Art museum efforts in Las Vegas have had a rough go of it: Two Guggenheims in a Strip casino both closed; the Las Vegas Art Museum has a permanent collection but no home of its own; and a push to open a Downtown museum by major collectors was discouraged by the City of Las Vegas.
It’s no wonder then that the public’s reaction to plans for a new Downtown art museum has ranged from blind elation to skepticism.
In a town where the 25-year-old Contemporary Arts Center, a visual art institution with solid programming, is homeless—as is the Las Vegas Art Museum—the idea of creating a new, completely separate institution from scratch seems audacious.
This is a city where opportunities have existed, but getting community backing for art museums has been difficult: The former Las Vegas Art Museum on West Sahara Avenue was “too far” and “too contemporary,” and some argued that seeing revered masterworks in casinos wasn’t worth a trip to the Strip, nor an admission fee equal to that of an East Coast institution where one could spend hours. More recently, some say they might not visit UNLV’s Barrick Museum simply because they can’t figure out where to park.
The idea that if you want to see art, you just go see it (no matter how slim the offerings or unorthodox the environment), doesn’t apply here.
It is within this environment that the Modern Contemporary Art Museum, a 501c3 nonprofit, recently launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and opened a fundraising/community interaction space inside ArtSquare. With it, there’s the hope that some of the riddles of getting the community to patronize an art museum will finally be solved.
In addition to the 50,000 square-foot-museum (to be located at East Charleston Boulevard and Art Way), plans for the project include the Center for Creativity, highlighting educational programs for residents of all backgrounds and economic levels, and Luminous Park, an outdoor sculpture garden.
The Modern’s new project manager, Melanie Coffee, has worked as operations manager for the Neon Museum and recently stepped down as interim director of the Liberace Museum. She received her master’s in museum studies at the University of Leicester, where her thesis focused on audience development challenges for art museums in Las Vegas.
Coffee says the Modern appealed to her because of the museum’s heavy educational component and the fact that community involvement is an integral part of its launch.
“In many cases, people build museums and they say, ‘Here you go,’” Coffee says. “We want to hear what the people want the museum to be. It’s for Las Vegas. Anybody can come by and talk to us and give us their input.”
In that regard, the Modern might actually work. The plan for the $29 million building, Coffee says, is to host traveling exhibits of works from the early 1900s to present day. Brett Sperry, the project’s board chair, says the museum won’t open as a collecting institution.
Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Alliance of Museums, says non-collecting museums are uncommon but not an anomaly, adding that the number of non-collecting museums, include the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the Renaissance Society in Chicago, the Aspen Art Museum and the New Museum in New York City.
Museums are able to attract more funding if the institutions have a permanent collection, but that the benefit of non-collecting institutions, Blanton says, is that they’re able to put their resources into education programs.
Coffee says museums do their best work when they have educational and social components.
As to the success of another art museum in Las Vegas, Sperry (whose Brett Wesley Gallery is across the hall from the the Modern’s fundraising space in ArtSquare) says, “All of us in our community deserve to see what’s happening in the visual arts with photography, painting, sculpture, mixed-media. Let’s at least give them the opportunity and see where the chips fall.”