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Art

You have to keep making things happen

From gallery owners to administrators to artists, strong women are keeping the arts scene vital

Image
Jennifer Harrington, with a piece from a show she curated.
Photo: Iris Dumuk

In the seven years I have bounced around the Las Vegas art community, two things have remained consistent. One is that it is always “burgeoning.” Don’t get me wrong—I love that fledgling quality, the marginal, the raw, the almost-but-not-quite-there-yet places of the arts scene. It is fertile ground for art-making. That’s why artists who in their right minds would normally be living in LA or New York or San Francisco are inexplicably drawn here. They can smell it: Las Vegas is saturated with the real-life stuff that art is all about.

The other constant is the abundance of ladies. In a list I made of about 20 arts administrators, staff and gallery directors, every single name was female. And for every woman garnering headlines and praise, 20 more are trying to make a go of it as artists. This is important, because in a city where it feels like the art scene could just blow away at any moment, women offer the best chance of holding it all together—if they can just stay together themselves.

The Contemporary Arts Collective has remained Las Vegas’ primary nonprofit exhibition space for almost 20 years—and nonprofits are often ground zero for experimental or marginal contemporary art. The story of women in the arts in Vegas begins here, almost 20 years ago.

In 1989, at the dawn of UNLV’s MFA program, Mary Warner, a professor and painter, came to town as a visiting artist and never left. She has since emerged as an originator and elder stateswoman of sorts. Talking to Warner in her art-covered living room/dining room/studio, it is clear that art and life intermingle organically.

“Vegas at the time was still this weird mix of SoCal and Old West,” remembers the California native. “There was so much potential and a very loose class structure—you could move through classes overnight.” If you had the energy and vision to make things happen, you could, and no one would stop you. Two decades later, many of the same conditions apply.

“There is some level of a good old boy thing,” she says. “[It’s] Old West on one hand … but [in the] pioneering spirit, women lived under the same hardships [as men]—and had to work hard and work together for survival.”

One of the organizations that Warner worked hard to make happen was the Contemporary Arts Collective. Now located in the Arts Factory, the CAC began in 1989 as the brainchild of Warner and several UNLV art department faculty and students. Hoping to implement an art exhibition forum reflective of the diversity of the community, they took over a pre-existing organization and set up camp across from the university. In very Vegas fashion, they saw a gap and decided to fill it themselves.

“When we started, we were thinking of a group open to all kinds of artists,” Warner says. At first it was mostly UNLV students, gradually diversifying with work of “high-standard quality, [while remaining] community friendly.” As the ’90s wore on, the pool of talent grew as Vegas began to play host to the art-world elite.

The city had caught the art world’s eye as early as 1972, with the publication of Learning From Las Vegas, a popular academic treatise written by architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, which celebrated the city’s creative Strip architecture. It also begged a question: Since the architects had had their say, how in the hell would artists respond? It took the arrival of celebrated writer and art-critic provocateur Dave Hickey to stir up a mini art-world sensation and legitimize Vegas as an art destination: Somebody for real was keeping an eye on the proceedings.

The CAC became a part of that dialogue, curating big shows and attracting a stream of LA artists curious about the city’s one-of-a-kind aesthetic. The organization, staffed mostly by volunteers, has remained an essential outlet and meeting place for art and arts education. But while many of the women I spoke with cited the CAC as their introduction to the local arts community, they also agreed that it has at times been a tough crowd to infiltrate. According to one anonymous commentator, “The community [was] insular, everybody too cool, like a clique; [I wondered] how will it go anywhere?”

While that vibe encourages many to branch out, it also reflects a myopic lack of connectedness that, in varying degrees, ails the whole community. Folks don’t really seem to be talking to each other. That gets in the way of fostering a fully functioning network of arts information about who’s doing what, where they’re doing it and why.

Trifecta Gallery owner and artist Marty Walsh.

Trifecta Gallery owner and artist Marty Walsh.

What do you do when no one says hello? “I literally wore a name tag at functions,” says Trifecta Gallery owner and artist Marty Walsh, with a sparkle in her eye. Having moved here from a town outside of Dublin, Ireland, in 1999, she was used to a small arts community and a bit more openness to outsiders. The CAC had a nice give and take, but ultimately its internal social dynamics would complicate getting things done. Still, she realized that Vegas was a cultural landscape free from the usual structure or restrictions, and she began taking steps to develop her own exhibition space with the hopes of being a ground-level player in a burgeoning art city, something she hadn’t imagined possible before. In 2004, Trifecta was born.

