Do People Care About Art in Las Vegas?

Most people go to Las Vegas for gambling, free drinks, cocaine, and those nudie flyers they hand out in the street. Patrick C. Duffy, former president of the Las Vegas Art Museum is trying to change that perception, one tourist at a time.

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Oct 8 2013, 12:00pm

The heart of Las Vegas is subterranean. With 40 million tourists pounding the pavement searching for a hit of fleeting hedonism, Las Vegas holds a growing community of residents who build the sustaining framework that allows you to rub your face in a stripper’s tits after trading two purple chips for half a bag of bad coke in the Bellagio bathroom. But when the mission statement is debauchery, fine art and culture have a hard time making inroads with anyone but the locals. This begs the question: in a city that doesn’t organically demand an art scene, can art continue to exist? The answer came in early 2009 with the shutdown of the Las Vegas Art Museum, a 60-year-old staple of the local community. Patrick C. Duffy, ex-President of the LVAM has spent the past 14 years supporting the local arts, and personally funding and contributing to the museum. He has been working hard the last four years to restore what little cultural influence the Las Vegas community has grown to appreciate. I got in touch with him to learn the full story about what it takes to maintain an artistic presence in Sin City.

VICE: So, what’s the story?
Patrick C. Duffy:
Well, when the, shall we call it, financial tsunami shook the world, it shook the cultural markets quite severely and it really hit our donor base. It also hit our audience base. So, simply put, the museum funding from outside pledges that we had, and also donors, just dried up. If there ain’t no dough, there ain’t no show. Several of our board members had very generously stepped up to really kind of bolster the prior years to get us through some spending that we were doing back then to move the institution to a larger facility. A lot of our “titty” was used for those purposes, so when we went into this financial malaise, we found it necessary to close.

How much of it was local art?
It only had about 191 pieces, and 91 of those pieces my late partner and I gave as a promise gift to begin to seed the collection, to send a message out to the community that, “Hey, if you are a collector, this is a good local community repository." Then we were able to also mount a show called “The Las Vegas Diaspora” and it highlighted many of the UNLV students and their works that were out in galleries in the world and really doing quite well. A lot of those artists gave pieces to the museum, so we had a beautiful heritage collection. It wasn’t just a local collection. We contributed pieces from London, from Germany. My late partner was a very dynamic and well-known collector in the Bay Area back in the 60s and 70s, so I carried the collection on.

You’re from the Bay? Why move to Vegas?
I’ve lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and I travel all over the world. This is the place I want to come home to. The people who live here are truly some of the nicest and most genuine people I’ve ever met. I’m hoping also that in my small contribution to the city that we can make some small inroads when it comes to the arts.

Vegas is interesting in that it’s one of these ultra-metropolitan cities, but works on a totally different level. I can’t think of another city that supports itself so successfully and entirely on tourism.
I think when you look at all of Las Vegas, the hospitality quarter dwarfs anything that is really going on in Clark County. In fact, this downtown project and all of these things are happening literally in the embryo of Las Vegas. It’s incredible and it is attracting new business and the creative culture, that being film, art, performance, and speaker series. There’s a lot going on downtown. It’s probably not going to be in the casinos or the hospitality world, but you know, the fact that the CityCenter, while it was building, put together the most beautiful, the most stunning multi-million dollar collection of museum quality fine art, contemporary and modern. But again, you get 40 million who are there for what? Why do you go?

Money, free drinks, cocaine, and those nudie flyers they hand out in the street.
Exactly, you’re not coming in town to look at fine art. And you know Las Vegas is such, it’s always been true to itself. We’re not gonna be a SoHo or a Chelsea, no way. But if you come here, and you’ve got a couple of hours, and you want to look for that and inquire and be curious enough, you’ll find it.

But isn’t that the heart of the problem? There’s so little overlap between the fine art scene and the hospitality scene.
Right, well if you remember back maybe about ten years, in the Venetian they had co-branded the Guggenheim and the Hermitage, and it was an absolutely beautiful space put together by Rem Koolhaas. They launched exquisite shows and very modern works, and it was very exciting. What is it now? I think it’s part of the gambling floor. It’s gone. It just could not sustain itself. So hospitality has done an incredible job of supporting art and really kind of like pouring art into their hospitality venues, but it was never something that drew the public.


Photo via

So now that the economy is shit and the museum’s closed down, something has to change. It can’t survive like this, can it?
No, it can’t. Take a look at all of our shows on the Strip that attract tourists. It’s performance. But when you look at the two million people that reside in Las Vegas, they’re centered around music. The interesting thing about that is that people, by and large, are very comfortable to critique songs, critique albums, critique music. Among their peers, among their social standings, they can engage in a conversation and a dialogue about it. Flip over to the visual arts or sculptures, the same constituency are a little uneasy to be that open with dialogue unless they’re certain that that dialogue is spot on. Visual arts can be rather intimidating, and my take on it, is that it’s been kind of hoisted as this elitist medium of communication. And that’s a shame really. So if I put a beautiful show of Robert Ryman works that, value-wise, are very costly, half a million up to 1.2 million. And all they are is just swatches of canvas with beautifully executed painterliness on them. If I put a room full of those and took a random group of our local constituency or even some of our tourists, first thing they’ll say is, “Oh I could’ve done that." That’s their safety mechanism, that’s the defensive posture I guess.

So how are you trying to break out of that?
If we’re really going to attract people to art [in] Las Vegas, we have to immerse them in the primary: music and performance, with the visual. That’s what they’re doing currently with First Friday. And I’ll give you an idea. Six years ago, if they could draw 5,000 people they were lucky. Now, 25,000 to 30,000 people show up.

Is that mostly locals and tourists?
I’d say 85% or 80% that show up are locals from all over the valley.

I wanted to ask about local art. What can the community or the city do to try to attract artists and writers and sculptors and filmmakers? I don’t think Vegas is considered a viable place to succeed as an artist.
Well, what we’re doing at the Smith Center [for the Performing Arts] is a part of that. We have a big festival that is coming to Las Vegas on the 26th and 27th of October called “Life is Beautiful," and consists of really major bands and music, food with major chefs at the helm. But about a month and a half ago they asked me to curate the event, and I told them that I wasn’t interested unless I could include the mid-career and early-career artists as well. I want the grad students from UNLV to be part of it. I want the people to be part of it. I want it to be an “Art Odyssey,” and it’s really going to be a treat. It’s an old motel from the 60s, and I’m using about 27 rooms and each room is an exhibition gallery detailing either an artist’s work, a particular gallery, or the students. So it’s going to be [a] complete and total journey. And in the center of this little courtyard, I have an artist that’s going to transform a 60 foot by 30 foot water installation that’s going to replicate the Bellagio fountains. Our goal is to generate grassroots interest at least to the point where people start investing the Las Vegas art scene again, and I think we’re on our way.

@jules_su

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