Art

[Design]

The Las Vegas archway

Welcome to the international public art scene. Or, Look, giant paintbrushes!

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Illustration: Meg Hunt

Not as if Vegas didn’t have enough lights, but last week the Las Vegas City Council approved funding for a giant piece of public artwork designed to highlight the perpetually up-and-coming arts district between the Strip and Downtown.

The sculpture is a pair of 50-foot-high steel-frame paintbrushes, one at Charleston and Main, the other at Charleston and Las Vegas Boulevard, The brushes will shoot multi-colored LED light between them. The brushes are meant to evoke an “arch,” Vegas-style. The commission for the $438,000 project was won by New York artist Dennis Oppenheim.

The concept of an arch had always been a part of plans for the gateway sculpture, and an early Oppenheim proposal reportedly featured paint splashing out of a bucket and transforming into a flamingo. Dust Gallery owner Naomi Arin was part of a committee that recommended Oppenheim last fall, among three other finalists for the job. She says the city is “lucky to have someone of his stature,” but adds that she would have liked to see more artists’ proposals.

Others are also enthused about the selection of Oppenheim. “When you investigate the artist and what he’s trying to say, it’s about time that Las Vegas steps up to the international plate,” says arts commissioner Patrick Duffy. “By choosing Dennis Oppenheim’s work, we tell the national and international art community and the society in general that Las Vegas is a sophisticated cultural center.”

Observers have pointed to Chicago’s Millennium Park as an example of what public artwork can do to enliven the public realm—and to bring in revenue to city coffers. The comparisons, though, don’t particularly work, given that just one piece of that project, Cloud Gate, Anish Kapoor’s instantly iconic mirrored kidney bean, cost $23 million.

As Las Vegas Art Museum director Libby Lumpkin notes, “If you want a world-shattering monument, in today’s market you need a larger budget. With Oppenheim you get a fine work of art.”

That may be enough, considering that the project will cost $438,000; it’s funded by a combination of Municipal Public Arts Funds and a matching grant from the Nevada Department of Transportation. It may seem like too much money to spend during these difficult economic times, and according to a city spokesman, there’s no hard date on when the project will break ground, but it’s supposed to be finished by 2010.

Still, its supporters believe the expense is worth it to try to enhance the standing of the Vegas art scene and, by extension, presumably, the city itself. “If we put those monies back in the coffers, where are we going to see the benefit of those monies?” asks Duffy. The work, on the other hand, will last for people to “enjoy, criticize, laugh at.”

When asked whether the arts district needs a sculpture, or any kind of indicator, Arin responds, “No. But it makes the city such a better place to be when you do. But that shouldn’t be limited to the arts district. That should be throughout the entire city.”

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