Art 101: A tour through Las Vegas’ visual arts scene

Deborah Butterfield’s “Setsuko”
Photo: Sam Morris

Art Scene Guide

Art in Las Vegas

We’re not gonna lie, Las Vegas is no visual arts hotbed. Despite the town’s talent and money, there’s never been broad public or community support. We have no public art institution. Some argue that our university’s art department desperately needs an overhaul. And the mayor of Las Vegas says his city doesn’t need an art museum.

But there is a scene well worth exploring. A small but solid stable of Vegas-based artists is creating interesting work in a diverse range of media. Commercial and civic galleries frequently house important local and national exhibits. The Valley is sprinkled with quality public-art projects, publicly and privately funded. And an arts-funding program allocates one percent from each capital project in the city of Las Vegas for art enhancements.

Moreover, Downtown’s First Friday arts celebration is 10 years old and still drawing crowds. Others head Downtown for Preview Thursday art openings, and the Goldwell Open Air Museum outside Beatty offers an artist-in-residence program. Still, Vegas newcomers or longtime residents can have a hard time navigating Southern Nevada’s art scene. That’s where we come in ...



Arts District

Trifecta Gallery

As you wander this charmingly gritty industrial Downtown area, you’ll notice there isn’t a whole lot of art, given the neighborhood’s name. If every gallery, from blue-chip to emerging contemporary to DIY, had stayed open over the years, it would be a hopping cultural epicenter. But what has survived in this soap opera of an arts district makes for a good starting point for visitors wanting to nuzzle up to the scene. Its hub is the Arts Factory at Charleston and Main, a reliable First Friday stop and home to several galleries and studios, two of which maintain regular hours: Marty Walsh’s Trifecta Gallery and the Contemporary Arts Center. Trifecta is a great place to check out contemporary representational art by local, national and international artists. A new show opens each month in its commercial space, which also maintains a stock of quality works by its roster of artists, while Trifecta’s boutique offers objects d’art, jewelry and creative gifts.

Brett Wesley Gallery

The Contemporary Arts Center is a 20-year-old member-supported arts organization that, though vastly underfunded and mostly volunteer driven, presents some of the area’s most experimental, community-aware, sociopolitical and, in some cases, esoteric art events and exhibits, which vary in strength depending who runs the show. Across the street is Brett Wesley Gallery, a stunning space that features exhibits with appeal across a broad spectrum of mainstream contemporary-art audiences—and to those who normally avoid art. It’s one of the few functional galleries in town that dedicates a lot of space to high-end contemporary photography. And on Commerce Street is Blackbird Studios, a place full of surprises that welcomes everyone. A hodgepodge of artists work and show there, many of them self-taught.


This county-operated gallery has the perks of a noncommercial space devoted to explorations of ideas, issues and narratives by the varying voices and media of mostly local artists. Here they show without the pressure of making a sale. Site-specific works interact with the architecture. These artist-curated exhibits include paintings, sculptures and installations. Also operated by Clark County is the Government Center Rotunda, which also features emerging artists’ work. 3130 S. McLeod Drive, 455-8239; Rotunda: 500 S. Grand Central Parkway, 455-7030.

James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist


The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health might be the closest thing we have to a big-city art institution that displays quality contemporary works by established artists and those still building their careers. Go on a scheduled public art tour in this Frank Gehry-designed building to see a consignment collection of work by Ed Rushcha, Charles Arnoldi, David Ryan, Wayne Little John and others. Peter Alexander’s large-scale, pyramid-shaped sculpture, “Sugar,” sits in an outdoor courtyard. A recently commissioned James Rosenquist painting—the 20-by-10-foot pop-style “Cervello Spazio Cosmico,” which represents the artist’s interpretation of space as it appears in the X-ray of a human skull—hangs in the events center. The Clinic also offers a twice-monthly art lecture series, led by the Cleveland Museum of Art. 888 W. Bonneville Ave. 483-6000.


Like Winchester, this city-owned space in a cultural center allows for conceptual play and think tankery. It’s taken in some of the exhibits that had been scheduled for the now-closed Reed Whipple Center. 800 S. Brush Street, 229-6383.

Fletcher Benton's "Folded Circle"

Fletcher Benton's "Folded Circle"


Placed in developments in this suburb are Deborah Butterfield’s metal horse “Setsuko” (1635 Village Center Circle.) Butterfield is an American sculptor whose abstract horse sculptures are made from wire, cast bronze or scrap metal. “Setsuko,” made from cast bronze that replicates driftwood, is displayed in a formal bed of gravel, surrounded by hedges and benches at an office park. Butterfield’s work is at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Setsuko” was brought in as part of the Summerlin Community Art Program.

