The Arts District: Where have all the galleries gone?

Trifecta Gallery owner Marty Walsh and Spud, surrounded by works by Sam Davis.
Photo: Adam Shane

It’s appropriate and possibly serendipitous that Anthony Bondi’s exhibit Enigma opens this week at Sin City Gallery inside the Arts Factory.

The Contemporary Arts Center

Based on posters the Las Vegas artist made for Enigma Cafe, once the bohemian hub of Downtown in the 1990s, the show not only exhibits Bondi’s collage-style approach to art, but pays homage to the former Fourth Street cafe, once the home of music, art and poetry in Las Vegas, “a meeting place for exchange and collaboration; it was the center for artistic creativity.”

Enigma closed in 2000, but two years later its co-owner, the late Julie Brewer, went on to form First Friday with Cindy Funkhouser and Naomi Arin, both of whom had galleries in the monthly art crawl.

And so it began. Dozens of galleries would open and close Downtown—a revolving door of professional spaces exhibiting career artists and galleries created by enthusiasts who’d always wanted to open one in the same way they’d always wanted to take a stab at writing the Great American Novel.

Yasmnia Chavez's exhibit "Floss and Gravity" at TastySpace Saturday, July 26, 2014.

Yasmnia Chavez's exhibit "Floss and Gravity" at TastySpace Saturday, July 26, 2014.

With cheap rent and guaranteed foot traffic one night a month, just about anyone could throw a hat in the ring, trying it out, closing shop, moving on. There were disappointments with the closures, but an optimistic spirit was afoot, the ball was rolling, art was the driving force of the area extending around the intersection of Main Street and Charleston Boulevard.

But the mood has changed. With Trifecta Gallery closing at the end of January, TastySpace Gallery closing December 1, the Contemporary Arts Center reorganizing without a gallery home, Vast Space Projects now operating as a roaming gallery and the slowing of Emergency Arts’ gallery scene, there’s a more somber sentiment regarding the immediate future of the Las Vegas arts community. Add to that the rising cost of rent in the Arts District area and things are looking dire.

Artists say that pop-up exhibits toeing the line isn’t exactly promising for careers or gallerygoers. And while local artists can (and do) show in other cities, it really does little for the community as a whole. Mainly, the word “sad” sprinkles current conversations.

The art of campaigning: Lonnie Hammargren holds court at VAST Space Projects.

Perhaps Bondi’s exhibit will be a reminder that things will be okay. Las Vegas is the master of reinvention. It’s how our city rolls.

One longtime cultural player recently talked of the ebbing and flowing of galleries and gathering spaces over the decades, pointing out that before Enigma there was the Newsroom, a Downtown cafe and newsstand in the ’80s that was opened by Lenadams Dorris, Brewer’s counterpart in Enigma. Years before the Arts District would arrive, Dorris talked about Fourth Street becoming a happening place with the same energy and drive of those who went on to build the neighborhood. And this month, Satellite Contemporary, a collaboration between three artists and faculty in Flagstaff, opens inside Emergency Arts.

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