Every great city deserves a museum, right? Maybe not. Maybe Las Vegas is a post-museum city
“What will happen to the Strip when the tastemakers take over?” This is a question Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour asked in their seminal 1972 book, Learning From Las Vegas. They delighted in the everyman practicality of our city’s architecture and spirit — majestic, but somehow forthright, neon signs, the low-slung Stardust, the original Caesars Palace flanked by a sea of cars. They feared the day this all might be lost. Recently, tastemaking in the form of curation has taken permanent root, from The Smith Center to CityCenter, and now there is the possibility of The Modern, a proposed downtown art museum.
The only museum I’ve ever paid to visit in Las Vegas is the Liberace Museum. I gave tours of the Boneyard when I first moved to town. I never made it to the Erotic Heritage Museum, and I moved to town long after the Las Vegas Art Museum and Guggenheim(s) closed. Regardless of their subject matter, they shared the same fate. Art (and apparently sex) in sacred institutions doesn’t fly here. Even Joe, my go-to bartender at the Gold Spike, knows: “In Vegas, museums don’t work.”
So why do we think we need another one? Maybe it’s because we somehow feel like less of a city. It is easy to say, “Great cities have museums,” and then conclude that Vegas must have more, but this is a simple case of false cause, or, as Denise Scott Brown might mutter, “cargo cult.” In 2009 I visited Frank Gehry’s Lou Ruvo Center alongside her, and when asked what she thought of Gehry’s creation, she said just that: “It’s a cargo cult.”
The original cargo cults were created by islanders. They built makeshift runways and enacted rituals in hopes that one of the airplanes they saw flying over would bring them the wealth they presumed was being delivered elsewhere. When Scott Brown saw Gehry’s misshapen metal, this was her instant assessment. Vegas had constructed a totem to attract greatness, and, as with the original cargo cults, she knew this offering was misguided. It may be easy to understand why locals long for museums, because at their most successful they can inspire, inform and shape a community. But could it be that a community determines what a successful “museum” is, not that a museum makes a successful community?
Cities that were shaped and formed during modernity evolved naturally into having museums. Rich people collected coveted items, donated them to institutions and when the institutions opened to the people, it was hoped that the experience would refine, educate and inspire the average (and below-average) citizen. In Britain, upon the opening of the first public museum, there was great concern that the unruly masses would break the exhibits. The draw was largely curiosity, and perhaps a hope that that richness was somehow contagious. I can’t help consider the parallels to Steve Wynn and the lines that waited to see his private art collection when the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art first opened.
Vegas, by contrast, came of age differently. Our patrons arrived flush with cash, not seeking things to stash in cabinets. Instead, they wanted to build something from the nothing of desert sand, test the strength of their bravado and outrun history (and often the law). Las Vegas is a question mark. We don’t offer clear answers. We don’t seek to reform our guests. The museum was offered in stark contrast to the festival, but Las Vegas is pure festival, and it’s worked pretty well. Why would we want to run counter to the energies that make Las Vegas special?
Instead of running backwards to erect the markers of antiquated cities, let’s ask smarter questions.
The first question: What has worked here? The answer could include the Neon Museum, an organization that has flourished by celebrating the mythos of Las Vegas. People love the story that Las Vegas has to tell, and any museum, art or otherwise, that starts from the presumption that the institution will refine or improve that story will fail. Las Vegas may or may not be many things, but we are definitely wary of outsiders who presume they know what will make us better, smarter or more respectable.
The second question: What do we already have? When thinking about a new art museum, we don’t have many hallowed collections to house, but we do have a community of artists who thrive on Vegas. We also have local galleries, and surprise: a local art museum with an agreement to house and display the former Las Vegas Art Museum’s collection, the Marjorie Barrick Museum at UNLV.
The third question: What would a uniquely Vegas museum look like? And when we ask this question, we should throw up a tent and drink until dawn, because this is the question we should celebrate with the full force of our story, not the story of other cities and long unquestioned ideas of city-building. Indeed, perhaps culture, science, nature — the litany of subjects that can be contained in a museum — have outlived such institutions, and perhaps Las Vegas is the perfect city to test that hypothesis.
As museum theorists from London to Perth question whether “museums” still work, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, a prominent museum-studies scholar, proposes a post-museum. That is, an organization that reflects, encourages and captures collective experiences. In Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, she writes, “Where the tangible material objects of a cultural group have largely been destroyed, it is the memories, songs and cultural traditions that embody that culture’s past and future.” In a city known for dynamiting what other cities would deem hallowed landmarks, this seems apropos.
I’ve never attended Burning Man, but it is worth considering that Las Vegas has attracted a Burner community without even trying. The Burner community values experience, not permanence and white walls, and this value proposition feels right for Vegas.
Instead of erecting a giant building, what if our next museum focused on cultivating artists, local and international, to create temporary structures filled with temporary installations, either at a fixed location or throughout the city? What if our next museum took a cue from local artist Justin Favela’s “The Mini Market,” a collaborative art installation and performance at his uncle’s actual mini market, El Porvenir, in North Las Vegas? By respecting what we do have — rich and singular perspectives informed by decades of formidable energy and relentless change — and what we don’t have — patience for burdensome ideologies and the buildings that house them — Las Vegas might actually create something new that will succeed — because it reflects what Venturi and Scott Brown knew in 1972: Tastemakers should never shape Las Vegas.