Rita Deanin Abbey’s Corten steel “Spirit Tower” (1771 Inner Circle Drive, outside the Summerlin Library). The conceptual, abstract piece reflects geological behavior and relates to the surrounding landscape. “Spirit Tower” was commissioned by the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

Fletcher Benton’s welded steel “Folded Circle” (8551 W. Lake Mead Boulevard behind the medical center). The inaugural piece of the Summerlin Community Art Program was brought in by the Howard Hughes Corp. Benton gained prominence in the 1960s and ’70s with his kinetic sculptures and later with his static work. Museums with his work include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


This Strip gallery shows museum-quality works by internationally known artists who have contributed significantly to the dialogue of contemporary art. The for-profit showcase gallery serves as a tourist attraction, but avoiding these exhibits because of their location and entrance fee ($12 for Nevada residents) would be plain silly. 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. N., 693-7871.

Oldenburg Flashlight


Possibly the best-known public sculpture in Las Vegas is Claes Oldenburg’s "Flashlight" (1981, steel painted with polyurethane enamel), which towers above UNLV’s Pida Plaza between two performance centers. In celebration of its 30th anniversary, UNLV’s Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery is hosting an exhibit of artist depictions and responses to the work through February 26. An anniversary event, including a screening and a panel discussion, takes place on February 18.


Self-described as an “alternative, and essential, view of the contemporary art scene, interpreted through the eyes of artists … committed to building respect for cultural diversity,” this North Las Vegas gallery is a must-see for a Vegas narrative delivered by diverse voices and skilled artists creating mostly representational works. Landscapes, portraiture, urban and rural scenes are displayed in rotating exhibits, studio workshops and permanent shows. 2207 W. Gowan Road, 647-7378.


Buster Simpson's Las Vegas Wash trailhead shelter

The art enhancements of the Pecos-McLeod trailhead on the Flamingo Arroyo Trail were designed by Phoenix’s Kevin Berry, Tucson’s Barbara Grygutis and Seattle’s Buster Simpson. Dedicated in September, the environmentally conscious works and landscaping include a large Pauite-inspired, weathered steel shade shelter and seating areas made of discarded rubble, including stairs from the imploded Stardust swimming pool. Off McLeod Drive south of Desert Inn.


Michael Heizer's "Double Negative"

Michael Heizer's "Double Negative"

Some 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas lies Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative,” one of the largest sculptures in the world. The 1,500-foot long, 30-foot wide, 50-foot deep earthwork was completed in 1970 by scooping away 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone to create trenches connected by a center canyon, resulting in a space that is doubly negative. The sculpture, owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and demanding a bumpy drive into the rugged desert, is both heady and astonishingly simplistic. GPS: 36.36’49.02 N 114.20 ‘39.89 W


CityCenter’s $40 million art collection of commissioned and acquired works by blue-chip artists includes pieces by Jenny Holzer, Nancy Rubins, Donald Judd and Maya Lynn. The Cosmopolitan followed by partnering with the nonprofit Art Production Fund in New York, creating a digital art space—eight large columns in its lobby and a marquee—that features an impressive art collection. The hotel also features two- and three-dimensional works by emerging and established artists, including mostly aerosol murals by Shepard Fairey, Shinique Smith, Kenny Scharf and Retna decorating parking garage walls near the elevator banks. Looking to buy? Centerpiece Gallery outside Mandarin Oriental features smaller works and art d’objects by blue-chip artists. More importantly, it has a rotating exhibit of local artists who are making their names in the art world.


This fiberglass sculpture ("Vaquero," 1990) of a Mexican cowboy waving a pistol and riding a blue bucking bronco typifies the emotion of Jimenez’s robust and vibrant sculptures. Jimenez has public works dotting American cities and his sculptures are in museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo. This piece was brought to the county by the McCarran Airport Arts Advisory Committee

Emergency Arts


Once a medical center (and a JC Penney before that) this mixed-use space is home to the Beat Coffeehouse, a gallery for the Burlesque Hall of Fame , a record shop, Las Vegas artist studios and small galleries mostly open only on First Friday. Well worth checking out. 520 Fremont St., 300-6268.


Albuquerque is known for her earthworks, sculptures and paintings. Her “Obelisk at Noon,” 1987, at Green Valley Civic Center, Sunset Road and Green Valley Parkway, Henderson is a towering minimalist monument that aligns with a tiled ground surface. The work was brought in by American Nevada Corp. and Robert Kraft Architects. Museum collections include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art-Los Angeles.


Made of concrete and porous rock, Hamrol's "Serpent Mound" at 1988, Green Valley Library, 2797 N. Green Valley Parkway, Henderson, reflects the valley’s natural landscape and was commissioned by the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

Names to Know

Kirsten Swenson, art historian and UNLV professor, writes for Art in America

How would you characterize the arts scene in Las Vegas? There are many excellent and very serious artists in this town doing important work—Danielle Kelly, Dave Sanchez-Burr, Aaron Sheppard, Erin Stellmon, Catherine Borg ... I could go on and on, including some of my current students who could have great careers. There is a fantastic, tight-knit community of artists, and they support each other, and dozens of art lovers from around town come to openings, so there’s a real foundation. But the scene is moribund—there is just no money and almost no reasonable exhibition spaces. Artists need a platform and resources to flourish, and our town does not provide this at the moment. So we have shows of strong work in really inadequate settings like the Government Center, the Winchester or Rosemary’s Restaurant. These sites can’t effectively showcase art and are frequented by a narrow population.

