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Artists And Arts Administrators Come Together In Las Vegas

"Seven Magic Mountains" art installation in the early morning light.
Ugo Rondinone: Seven Magic Mountains, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2016. Photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy of Art Production Fund and Nevada Museum of Art.

"Seven Magic Mountains" art installation in the early morning light.

How do you get Nevadans interested in the arts? That was recently on the minds of about 130 artists and administrators from all over Nevada.

They were part of a two-day "Arts at the Heart" conference held at the Historic Fifth Street School in downtown Las Vegas last week. The conference was sponsored by the Nevada Arts Council.

The council is a division of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. The council’s mission involves bolstering the arts in the state – culturally, economically, creatively. It gives out grants and provides professional assistance to artists and arts organizations.

Nevada Public Radio’s Fred Wasser was there to observe the conference, and to talk with some of the people attending.

Some people might wonder: why should they care about the arts? Did anyone have a good answer for that?

Wasser: Tony Manfredi, executive director of the Nevada Arts Council, talked about just that. Here’s what he said:

“This is improving, but it’s really critical that arts and culture are seen as a key component, a critical component in creating communities. Of being part of the solution to the challenges that we have. And seen as really necessary rather than nice to have.

Wasser: Do you think the average person is coming around?

Manfredi: I do. I hope so, anyway. When I talk to people they tell me how much they value, how much they appreciate it.

I understand that people at the conference talked about a “turning point” in the arts in Nevada. That the importance of the arts in business and everyday life is being acknowledged.

Wasser: Yes – that’s right. I heard an optimism that a critical mass may have been reached in the arts in our state related to visibility and attention paid to the arts.  Some of that might be boosterism. But there seems to be evidence, too, of it being real.

Curator Michele Quinn told me that she and a group of people have raised over $8 million dollars of the approximately $70 million they’ll need to for an art museum in Las Vegas.

The working title is the Museum at Symphony Park.

She also said in her presentation that the Nevada Museum of Art’s “ Seven Magic Mountains” art installation is a “milestone for Las Vegas public art.” 

Seven Magic Mountains is the art installation about 10 miles south of the Las Vegas Strip. It’s these brightly painted boulders stacked on top of each other:

Wasser: Yes, it’s received worldwide attention. It was a commission created by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. 

The first time I saw it was at dawn – I arrived before sunrise. I wasn’t even sure I was in the right spot. It was dark out there in the desert. But slowly Seven Magic Mountains revealed itself. I hesitate to call it a religious or spiritual experience – I’ll just say it was very very powerful.

And I guess it’s a popular attraction?

Wasser: Amanda Horn of the Nevada Music of Art told me that the museum estimates that between 700 and a thousand people visit Seven Magic Mountains each day. 

The Nevada Museum of Art is based in Reno, but the museum is very interested in collaborations between northern and southern Nevada. The recent “Tilting the Basin” art show is another example.

Horn had an explanation for the success of Seven Magic Mountains. Here’s what she said:

Seven Magic Mountains is a big bright bold statement that is highly visible on I-15.

So that is one reason why it has gained so much attention. Because people can see it. You can’t really ignore it.

But also – Ugo Rondinone is a significant contemporary artist. So that peaked the interest of the art world. Sometimes the art world tends to be a little myopic. They don’t look – even West  L.A. has just begun to garner any sort of attention or recognition.

So, you have somebody who doesn’t typically work in a "Western place" that comes out and makes a large statement. That gets people’s attention.

And then you the international art tourists looking at you. You get publications. You get people who maybe have joked that  - or made fun of – what culture could there possibly be in a place like Nevada. Or, especially in Las Vegas really start to re-think the significance of what that can mean.

And that’s really the sweet spot of why it’s been so successful. And also a lot of attention to detail on communicating it out to the world.

She said something in there that really caught my attention because I’ve heard it for years. That beyond Nevada’s borders, people look down on the arts here. Or think it’s a joke.

In fact, though, Horn’s museum in Reno gets 80 percent of its funding from outside the state.

