Earlier this month, Las Vegas-based artist Cory McMahon was told to remove his work from the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery, sparking a larger, albeit age-old conversation about who gets to determine what does and doesn’t qualify as art. McMahon’s exhibition, Space Available, featured his personal belongings, paintings and miscellany strewn through the Government Center art space, with queue barriers separating the piles of lumber and stacks of cardboard boxes. “These are all the possessions of Cory McMahon,” a sign inside the gallery read. “The Rotunda space will be his personal storage until June 30, 2018. Please be respectful of these items.”
Except the powers that be—in this case, County management—decided the Rotunda Gallery was not McMahon’s personal storage unit. Nor was it wowed by the artist’s boundary-pushing piece. “I think the lesson in this case is that we probably need to work more closely with the artist as they develop their artwork so that what is produced meets everybody’s expectations, from the artist’s point of view, but also from the gallery owners’ point of view,” Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa said.
Las Vegas might not yet have a museum to anchor its arts scene, but the message sent from the city’s arts community after the takedown of McMahon’s work revealed a supportive network of artists, and a culture that demands to be taken seriously. “I wanted to have these conversations—that was definitely one of the goals,” McMahon tells the Weekly. “I really was questioning space in general and how we are using space in the city, how every day non-artists think about space and how we’re all sharing space.”
Though McMahon says he was disappointed with the way his show was handled, he still thinks there’s room for non-traditional artists to succeed in Las Vegas.
“Ultimately, artists need to take responsibility for their work and not let any outside person or force bend their will to fit whatever their agenda is,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of potential for Las Vegas … and it’s up to the artist to make their own space and make those opportunities possible.”
Prominent local artist Justin Favela—who has shown all over the globe—says McMahon’s show demonstrates why it’s imperative that artists have advocates or people who will “go up to bat and defend” an artist’s work, especially when that work is being questioned by those in power.
Recent UNLV MFA graduate and Paint This Desert founder Ed Fuentes agrees, adding that he’s confident the region will learn from this incident. After all, found objects have been simultaneously misunderstood and lauded since the likes of Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp introduced the concept of using everyday materials as art in the early 20th century. “People are going to remember this as a turning point,” Fuentes says. “This has become a part of Las Vegas art history—and that’s good for art.”