Places like the Bellagio Gallery, Centerpiece at CityCenter or CityCenter and the Cosmopolitan in general showcase blue-chip art, but they are not interested in the rougher, more experimental art of emerging artists and artists without huge budgets, and obviously name-brand art functions in these settings to lure wealthy tourists to the baccarat tables and boutiques. It is not about a local scene or community. So Vegas offers either art as luxury commodity or art as DIY enterprise—not much in between. This is the problem.

What is needed to create a more sophisticated art community? Money, education and art professionals. With the latter, I don’t so much mean dealers interested in placing work on the walls of condominiums on the Strip, but strong, independent curators and arts administrators. These would have to be imported—we have no current positions for these people and no programs to train them, so they aren’t here. But if a real museum opened up it would have the effect of bringing in a new group of arts professionals that would invigorate the scene well beyond this hypothetical museum where they would be employed.

A lot is made of the “uneducated” population, and a “provincial” lack of sophistication among Las Vegans—people offer this up in conversations with me about why an art museum would be unsustainable. But this is ridiculous; there are plenty of people who would support a museum in this region of almost 2 million, plenty of locals who already travel to LA or San Francisco or New York to see art. At UNLV alone, we have an art department with almost 400 studio art and art history majors. Add to that those studying art at CSN and other schools, high school students interested in art, the huge population of alumni, just to begin to get a sense for those who would embrace a museum.

How would a public art institution with proper funding, a functional board and educated staff change our city? Given the current economy and budget situation, I feel the need to start with a pragmatic answer: A serious museum would be integral to creating a more sophisticated, knowledgeable, educated population, and to improving quality of life in the region. Therefore, a serious museum would be integral to drawing workers here to take jobs that may open in emerging industries that require skilled and professional labor (we all hope alternative energy will be a boon to our region). To continue with the pragmatic logic, it would be a tourist draw, building on existing tourism and, in particular, drawing tourists to the new Downtown. I imagine our hypothetical museum near the Smith Center complex.

Mayor Goodman is wrong when he says that those wanting to see art can go to LA. They can’t. When I go to Springs Preserve on a weekday it is crowded with school children seeing wild animals and learning about sustainability. That sticks with them. Imagine an equivalent opportunity to experience art. It can’t be quantified, but the impact would be huge. And these students can’t just go to LA. It needs to be local and accessible. Let’s keep this in mind when considering who our next mayor will be.

We have many extraordinarily wealthy individuals who have made their fortunes in Las Vegas. One of these people has to step forward and become Las Vegas’s version of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (founder of the Whitney Museum) or Dominique de Menil (founder of the Menil Collection in Houston). This is the largest city in the country with no art museum. What a great opening for someone! We all know who those people are—I hope they are reading this!

Rita Deanin Abbey's "Spirit Tower"

Rita Deanin Abbey

Somewhat reclusive artist who has spent decades creating a massive collection of sculptures—unseen by all but a lucky few. Her work sits in a museum built on her property. Her sculpture, “Spirit Tower,” can be seen at the Summerlin Library.

Wendy Kveck

Artist and former director of the CAC, curates exhibits at Government Center and Winchester Gallery and shows at Rosemary’s Restaurant.

Danielle Kelly

Artist, art critic for Las Vegas Weekly, operations manager for the Neon Museum, which houses historical Las Vegas sign art.

Patrick Duffy

Art collector and board president of the now-closed Las Vegas Art Museum, which is negotiating with UNLV to place its permanent collection on the university campus

Catherine Borg

Stephen Hendee's "Monument to the Simulacrum"

Stephen Hendee

Artist and UNLV professor, and his wife, Catherine Borg, a curator and multimedia artist who has created work specific to the Las Vegas narrative, including several public projects, a digital installation at the Peppermill and the digital work “i only have stars for you; you only hold stars for me,” shown at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Hendee’s luminescent large-scale installations and “environments,” created mostly from Polypropylene, black glue, fluorescent lights and gels, have been shown nationally and internationally and in multiple locations in Las Vegas. His “Monument to Simulacrum” (stainless steel, 12 feet high and 9 feet in diameter), located in Centennial Plaza next to the Fifth Street School, holds Las Vegas’ time capsule, set to be opened in 2105. Dedicated to the works of late philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who once commented on the “hyper real” nature of Las Vegas, its majestic, dark, angular and formidable body symbolizes the emergence and perseverance of a city filled with pioneers beginning anew in an extreme and hostile environment. Art in America recognized “Monument” as one of the best public art projects in 2007.

Photo of Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson

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