People in the Arts

Exit interview: Gina Quaranto on the Arts District, closing Blackbird and her final show

Photo: Bill Hughes

Detail of a David Veliz painting at Blackbird Studios

Wes Anderson has taken over Blackbird Studios. The hot-pink walls lined with faux-wood paneling are covered in paintings celebrating his films. There’s a themed and peculiarly homey feeling in the Commerce Street space, where Gina Quaranto sits under a painting of Bill Murray’s Mr. Bishop (from Moonrise Kingdom) reading a newspaper.

Beautiful brushwork. Nice composition on the flocked green background. The artist, David Veliz, had walked into the gallery years earlier as a teenager, then worked odd jobs in the space and now is a featured artist. Typical at Blackbird, a place that has given so many new artists a chance.

Now Quaranto, one of the more outspoken advocates of the Downtown Arts District known as 18b, is closing Blackbird—ending its five-year run on January 15, with the final reception for the themed group show she’s wanted to do for four years.

Why Wes Anderson? He’s an artist. He’s always inspired me, and I feel like I’ve been like a secret Wes Anderson character all my life. You know, life uniforms. I identify with that. ... Also, each scene is a painting. When I saw Life Aquatic and saw he actually stylized underneath the sea, I was like, I get this guy.

How does it feel to be closing? It’s bittersweet, because I’ve been looking forward to it. I feel bad that people are so sad, but I feel like I’ve done everything I could. I’m ready to move on, to not have that stress on my back. I feel that there’s going to be no place now like this here, but I feel like I can go to bed at night knowing I did the best I could.

Has it been worth it? Absolutely. We opened up in the recession, knowing it wasn’t going to be a money-maker. We just needed a place where we could see artists you wouldn’t see at the Arts Factory or at Brett Wesley. These shows were mostly shows of brand new, emerging artists. A lot of the shows weren’t sellable because they were installations, but they needed to be seen. And we introduced a lot of artists, including Su Limbert [and] Juan Muniz.

Favorite shows? All the group shows were my favorite—Pee Wee Herman, Wes Anderson, The Goonies, Dr. Seuss. And Su Limbert’s big show.

Thoughts on Las Vegas’ current gallery scene? It’s changed so much in the past two years. About a year ago I pulled out of the politics; I pulled out of everything. ... It was on my mind constantly. This wasn’t just a gallery. This was my neighborhood. My art scene.

What happened? It was the whole First Friday thing. It changed significantly down here when [ownership changed]. First Friday was our thing. We spent 10 years getting that going. It was all about art. It was literally taken away from us. It took away the whole idea of galleries and made it into a party. You go out on the street and there are products, Made in China products.

What’s next for you? I’m going to work on my own artwork. I want to explore more sculpture and installation. Most importantly I’m going to be home with my son. I’m not going to drag him to Downtown Alliance meetings or to City Hall or different meetings everyday. We’re going to come home from school like normal people and I’m going to cook dinner. I’m going to help him with his homework. He’s 12 now. I think he should have some routine in his life. My focus was this for so long, and I was a mother to a gazillion artists.

Is he happy about it? No. He’s sad. He never saw it as a hindrance. Gabe loves the people here. I felt the gallery was good for him. It opened him up to all different types of people.

What were your biggest struggles? The city doesn’t make it easy. They put the craziest stipulations on these places, and they’re not doing what they say they’re going to do. They’re okay with keeping things dilapidated and owned by out-of-towners and letting them stay vacant and then putting fancy benches on the other side of Charleston where nobody even goes. And we talked to them about that, in and out of meetings, and they still don’t listen.

Do you miss living Downtown? I do, but I’ve really acclimated to Green Valley. I like being home and having structure and not worrying about a gazillion things that I have no control over. It’s so different. In the last two years this block has gotten so bad with the homeless people. They’re migrating, and the first thing I’d have to do was pick up human fecal matter.

Is it still an arts district? I don’t know. We have so little power. There are so many entities.

Closing thoughts? I love this gallery, and I love 18b and everybody in it. It’s so new that we all grew up in it. We created it together. And maybe it’s harder for us because we had to build everything up, but it’s been rewarding.

Bye Bye Blackbird January 15, 7 p.m. Blackbird Studios, 1551 S. Commerce St., 702-782-0319.

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Kristen Peterson

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