The upside of lacking a rigid infrastructure is that it makes for a permeable scene. There’s nothing or no one, apart from what might be the community’s general fear of the unknown, to say, “You can’t do that.” The downside is it’s hard to sustain anything. Says Warner, “You have to keep making things happen”—over and over and over again. All of the women working in this arts community are intimately familiar with that predicament, including another onetime CAC volunteer, Naomi Arin.

Stepping into Arin’s gallery, Dust, you know you are in a big-city gallery—it’s warehouse cool in concrete and white. With its uncompromising mix of hometown heroes and international wunderkinds, the gallery has emerged as the city’s premier commercial contemporary art venue by being serious about art without taking itself too seriously. It brings us to the art world, but it also brings the art world to us.

 Dust Gallery's Naomi Arin.

Dust Gallery's Naomi Arin.

A lawyer who arrived in Las Vegas in 2001 after working in development for the innovative Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Arin took classes at UNLV with Hickey and his wife, Libby Lumpkin (now director of the Las Vegas Art Museum). While volunteering at the CAC, she was asked to curate an exhibition. In the process of seeking a space to use, her ambitions expanded.

She knew that UNLV grad students were producing top-caliber work—she wanted to give them a venue for exhibition. “I had no idea what I would be doing,” Arin notes. “If anything I thought it would be a nonprofit.” Arin has managed to take risks and support emerging artists while sustaining a business. “The goal,” she insists, “is to add to the conversation.”

While talented CAC volunteers have gone on to make their own contributions to the arts community, the CAC itself has been reinvigorated under its newest director, Beate Kirmse; without abandoning the necessity for exhibitions that reflect the needs of the community, she has managed to challenge its expectations with several recent installations (Aaron Sheppard, Brian Alvarez).

Kirmse’s story is classic Vegas serendipity. The German-born director’s decision to come to Vegas in 2007 was fairly spur-of-the-moment. In New York she had done corporate work and studied arts administration at NYU, hoping to transition into the field. The ironclad infrastructure that is the New York art world proved difficult to penetrate, and a chance living opportunity in Las Vegas brought her to the CAC at the right time. Kirmse found it easy to make use of her talents on Vegas’ open playing field. “This place is the perfect training ground,” notes Kirmse. “You learn a lot by actually doing it.”

One of the community’s many powerhouse women, Cindy Funkhouser manages to maintain the energy and focus to make things happen on a regular basis. The Iowa native moved here from Kansas City in 1992, longing for a break from the cold. She shifted from bartending to operating a successful antique shop, The Funkhouse. In true pioneering spirit, her shop took up residence Downtown before there was much of a “downtown” to contend with. After testing the waters by exhibiting artwork in the space, she joined forces in 2002 with Arin and the highly respected and recently deceased Downtown champion Julie Brewer. The trio formed a little nonprofit organization called Whirlygig.

Whirlygig created First Friday, which almost single-handedly shifted the cultural landscape and created the possibility of an actual arts district. According to its website, the event, which didn’t even exist six years ago, draws anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people each month, and upward of 80 businesses participate, from galleries to restaurants. Prior to the monthly event, no one thought there even could be an arts district.

These days, Funkhouser has moved on to a new venture, opening Fallout Gallery a year ago. Optimism, coupled with a Midwestern no-nonsense approach, proves essential. “I live my life in the same way that I participate in the arts community—with optimism and tenacity.”

Women are overseeing the diversification of Vegas art venues, from cutting-edge galleries to government spaces to bedrock cultural institutions. Ushering in a new breed of gallery owners are Andreana Donohue of Main Gallery and Jennifer Harrington of Henri & Odette. Firmly entrenched in the Downtown community, both are committed to nurturing the emerging careers of local artists while introducing a vibrant selection of national artists. Neither is originally from here, but both have the experience of other metropolitan cities. They craved what they missed from their former hometowns.

For Harrington, that meant a move from the Arts Factory to a storefront space Downtown. “I believe in Downtown Las Vegas,” says Harrington. “I wanted to do something that was a part of people’s everyday experience … a stop-off on your day.” The Bay Area native did so with the faith that, as the area continues to develop, the gallery will become integrated into the daily activities of people who live and work in the neighborhood. “You know what, there are bums that walk by,” she continues, “but that’s exactly how SoHo was in the ’60s,” referring to the once avant-garde NYC art neighborhood turned shopping mecca.

