More than a year after passing its Percent for Arts Program—setting aside 5 percent of annual room tax and property taxes for public art projects—Clark County has hired Nevadan Denise Duarte as its coordinator and assembled a seven-member volunteer committee that met for the first time last week.
When we caught up with Duarte earlier this month, she was paging through a book of building projects underway, talking about place making, community building and the idea of including art in the early dialogue of a project’s design phase so that it’s not just plopped in later as an afterthought. It’s the kind of thing she'd been focused on the past two years at the prestigious Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she received her MFA in community arts in May before returning to Las Vegas.
Attending MICA, she says, was a way for her to meld her life as an artist and as an activist trying “to build a better world,” something she believes public art has a role in. Her new position has her overseeing the upkeep of existing public art and public art education programs, commissioning new works in unincorporated Clark County and meeting with neighborhood groups. The commissioned art projects will initially be given to Las Vegas area artists.
Duarte and Patrick Gaffey—the county’s cultural program supervisor, responsible for mapping out the program—know to take careful, responsible steps, given the opportunity in front of them and the contention some have for public money used on art. Then there is the sometimes diabolic debate over what art is and where it belongs.
Additionally, they'll work with the program's seven-member committee that represents the different voices, backgrounds and professions in the community: art advisor and gallery owner Michele Quinn, who played an active role in bringing in CityCenter’s $40 million art collection; architect Eric Strain; UNLV professor Pasha Rafat, who teaches Art in Public Places; artist Vicki Richardson, director of Left of Center Gallery; CSN professor Keith Conley; artist Lisa Stemanis with the City of Las Vegas Arts Commission; and Patty Dominguez, program director of the Metro Arts Council of Southern Nevada.
A key player in all of this is the community at large, says Duarte, a native Nevadan, who graduated from Chaparral High School: “Talking with the community and engaging them in their environment is important here. People are still getting roots in this area. Some are just now starting to tap into the community. Public art and culture helps with that. It should build a community.”
Using art to connect places with their cultural and historical significance is something Duarte is versed in. Her own Las Vegas projects include “Flourish” in the Cultural Corridor, which won the 2011 Mayor's Urban Design Award for Public Art. She collaborated with Dayo Adelaja, Sylvester Collier, and Adolpho Gonzalez on the 16-foot steel sculpture, “Ancestral Gateway” at Doolittle Senior Center on the city's west side (winning the 2008 Mayor's Urban Design Award) and again with those artists and Vicki Richardson on “Reach,” a steel sculpture at the Pearson Community Center.