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Writer in Residence: The Art of the Museum

Two bunnies burst from an egg
Ryan Vellinga

Will Las Vegas finally get the visual arts institution it deserves?

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a major standalone art museum in this burg — as ready as I was in the 1990s, when the Nevada Institute of Contemporary Art was trying to establish one.

As ready as I was in the early 2000s, when the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in the Venetian tried valiantly to fill that role.

As ready as I was later in the 2000s, when the Las Vegas Art Museum, led by Libby Lumpkin, was gamely angling for its own place apart from the Sahara West Library.

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… and in 2013, when a batch of underfunded downtownies announced the formation of the Modern Contemporary Art Musuem near the Arts Factory.

… and a few years later, when Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art proposed to build an outpost down here.

As you might guess from there being no major standalone art museum in this burg, none of those well-intended, smartly peopled efforts worked out. That’s a lot of tombstones in the graveyard of a great idea.

Now it’s time to get our hopes up again as Elaine Wynn steps into the batter’s box, swinging for the fences with a brash new project called the Las Vegas Museum of Art. The signs appear more promising this time. A billionaire, Wynn’s got the money to get the bankroll rolling, serious art cred, and the prestigious Los Angeles County Museum of Art riding shotgun. (Much to the consternation of L.A.’s cultural class: “What does L.A. get out of it? Well, nothing,” the L.A. Times art critic snarked on Facebook.)

Thus far, backers have picked out a parcel in Symphony Park, the Legislature has allotted $5 million in seed money — about 1/76th of a public baseball field subsidy — and the basics are established. Total cost: about $150 million. Size: 60,000-90,000 square feet. Proposed opening: 2028.

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So, yes, unlike some (“I don’t see a museum for art as necessary for downtown,” Oscar Goodman once said), I’m ready. Still, I trust you’ll forgive a wee bit of hard-earned wariness on the part of a guy who’s read too many obituaries of those previous efforts: I’ll believe it when I pay my first entry fee. For now, I’m mulling a few questions.

Every few years, talk of a Las Vegas art museum surfaces — and ends in disappointment as the project falls apart.

IS LAS VEGAS FINALLY READY? The resounding Yes! that has long greeted this question is what you’d expect here in the largest American city without a freestanding art museum — at least among that subset of us for whom this is an important question.

So why now? Reno’s had a museum for years. Northern Nevada’s arts heritage goes back to the late 19th century, when the Comstock Lode built much of San Francisco and facilitated early cultural exchanges. By the time of Las Vegas’s postwar maturity, its civic focus was elsewhere. Our rich people with good taste in art, Elaine Wynn’s ex foremost among them, typically channeled that passion into their casinos — often to stunning effect — rather than museum-level philanthropy.

Fast-forward to 2023 and here’s Heather Harmon, the new museum’s executive director, with the upbeat framing: “There have been so many accomplishments in our city, between The Smith Center and the Sphere, the Raiders Stadium, Formula One, that the timing is right for this effort,” she told the Review-Journal. With the valley’s buzz of post-pandemic opportunity, the notion of a three-story palace of high art now seems less farfetched than before. A rising vibe lifts all boats.

Still, the paradigm-shifting developments Harmon cites are, with the arguable exception of The Smith Center, spectacle-grade entertainment. Art museums haven’t been immune to the pressure to keep pace with the experience economy (long-timers might recall that the Venetian’s Guggenheim facility opened with two rooms, the larger one devoted to a blockbuster exhibit of motorcycles) with mixed results (the Venetian closed the big room after that show).

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So, when you position your museum in the company of civic bling like the Sphere, will you find yourself curating toward a similar wow factor? After all, the witchy interplay between an art object and the human eye doesn’t always benefit from the spectacle dynamic, as Museum of Modern Art director Glenn D. Lowry warned in a letter to the New York Times in 1998: “What happens to the arts when they are understood not as an end unto themselves but as either a marketing ploy ... or as urban renewal?” He was writing about the newly opened Bellagio Gallery.