Donohue arrived in Las Vegas in 2003 with a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and the knowledge that someday she might like to have a gallery. But certainly not in Las Vegas. She missed the community spirit of Chicago’s art scene, and she was disappointed in the small quantity of contemporary venues. But she was eventually motivated by the inspired efforts of spaces like Dust Gallery and the defunct Godt-Cleary to take the plunge. “I like taking risks, and I thought it would pay off for the art scene here,” Donohue says.

In 2007 Donohue opened Main Gallery, hoping to create something similar. What has her experience revealed? Well, for starters, “There isn’t a steady art market here.” (“I wish I had more clients in Vegas,” seconds Arin, who cites the secondary market as her bread and butter.) And Donohue has definitely noticed the presence of our many ladies—mostly because it’s such a small community. Maybe, she suggests, women are more likely to stick with something whether it works out or not. “I am the type of person that believes anything is possible anywhere”—which has nothing to do with gender—“but here there is a lack of cultural expectations and infrastructure.”

Donohue has found it unexpectedly challenging to maintain support and communication from the arts community, not to mention the community at large. “I didn’t expect what a lone venture it would be,” Donohue says. “It’s territorial,” Kirmse concurs. “There’s a lot of separation.”

At the other end of the spectrum is MCQ Fine Art Advisory, which serves as art advisor to major-league local collections, while also working with a number of casinos and other businesses to shape their collections.

The presence of MCQ has upped the ante, and not just financially. MCQ owner Michele Quinn wears many hats. As advisor to MGM Mirage, she oversees the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (which, with the recent demise of the Guggenheim Hermitage, is the only museum-quality venue on the Strip). Quinn was also named art advisor to the public-art component of MGM Mirage’s CityCenter, the largest construction site in America. Thanks to Quinn, our front yard will have a bang-up selection of first-rate artwork, including the likes of Maya Lin and Nancy Rubins. (Quinn was also the director of the Godt-Cleary Gallery before it closed.)

Although I was unable to meet with Quinn, I did meet some of her associates. Tarissa Tiberti, sculptor and director of the Bellagio Gallery, had left town for school some years ago and ended up in New York City. A call from Quinn brought her home, and she’s game to see what happens. Tiberti recognizes that the city is at a crucial point: In addition to CityCenter, there’s the Smith Center for the Arts and a potential permanent home for the LVAM. Although she senses the palpable interest level, Tiberti also believes that what happens will depend on the population: How many locals are ready to really support the arts? “The culture has always been different here,” she maintains. All of the things that make other cities culturally vibrant are possible here—it just requires a rethinking to suit our unique characteristics. You can’t just buy a nice suit off the rack—it needs a little tailoring.

Amy Schmidt works as managing director for MCQ. Like almost all of the women I spoke with, these ladies chalk up their successes to the fertile Vegas tabula rasa. Las Vegas, Schmidt says, is “a blank slate … the last truly pioneering city on the planet; its doors are wide open.”

While the selection of commercial arts venues has broadened, government programs and institutions have managed to keep pace. The city’s terrific public-arts program has emerged as one of the most vital forums for bringing art to this community and supporting local artists—and it’s full of awesome women, like Nancy Deaner, Diane Bush, Jeanne Voltura, Catherine Borg, Lisa Stamanis, all of whom are artists.

Stamanis is optimistic, open, and just fun to talk to. As visual arts program manager for the City of Las Vegas, the longtime resident has witnessed numerous civic mutations. “Things form, grow, fade away, [and] something is left to germinate for the next thing,” she says. Managing the development and execution of public art projects appeals to the artist in Stamanis; vision, resilience and creative thinking are necessary. “With my job, I am always involved or [aware of] what’s being built, how the culture is being built.” She considers herself an artist’s advocate. “Your project is as good as your artists,” she says.

During Borg’s tenure as cultural program assistant for Clark County, meanwhile, the county exhibition programs have become must-sees. She believes that what happens in the spaces has to do with the artists: “There are just really interesting artists right now that can be utilized locally.” And she saw in these spaces an opportunity to highlight that talent. Brent Sommerhauser, RC Wonderly and Elizabeth Blau are all local artists who have benefited in the last year from Borg’s vision.

Borg moved here from New York in 2004 when her husband, Stephen Hendee, was hired by the art department at UNLV. What did she miss most? “Dialogue, peers, interaction about work and culture—people in other cities are super culturally engaged.” Kirmse seconds Borg, suggesting that “the city grew so fast, the framework couldn’t keep pace.” The community wants to be challenged, but Kirmse believes those changes have to be cultivated, and Las Vegas just didn’t have the opportunity to stay on top of that dynamic.