So, it makes me wonder how important that perception is—that national media might look down upon art in Nevada.

Wasser: Well, she told me that the museum sees itself as “rooted in Nevada.” But she added that the work that’s being done in her museum is, and this is her quote, “significant on the global stage.”

There was some consternation at the conference from non-visual artists. They think visual art gets much much more attention that, say, music.

Wasser: Yes, I talked with Ellis Rice of Las Vegas - he describes himself as a pianist, vocalist, and storyteller. Ellis Rice wants the arts to be more inclusive here. And more community-based.

Ellis: We’re known as the entertainment capital of the world, and yet we can’t collectively name our three jazz clubs or three blues clubs. There’s no support for community-based performing arts organizations. There’s no reach-out to them. I’ve seen organizations crumble for lack of funding. So there’s a great opportunity to expand the definition of art in Nevada and Las Vegas in particular.

Now, to get a different perspective on that, you also spoke to  Ed Fuentes. He’s a digital muralist, painter, writer and MFA student – his primary research is on public art. And this is what he said about the visual arts having a higher profile at this conference of  arts  movers and shakers last week.


Fuentes: You wonder if it’s maybe because the artists have been looking for funding for such a long time. And they’re still here and they’ve learned how to rally and they’ve learned how to work with Nevada Arts Council. They’ve learned how to organize.

You wonder if the theater performers, and musicians have a different support group. They are represented here, but it’s the visual artists who are sometimes – mostly independent – have to create a tribe to find funding or at least support each other in what they do.

So, I’ve come here - when I found out that it was really a tight community. People know each other and they support. And of course there’s the gossip, which is also fun in its own way sometimes.

But, mostly it’s everybody just pulling together to get things happening now. Especially with public arts and street art. You saw with the presentations, that it seems that outdoor visual art and public art are leading the charge now.

The galleries were doing that ten years ago. So you’re hoping that maybe things are changing a little bit more.

Wasser: So when you talk that way about the tribe and about people pulling together, are you talking about this conference or Clark County or Las Vegas in general?

Fuentes: I think Las Vegas in general. But here we have the heads of state of the different tribes kind of getting together and saying, what’s our next step?

Things have changed. Things have really progressed. Las Vegas has gotten national attention for their visual arts. What are the next steps? And where do we go from here?

And I think that’s a great conversation to have. It’s almost like people come here to get on the same page. As well as to get information about where to find funding and what other resources are around.

The kind of excitement about the arts isn’t isolated to Las Vegas. Reno is experiencing a sort of renaissance too.

Wasser: Yes, and Sara Lillegardseems to be an example of Reno’s new energy. Sarah’s work was featured in the recent “Tilting the Basin” art show. She spoke on a panel about the important of artistic immersion, which often takes the form of artist residencies.

She talked about what’s happening in Reno:

Lillegard: I facilitate galleries. I’m a gallery coordinator. Fiber artist. Wool enthusiast. I teach crafts workshops. So, I kind of have my hands in a lot of different pots.

Wasser: Is this a new thing for Reno?

Lillegard: Having your hands in a lot of pots?

Wasser: Maybe. And all this art going on.

Lillegard: I would say it’s been there. I think it’s been more below the surface. I think we’re seeing it coming to the surface as the population is increasing. As the economy is changing. There’s more visibility for the arts in Reno. But I’ve been there for about ten years. And I’ve always been an advocate that there are things are happening you just have to dig deep enough to find them. But now I think you have to do less digging.  It’s more obvious hopefully and visitors or people living in that community can see, oh, here’s a space to go to or here’s an event happening. Or here’s where live music is.

A final thought?

Wasser: Yes -- Michele Quinn – who I mentioned earlier. She’s the art curator.

In her talk on Friday at the conference, she said, “We have to stop thinking about north and south,” she said, “Let’s talk about Nevada.” 

Maybe she’s right. Maybe that can happen. 

Photo by Ed Fuentes

Fred Wasser, Producer, Nevada Public Radio

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.