But it’s also worth noting that 30 percent of the Bellagio Gallery’s early visitors had never been in an art gallery before. While I’d like to know how many of them ever went to a second gallery, it does remind us that a little razzle dazzle can have an upside.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS? I vividly recall visiting the Bellagio Gallery shortly after it opened and finding myself in front of my first-ever Jackson Pollock. “Frozen in place for 10 minutes as it laid its eggs in my brain,” is how I once described it. If someone had interrupted my reverie to ask why we need 90,000 square feet of this stuff, along with a few million public dollars to help it along, all I could’ve done was stammer, “More eggs, please.” Point being, visual art is among the trickiest cultural experiences to put into words, let alone quantify in spreadsheetable terms.

But you gotta try, right? In 2018 the American Alliance for Museums reported that museums employ twice as many people as the sports industry, and that every $100 spent in a museum generates $220 elsewhere in the economy.

If any similar figures specific to the Las Vegas Museum of Art have been worked up, I haven’t seen them, though it can’t be long until motivational economist Jeremy Aguero is brought in to lacquer the whole thing in a high-gloss numerology that proves a museum will help round out our status as a major world city.

Of course, this talk of community-level benefits, however necessary to get the big players on board, will have next to nothing to do with the benefits most of us get from visiting the museum — which, surprise!, has also been quantified. In a recent study, museum visitors were asked how the experience affected their “well-being.” The study concluded that each adult visitor accrues $905 worth of “well-being benefits” per visit. Me, I’ll settle for the enchantment I felt in front of that Pollock.

DO WE REALLY NEED AN ART MUSEUM? Ten years ago, this very magazine ran a peppery essay by the late Misti Yang in which she questioned whether Las Vegas should even bother with a major standalone art museum. Does a museum’s sense of gatekeeping permanence make sense for a place so devoted to the ephemeral? Isn’t a “museum” just a vestige of other places’ outmoded idea of “culture”? As an institution, “the museum was offered in stark contrast to the festival, but Las Vegas is pure festival, and it’s worked pretty well,” Yang wrote. “Why would we want to run counter to the energies that make Las Vegas special?”

I’ll admit her argument lost traction with me when she proposed a scaled-up Burning Man ethos as an alternative — Lord save me from a city full of “Bliss Dances”! — but the years haven’t dulled its devil’s-advocate mojo. Two years ago, The Art Newspaper touted the success in Las Vegas of temporary exhibits, some of them involving significant artists we might not see here otherwise — a development Yang would no doubt applaud.

As it happens, The Las Vegas Museum of Art might turn out to be a more sophisticated version of that same idea. L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight reports that the Las Vegas Museum of Art won’t undertake one of the core functions of a museum: building a collection. Why bother, when it can access LACMA’s extensive storage vaults? But to me a permanent collection is more than just backrooms bulging with carefully preserved assets. It’s on ongoing conversation with its audience about cultural worth and lasting value.

SHOULD I MENTION THE BARRICK? On a page of hand-scrawled notes I jotted for this essay, I shouted at myself: “MENTION THE BARRICK!” That’d be UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, which, while neither a standalone museum nor the sort of luxe facility that Wynn and LACMA envision, has ably served the community for years. Indeed, the Barrick came to mind a few months ago at the Palm Springs Art Museum. There I encountered for the first time in person, within a few steps of each other, pieces by Anselm Kiefer, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jesús Rafael Soto — each one a knockout.

It was a vertiginous experience that, I realized, had been underwritten in part by local institutions like the Barrick, the Rita Deanin Abbey Art Museum, and several visionary art galleries over the years in the Arts District, New Orleans Square, and local libraries. I mean, I took one art class in college and educate myself as I can, but my art appreciation was nurtured and shaped by many local institutions. “MENTION THE BARRICK!” was me reminding myself that a Las Vegas Museum of Art, however much of the spotlight it might eventually occupy, is part of a continuum of cultural efforts that will help many others arrive at the museum better prepared to grok its wonders.

Anyway: 2028 is a long way off, and everything, from the museum’s plans to the conditions of civilization itself, are subject to change in that time. And despite whatever skepticism the foregoing might suggest, when it comes to this splashy new museum, I have my fingers crossed to the breaking point. I want that conveniently available awe. More eggs, please!

And, really, I’m sure this project stands a good chance of success. If we’ve learned anything in modern Las Vegas, it’s that money can accomplish amazing things. But if, for whatever reason, it doesn’t come together, maybe we should just get ourselves a museum in the most New Vegas way possible: by taking Oakland’s.

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.