Desert Companion

Drawing talent -- and keeping it: Helping local artists make Las Vegas home

Short of building a giant fence around the city, here's how you can help keep our best artists working -- and thriving -- in Las Vegas

I like to think I know a bit about art Not too much; I wouldn't last 30 seconds in the ring with a bruiser like Dave Hickey, the genius critic who famously blew town not long ago. But I can wander into a gallery and have enough sense of what I'm looking at to bore my family with explanations that may actually have some merit. This splash of paint, that ironically appropriated consumer item: Let me tell you about it I'm not bragging, or, at least, I'm not just bragging - my point here is that whatever I know, or think I know, I picked up on my own. Stood in front of a lot of art, looking confused, wanting to understand. Read a little about it. Talked to smart people. Eventually my confusion cracked open, a little light got in.

I did that here, too, in Las Vegas, looking mostly at local art, talking mostly to local artists. That's my second point.

Third point: The above has instilled in me a rooting interest in the health of the arts scene, by which I mean that fragile ecosystem of artists, galleries, viewers, buyers, boosters, what cultural press we have, blogs, Facetweets, events, arty stores, watering holes, coffee shops - all loosely united by the mysterious bonding power of worked-over images and objects. I want all that stuff to prosper. So I was a little alarmed when I learned that not just one or two, not four or five, but almost twice that number of strong, young local artists were leaving town, seemingly all at once. Most were names I recognized, and if you hit the galleries around town, you might recognize them, too: John Bissonett. Elizabeth Blau. James Hough. Brian Porray. Mike Ogilve. Markus Tracy. Abby Coe. Kyla Hansen. Marc Dombrosky. Sean Schumacher. Becca Just. Joanne Plana Anderson.

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That's a hefty chunk of talent calving off of the scene and floating away; many of those people would have become pillars of Vegas art had they stuck around. But they didn't. They left for different reasons - grad school, teaching gigs or better jobs, greener creative pastures - and feel different degrees of regret about it While Blau assures me, "I am leaving Las Vegas solely for the purpose of attaining my master's degree," Hough tempers his obvious affection for Vegas with a dose of reality: "Vegas has great artists," he says, "but there is such a feeble art infrastructure I want to live in a city where art happens." Well, yeah Me, too.

On one level, I shouldn't be overly dismayed (plenty of terrific artists remain) or too surprised (there's nothing new about young guns lighting out for Somewhere Else). But this change-o-matic city and these hard times can give a guy an acute sensitivity about canaries and coal mines: What does this mass migration mean?

Ask the leave-takers and they'll say pretty much what you expect: Not enough serious galleries for a productive artist to build an audience. Not enough patrons turning loose of real money. ("I learned quick that if I sold something for more than 50 bucks in Vegas, the market of buyers shrank to about 10 people," Ogilve tells me "Ten people won't feed the 700 or so artists in Las Vegas.") No buzz about the scene, no sense that people care.

Mostly, there just aren't enough good, creative jobs. What would've made you stay, John Bissonette? "If I could have found a better, more profitable day job."

So if you're an ordinary citizen of Las Vegas and you're thinking, Hey, maybe I want to live in a city where art happens, well, what do you do?

You start small. You stand in front of a lot of art. You read a little about it - there are a surprising number of blogs devoted to art in this city. You talk to some smart people. You develop a rooting interest. Then:

1. Buy. I remember the first piece of art I bought. It's sitting three feet away on my desk as I write this - a pink and brown mottled ceramic rabbit head by Debbie Masuoka, with long, rigid ears and differently shaped eyes on either side of its head. (It's much more rigorously artistic than I make it sound.) I was, what, mid-20s? Generously discounted by the artist, the piece cost about $100, a fortune for me in the late '80s. Back then I knew maybe half a teaspoon about art, which is why I'm telling this story.

A lot of us have a mental barrier about buying contemporary art, only some of which has to do with its cost. Often intimidating in its complexity, usually opaque in its meaning, sometimes downright weird in its materials, art can make you feel ignorant. Embarrassed. Unsure of what's good and bad and therefore worth your money.

