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Exit interview with public art specialist Michael Ogilvie

Brent Holmes
Michael Ogilvie at the site of Wayne Littlejohn's sculpture "Dream Machine."

Artist Michael Ogilvie, who has administered public art programs for the city of Las Vegas and, most recently, Clark County, is departing after a string of successes that include the county’s “Centered” project — grabby artworks enlivening medians on local roadways — and last month’s installation of Wayne Littlejohn’s “Dream Machine” sculpture in Siegfried & Roy Park. He’ll be doing the same kind of work in San Jose, California. Before he left, we picked his brain one last time.

What changes, for better or worse, have you observed in the state of public art here?

There is no ‘worse’ to this answer unless you reach back before the 1970s, when Heizer was not throwing dirt and the Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen “Flashlight” at UNLV was nowhere in sight. Basically before then public art was virtually nonexistent in Las Vegas (though one could make a good argument that Betty Willis’s ‘Welcome to Las Vegas Sign’ became public art once she decided to give up the copyright and let the public take ownership). Public art has come on in a big way in this town, and part of that is because we have this vast landscape, a giant earth canvas, whose inhabitants yearn for more than asphalt and concrete.

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One of the challenges in public art here has simply been to defend it and educate the public. Thankfully, it is not too hard to do when you have hundreds of talented artists that call this area home and who are creating superior visual art. When the art is strong it stimulates public imagination. Imagination leads to innovation. Innovation leads to a better world. So for the “better” is the road Las Vegas is on now in regards to public art and hopefully it stays that way.

As a side note, I am all in for professional sports in Las Vegas, but did you know the $750 million being pumped into the stadium could fund the public art here for more than seven hundred years? Las Vegas needs to decide what it values and what kind of legacy it hopes to leave to future generations. Public art can leave a legacy, look at Rome — one of the main reasons millions of people visit Rome is for the art and architecture, and most of it is over 2,000 years old! No one visits Rome for gladiator events anymore.

What’s needed to get public art to the next level?

It needs to take on big problems. In Philadelphia, they use their mural program to help reduce recidivism in prisons, and it is working. In Nürnberg, artists like Winfried Baumann are tackling homelessness by designing sleek-looking, inexpensive, lightweight and portable homes for urban nomads. In Seattle, artists like Buster Simpson are creating art for less toxic sanitation processes. And here in Clark County, Sush Machida created art to ease the pain of abandonment for children going into Child Haven. Public art, like any good government service should do, should solve problems and help make life better.

Also, Las Vegas needs to continue to employ local artists. If you employ them, they will stay (and more will come). If Las Vegas wants to take its public art to the next level, it needs to keep the ingenious artists living here engaged and employed. This will grow the creative economy, and the larger the creative economy becomes, the greater its impact. For years, Paris was the epicenter of the creative economy (and they have outstanding public art). Then New York and L.A. came along and vied for it. There is a decentering that is happening to the creative economy right now, and an opening has occurred for a new metropolis to take the lead. Las Vegas can do this it if it can continue to retain and attract talent. But it won’t be able to do it with just public art. The entire art infrastructure (museums, galleries, collectors) needs to be in place for public art to get to the next level.

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Artists here cannot survive on public art commissions alone, and local businesses and citizens need to invest in local artists, too — the Tony Hsieh model is exemplar. If just one casino seriously invested in local artists they would not only make a huge difference, they would tilt the scale of cultural tourism to their favor, and right now that battle for the cultural tourist dollar (a multibillion dollar industry) is taking place on the Strip and it is not just between local casinos, it is between Las Vegas and the rest of the world. If this starts to happen, a sustainable lifestyle for artists will flourish, more artists and visitors will come to this art boomtown, and, as Greg Brown proclaims, “It will boom, just as long as the boom has room.”   

What would be your dream public-art project in Las Vegas?

My dream project would be developing an artwork that doubles as a water generator/harvester. Have you seen the water seer? Pick a patch of desert and let’s harvest water from the air.

We harvest energy from sunlight, why not harvest water from air? It can be done, even in regions as arid as this. An artist-designed water generator/harvester that can nourish millions of people is where my imagination goes. Water is our biggest problem. Let’s fix it with public art. (Or at the very least get the dialogue going).  

How has being in Las Vegas impacted your own artwork? 

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It has impacted my artwork immensely. When I arrived at UNLV for graduate school in 2002, I had never seen anything like the Strip (and I come from Reno). Reno’s Virginia Street is a cute little guppy compared to the whale that is Las Vegas Boulevard. That towering neon canyon known was the ultimate visual spectacle, and I needed to compete with it somehow, and even though I completed my thesis, I never figured out how! What I did figure out is that I could use the absurdity of Las Vegas as inspiration for my narrative art.

Another impact Las Vegas has had on my artwork is how it opened up a network of creators for me. This is the more meaningful impact. There are a lot of good people and artist friends I met along the way. Their friendship, intellectual, visual, and creative curiosity impacted me far more than anything else, and that is really what matters and what has been the biggest meteor to my head, heart and art.


(A condensed version of this interview appeared in the January edition of Desert Companion.)