Lumpkin It at LVAM

Las Vegas Art Museum’s Libby Lumpkin revamps the plans

Chuck Twardy

Perhaps the most important fact about the exhibition More: Michael Reafsnyder, Painting and Sculpture 2002-2005 is that it is the first show in the Las Vegas Art Museum's new "Contemporaries" series.

The series is the creation of the museum's new director, Libby Lumpkin, and with one blast of bold color and bracing ebullience, it has remade the museum. For much of the past decade, the idea of showing contemporary art at the museum was anathema. Under the guidance of former curator James Mann, the museum followed a program that spurned most aspects of postmodernism and concentrated on art that reaffirmed links with pre-modern traditions.

Lumpkin, the founding curator of the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, former director of the museum studies program at California State University, Long Beach, and an art professor who has taught at Yale and Harvard in addition to a stint at UNLV, joined the Las Vegas Art Museum as consulting executive director this summer. And Mann is no longer with the museum. He had been curator-at-large for several years, commuting between Las Vegas and a family home in South Carolina, and Lumpkin says he resigned to attend to family issues.

Whatever the case, this marks the third regime change at the museum since the decade's start. Painter and gallery-owner Joe Palermo had overseen the one-time art guild's move into the Sahara West Library gallery facilities in the 1990s. Marianne Lorenz, previously director of the Yellowstone Museum of Art in Montana, succeeded Palermo in 2001, only to be replaced by Karen Barrett two years later. The museum first devised the title "consulting executive director" for Palermo, and invited Mann back as "curator-at-large."

Lorenz was at the helm for the museum's association with the Smithsonian Institution, which brought Gilbert Stuart's Landsdowne Portrait of George Washington to the museum on its national tour. (The local Donald W. Reynolds Foundation had contributed the $20 million for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery to purchase the Stuart painting.) She also steered the museum away from Mann's thesis about "art after postmodernism," overseeing at least one contemporary photography show.

But after Lorenz's departure, the museum revived Mann's more traditionalist ethic, and exhibitions took a sometimes querulous tone. Text panels complementing shows of work by competent but little-known artists went out of the way to discredit celebrated art of the later 20th century. The works of abstract painter Marlene Tseng Yu, said one panel, "amaze and intrigue to a degree that those of the great initiators of postwar, world-conquering American abstract painting no longer do."

Gerald D. Facciani, who joined the LVAM board in 2003 and became board president this spring, said the museum needed a new perspective. "Some of us, anyway, came to the conclusion that it was time to change," said Facciani, a retired actuary. "There was a demand for contemporary art in the community." Facciani called Lumpkin's appointment "a fortuitous series of circumstances."

He also said that Lumpkin and her husband, fellow critic and curator Dave Hickey, were good friends of his. Barrett, an executive with Southwest USA Bank, remains on the board and is its treasurer and finance chairman. Facciani said he and Barrett are partners.

He also asserted that LVAM under Lumpkin's guidance would become a destination not only for local residents but the city's millions of visitors. As an actuary, he added, "I'm not prone to hyperbole."

Lumpkin had similar goals in her sights. "We are kind of a second home to millions," she said. "We are envisioning a full-tilt museum."

But Lumpkin sees LVAM staying where it is: "This is our home. We will never abandon this facility." Still, she noted, "We would love to have a branch in a part of town that's more easily accessed by tourists." That would most likely mean Downtown Las Vegas. Lumpkin said she's had "offers to go inside" another entity, such as the Guggenheim Hermitage at the Venetian Resort and Casino, but added, "It's very difficult to bond emotionally with a box inside someone else's building ... Part of that bond is a physical presence."

Lumpkin also is a Fellow of the International Institute of Modern Letters, founded by Glenn Schaeffer, president and chief executive officer of Fontainebleau Resorts and former Mandalay Resorts Group president. As director of design discourse for the IIML, Lumpkin is setting up a graduate design program at UNLV. She said she'd long admired the museum's lodgings at West Sahara Library. "I had not felt it has really fulfilled its potential."

Both Facciani and Lumpkin have lofty goals for LVAM but both spoke of the institution, which started in 1950 as an art guild in Lorenzi Park, as a "community art museum." Whatever the goals, however, LVAM will have to secure its finances better. Facciani said Lumpkin was not hired for that purpose but that her background and reputation would certainly aid fundraising.

For her part, Lumpkin said LVAM is in a "we eat what we kill situation" and will need to do better: "A museum cannot enter the community of internationally respected museums of contemporary art ... unless it can plan for the future with confidence."

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