The State Should Believe In Our Artists

The Governor’s portrait sends the wrong message

Joshua Longobardy

Sir: I too thought the news Adam Baker just incited with his nationwide urinal tour was lame. At first, it was kind of funny when he, having just been dismissed in the state-sanctioned running to paint your official portrait, hung his oil depiction of you, sitting regal and impervious to time, above a couple of urinals in our state's Capitol Building. But then, after he took it to bathrooms around the country, it got downright ridiculous. One needs only to browse his website to see that Adam Baker is a fine portrait artist, particularly in a state that appears to suffer a major sterility in the genre, but he is not so good that his dismissal as one of the finalists to render your portrait should stir a widespread controversy.

But the point behind his news, in essence, was a good one: In a state still trying to develop its own cultural traditions, he says, it would only be right to commission a Nevada artist to render the portrait of the Nevada governor, which is mandated by Nevada law and paid for by Nevada tax dollars.

"I think if the Governor goes out of the state to get the job done, the commission should come out of his own pocket, and not the Nevada taxpayers'," Adam Baker says—and I agree. For if Nevada looks elsewhere to spend the $20,000 the Legislature allocated it for this portrait ($17,500 for the work and framing, and $2,500 for the travel costs), what does that say about the state of art here in Nevada? And about our state's faith in its own?

Teresa Moiola, from the department of cultural affairs, tells me that her department was asked by your offices to assume the task of managing the artist selection process this year, and so they distributed on May 2 an open call to professional artists nationwide, through media outlets and art organizations, and considered all 38 artists who responded by the May 31 deadline.

"We tried to cast a wide net, to catch as large a selection as possible," she says. "Because portrait art is a very specific art, and is not all that common."

Of those 38, she adds, the selection committee—composed in part of Nevada museum curators, a board member of the Nevada Arts Council, and the First Lady of Nevada, your wife—chose on June 16 three finalists and two alternatives, none of whom was Adam Baker nor from the state of Nevada, sparking the notorious urinal tour.

Moiola says that, in the end, the decision to commission Michele Rushworth of Sammamish, Washington, was yours. She is an exemplary painter, perhaps one of the stellar artists of our country, and there's no doubt about it: You have fine taste in portrait art. Your spokesperson Steve George says: "This isn't irregular; the last several governors have had their portraits painted by artists out of state, and one was even out of the country."

My fear is that such a record of outsourcing makes our state appear hollow, and that fear is great enough that I felt compelled to write you this letter. If the governor's portrait is such a major piece of our state's master narrative that the Legislature has deemed its rendering worthy of state law, isn't it a shame we can't commission a Nevadan to tell, in oil, that story—to be observed in our capitol building by generations to come?

Moiola reminds me that all the finalists chosen by the selection committee were out of state, and so you only had them to chose from. But you, sir, in your last days as governor, retain the power of veto, and therefore you could have said: No, we need to commission a Nevada artist to render this portrait; and if there were none of necessary merit who responded to the open call, then we need to scour the state for one.

Which was possible, because, as Adam Baker tells me, "there are ample resources for artists available in [Kenny Guinn's] own state." Your office oversees the department of cultural affairs, which oversees the Nevada arts council—both of which are funded with tax dollars to foster the arts in Nevada and both of which were active in this artist search and selection—and it's your state's license plates that boast, from Searchlight to McDermitt:

"Nevada: Rich in Art."

I, for one, decline to believe there are no worthy portrait artists in our state, and I, now that Michele Rushworth has already been flown into Nevada and is in the process of painting your picture, wish this message to be forwarded to the incoming governor—that Nevada would not lose another opportunity to empower one of its own—and I sign yours truly,

Joshua Longobardy

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