Q&A: Back in a Big Way
Las Vegas native Heather Harmon comes home to lead the massive Symphony Park art museum project
When the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno, appointed Heather Harmon as deputy director overseeing its Las Vegas museum effort — a $250 million project in Symphony Park being built from scratch — it seemed to thoroughly grasp the uniqueness of the city. In selecting Harmon, then the development director for the distinguished nonprofit Artists Space in New York, it chose a native Las Vegan who attended public school here, whose family has lived here for a century and served in politics, and who didn’t grow up with art. So when she discusses art and its ability to transform, and, most of all, its potential to be accessible to everyone, she speaks from experience. Culturally bilingual — as fluent in Las Vegas as she is in the art world — she brings to her new role a distinct perspective on the city, as well as on the common disconnect between art and those who’ve never approached it or felt it relevant to their lives.
Harmon was two years into her political science major at UNLV when she had her first real exposure to contemporary art, in a class taught by then professor Dave Hickey. Before long, she knew she’d be changing her major. She graduated in 2001 with a degree in art history, then earned her master’s in art theory and criticism at Art Center College of Design in California.
She arrives as the museum is forming an architecture committee in anticipation of selecting an architect by the end of the year, expanding its board, and meeting with potential donors for a $12 million single-donor naming opportunity.
We sat down with Harmon as she resettled into a hometown that has culturally changed in her 17-year absence, with the arrivals of The Smith Center, the Black Mountain Institute and Believer Festival, art-filled hotels, the Neon and Mob museums, and Golden Knights fever.
How would you define this experience?
I consider it to be an exciting institutional opportunity of the 21st century. We don’t have to follow a predetermined set of rules. We’re a town that was built by frontiersmen, adventurers, pioneers with true vision who could look at this city in the desert and visualize what it could become.
Las Vegas has a unique audience for art. Some have never paid attention to it. Others find the art world pretentious. What do you say to that?
We have this amazing opportunity right now to demystify that, to take away all those barriers, because when people fall in love with art, it’s when they have that experiential moment, what I like to refer to as that “aha moment,” where you look at it and you think, “I’m there, I get it. I see me. I’m reflected, my values, my ideas, things I think about no matter how they might relate to my identity politics, my social politics.”
How do you do this?
You find common ground, and you listen. As I move forward in conversations with politicians, with patrons, with students, I think, What does the community want? What institution would the community want, and how do we build an institution that reflects us, that is our mirror? This should be ours.
How sincere is this effort?
We have a great moment here in letting our community dictate what kind of institution would serve them best, and how we can best represent them. And, also, in taking apart that hierarchy and letting people know, “It’s okay to like art.” It’s not classicist. It’s not hierarchical. It’s actually one of the most direct experiences you can have with an object or an idea.
Maybe you look at a work of art and maybe it’s an artist like Kara Walker, who deals with the dark underbelly of what our American history is, be it oppression, be it gender marginalization, be it ethnic marginalization — no matter how different our demographics are, there are things that we share in the human struggle, and we should be able to open up those conversations because art ultimately teaches tolerance. A great work of art can cross economic boundaries, cultural boundaries, social boundaries, and people who don’t share anything in common can share this art.
You’ve heard the concerns from Ward 5 regarding diversity in museum board members, employment, and educational opportunities?
Yes. I’d like to do a listening tour of Ward 5. We’ll be a true success if, when we open our doors, our community will see themselves reflected in the institution. We won’t be doing what we are responsible to do if we can’t hit all of the different demographics that make up Las Vegas and give people point of entry.
Why a single donor for the $12 million?
Having a single donor allows for that heroic gesture that can set the tone for future donation. And it is a naming opportunity, and in the scale of naming opportunities for public institutions, a $12 million naming opportunity is really rare.
What type of architect are you looking at?
We’re looking at architects who haven’t fully been canonized. We like the idea of doing an artist who hasn’t yet won the Pritzker Prize. Maybe it’s not the first project in the architect’s career, but it’s definitely going to be the most defining one.
This museum has been a long time coming. Why now?
It’s the first time we’ve had an institution (the Nevada Museum of Art) that’s been open for 86 years join us and provide this incredible infrastructure, this dialogue, this visionary type of thinking — the Center for Art + Environment, the conference that we do every two years. We have a real family we can grow through these partnerships.
The Smith Center set the precedent. Even though Nevada Ballet has been with us for more than three decades, them having a home there, and the Las Vegas Philharmonic, you’re in a place where there is a collaborative spirit. Every person running those institutions is dynamic and knows, too, that our audience, to sustain us now, and our audience to take us into the future, is local. They’re our people. That’s our core audience. So we get to grow together.
Are you surprised to be back here?
I have wanted to come home for a long time, and it was just about the right time and the right project. There are days when I just drive out to Double Negative (a land-art piece by Michael Heizer near Moapa). It’s one of my favorite works of art, and I’ve been driving out there for I don’t know how long. I love the West. It’s in your blood. You don’t get away from it.