My tiny insight when I bought my first piece is that sometimes "good" or "bad" isn't worth worrying about; it's not like a professional art critic will swing by your place to ridicule your taste. What you want is connection. I still don't know if this rabbit head counts as good or bad, but that mystery helps account for its self-renewing charm - 20 years later I haven't gotten tired of looking at it. Same with the Jorge Catoni drawing, the Jerry Misko print and the few other smallish pieces I picked up over the years. You wouldn't term me a "patron," but for the equivalent of a few First Friday bar tabs, I've punctuated my life with objects of mystery and beauty, and I've given a little cash to artists.

2. Read. At its most private level, art is a conversation between an object and a viewer; if it's an effective piece, a temporary community of people drawn to it will join that conversation. To be healthy, art needs that discourse. For an art scene to be healthy, it needs those conversations to bubble up into the public sphere - in the press, in blogs, in social media.

If the chatter seems muted in Las Vegas - Hough notes the lack of "a spirited and many-voiced critical conversation in the media" - that's only party true. My Facebook stream frequently blows up with postings and repostings of even the smallest pixel of media attention directed at the arts. Of course, the higher up the media food chain you go, the less spirited and many-voiced it becomes. Our three weeklies deploy arts writers and critics, though not always in every issue. Attention from the dailies is chancier; the Sun (where I'm a columnist) has mostly clipped cultural coverage, though the Review-Journal runs some arts features.

But here's the thing: The quality of the public conversation matters. Editors mostly think of art as a niche interest and conclude, not unreasonably, that the best way to serve it to a larger audience is to simply preview exhibits or run soft features about artists. These pieces usually dwell more on personalities than art; they make nice clippings to hang on a young artist's studio wall, but they don't do much to lure people deeper into the work itself.

What's called for here is a bottom-up demand from readers to editors for more coverage that's patient and explanatory but accessible, generous but not cheerleadery (which means some in the arts community will have to thicken their skins just a bit). Pipe dream? Hey, you tell me Meantime, I'll start the wave: R-J, pick up an art critic.

3. Support. Look, I know there are some factors you can't do much about. You're probably not going to start a gallery showcasing hot young talent (though if you intern for Marty Walsh at Trifecta Gallery, she'll do her best to teach you how). You probably don't have the means to give an artist a better job than the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisc, where Mike Ogilve went.

But you can support, in your own fashion, initiatives that have, at their core, a vision of a better city, which will naturally result in a more fecund arts scene. For example, Elizabeth Blau cleverly points out that the development of industries based on technology and innovation - alternative energy, sustainability projects - would fatten the city's creative class with more (well-paid) people likely be active in the arts.

I'm forced here to admit that there's no telling whether any of that - more galleries, abundant buzz, a few more buyers - would have prevented, say, artists Brian Porray and Kyla Hansen from leaving for LA. Sometimes you just gotta roll Ultimately. Porray says, "I feel wonderful about our decision to move on."

And, my qualms notwithstanding, maybe that's not so bad. What if I'm overworrying this? In a city that so thoroughly embodies unceasing change, a higher inflow and outflow is not only to be expected, but very possibly the way it should be.

"Galleries, patrons - that seems tied to a different kind of city model," says Marc Dombrosky, another departee. I don't think Las Vegas is ever going to be that. Yet it's a great city in which to be an artist, to imbibe the clean-lined austerity of the desert, the signifying bombast of the Strip, the big Vegas themes: desire, consumption, risk, spectacle. And then, some stay, some jam.

"Use it as a lab," Dombrosky says. "You can come in here and do things you can't do anywhere else. Just like tourism," he says, "it works precisely because no one is watching too closely, because you're showing in smaller crowds in offbeat galleries. Then you go forth from Vegas, push your career forward, and spread the city's net of associations far and wide. And that's good for Vegas," he says.

And, as Marty Walsh suggests, perhaps in time - as more people stand in front of more art and begin the process of learning and investiture - we'll build something here so amazing it'll bring them all back.

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