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Desert Companion

Institutions: Reborn at 50

No midlife crisis for UNLV’s Barrick Museum as it consolidates its mission as an art-centered ‘experimental education space’

A 50th anniversary year, a name change, and generous blessings from department heads would electrify any institution on a college campus that once faced a shaky future after losing funding during budget cuts in 2011. But UNLV’s Barrick Museum of Fine Art — formerly the Barrick Museum of Natural History — emerged triumphant by becoming what it had long wanted to be: a full-fledged contemporary art institution. Gone are the live reptiles and ichthyosaur fossil. In its new role, the Barrick has become a leading force in the arts scene.

Its 50th anniversary year launched in January during one of its most notable shows, Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, a hit exhibit of large-scale landscape photographs detailing America’s dependence on oil. That was followed by Process, a show looking at the making of Process Art. That led to Tested Ground, which explores land use and waste. Rotating exhibits in Barrick’s other galleries generated equally broad appeal without diluting strong and engaging educational content — tightly curated, highly focused exhibits extending beyond visual experience.

Begun in the 1960s as an exhibit space for the Desert Research Institute, across the boulevard from UNLV, the museum eventually settled in the second-oldest building on campus. (Renovations revealed UNLV’s old mascot, Beauregard, still emblazoned on the floor of what was once a gymnasium.) Now under the College of Fine Arts, the Barrick  hasn’t left its past behind. It is a museum, after all, home to objects, thoughts, ideas, and discourse focused on the primal human need for creative expression. Object-making from the distant past plays an essential role with contemporary art exhibits, presenting conversations between the two, and offering educational value. Along with its growing contemporary art collection (including works inherited from the Las Vegas Art Museum, and pieces from noteworthy UNLV grads), the Barrick retains an extensive gathering of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifacts, postcolonial masks, retablos, textiles, and art from North and South American indigenous traditions.

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Interim Executive Director Alisha Kerlin emphasizes creating an “experimental education space” designed to challenge people’s ideas of what art is, where creative activity, workshops, research, and collaborations come together. People are responding: A culture day this summer ushered in 460 children in one day; an online fundraiser brought in more than $6,000 to pay for buses to get children to the museum; and teacher’s night brought in more than 90 educators on a Friday evening to learn about the museum and its potential role in classrooms. The museum is also collaborating or cultivating relationships with other university departments — art, anthropology, architecture, dance, UNLV’s School of Medicine, music, and, interestingly, Tara Pike, UNLV’s recycling manager and sustainability coordinator, who was invited to help staff talk to visitors about the Tested Ground exhibit.

That’s a lot of change for a recently minted art museum and six-member staff. “A lot (has changed) within the last nine months alone,” Kerlin says. “It’s such a fun time right now.”

In celebration, this month sees another well-curated series of exhibitions crossing into several gallery spaces across campus, relating to its main show, Preservation, which examines land use (past and present) and includes an artist’s monolithic 22-foot dam structure. Amid this, the museum continues to research, archive, and share its past, while dealing with the unique challenges of contemporary art — including how to get a 22-foot dam into the building.

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