotland. Art, by necessity, was an experiment. In a city with no buyers, no venues and minimal interest, artists were forced to create their own opportunities—usually with vibrant results. They changed their cities. And this is the greatest lure of Las Vegas: Art is urgent, important and real. Every day is an experiment. An artist can make an immediate impact in real time and effect change, even for a day.

So, haters, you are stuck in Las Vegas. Deal with it. Going anywhere anytime soon? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Instead of talking about what is wrong with Las Vegas’ visual-arts scene, why not put your energy into making it better? Because what you do makes a difference. It’s one of the very best things about being an artist in Las Vegas.


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