Cultural growth seems like a simple enough request. But this community of women senses the danger: How do you balance the desire to encourage a more culturally savvy population without homogenizing this wonderfully strange and crazy place? We possess, or at least did at one time, a kind of avant-garde potential that might get lost in the upgrade. It’s already happening.

“The design principles that underlie Vegas’ visual environment became important [in the ’90s] to theoretical dialogue of the broader art community. As Vegas gentrifies its architecture, it will likely be less a part of art dialogue generally,” suggests LVAM director Libby Lumpkin. In other words, as garish but bold neon signs give way to tasteful mainstream mixed-used projects like the District and Town Square, the creative spark that attracts artists to Vegas may burn out.

Having witnessed the city’s permutations from a privileged position at the crossroads of the international art dialogue, Lumpkin has a unique view of the city from the inside and the outside. Arriving in Las Vegas with Hickey in 1990, Lumpkin had few, if any, expectations. Vegas was not an art city. Although “not exactly the destination [she] had in mind” after getting a Ph.D. in art history, the city’s appeal grew. “Las Vegas became a destination de rigueur for art and architecture graduate students … [and] young artists from around the world began to mine Vegas for material.” The desire to engage in the city’s aesthetic and architectural promiscuity is not to be discounted. No place looks quite like this one. “I love the city and believe that living in a visual environment that tests assumptions about art has made me a better art historian,” Lumpkin says.

What does she feel Vegas needs to evolve as a cultural center? “There is absolutely no way an art community can develop without at least one full-service art museum,” Lumpkin maintains. Not surprising to hear from the director of the Las Vegas Art Museum. Under Lumpkin’s direction since 2007, the institution has aggressively embraced its role as the face of contemporary art in Las Vegas. The museum has hosted major solo and survey exhibitions of international artists and art movements, and the brilliant 702 series has raised the awareness of top-notch local artists.

Still, the arts have not yet hit the level they need to here—as meeting place, educational resource and source of civic pride. “There seems to be very little presence of anything internationally significant or engaged in the Vegas art world,” says UNLV art history professor Kirsten Swenson. “Las Vegas needs some major initiatives.”

A museum will help, but the city also needs the growth in a variety of spaces—and a district or center for arts activities, galleries and exhibition spaces. The local arts groundswell will continue to eddy if it doesn’t have infrastructure and a sense of place. Downtown is the epicenter of the vision for the future, and the implied backdrop for most of this story. The development of the arts district goes hand in hand with the move to localize arts institutions, organizations and businesses. It is a place where the CACs and First Fridays of the city could co-exist in a mutually beneficial way. So many other cities before Vegas have instigated urban renaissance—why can’t we?

Most of our art world doyennes passionately describe the need for businesses to complement the galleries—coffee shops, bistros and bookstores. That sounds an awful lot like a neighborhood, not a once-a-month destination. The desire to create a situation where “culture” integrates seamlessly into daily patterns is thunderous. There is no denying the simple ripple effect of a small independently owned neighborhood coffee shop with a couple of awesome magazines, art on the walls and fledgling rock stars behind the counter. As Stamanis puts it, “[Newcomers] say, ‘We want what we had in our city before we moved here.’”

And yet, with such places as Enigma Café—owned by the late Julie Brewer, an iconic woman in local arts—Downtown had exactly that sort of hangout, and it didn’t survive.

Still, numerous female arts business owners distance themselves, if only physically, from the intersection of Main and Charleston, the acknowledged Arts District crossroads. “We don’t have a nexus,” Schmidt laments. MCQ owner Michele Quinn has established her art advisory amongst the law firms of Seventh Street. And one reason MCQ elected to stay Downtown was to remain connected to the local art scene, hoping to serve as a kind of cultural connection to the community and contribute to the area’s overall continued development.

Most women I spoke with were wisely reluctant to isolate their female experience in the arts. The pitfalls are manifold. But Kirmse echoed the thoughts of many others in suggesting that women possess some combination of resilience and stamina, particularly with regard to low-paying, unconventional career paths. Maybe psychologically they don’t have the same pressure to bring home the bacon? Kirmse also suggests that it might be an appreciation of abstract, nonlinear rewards that makes the female mind-set ideal for the job. We want to make some cash, but might be willing (or able) to take home less to do something we love.

Lumpkin notes that women dominate many arts communities outside of the mainstream—but men still hold most positions at the university, and male artists seem to dominate locally. Similarly, Borg recognizes that numerous women are in pivotal roles, but does not believe they ultimately call the shots. She cites the limited opportunities in Las Vegas as a creative professional as the reason many women turn to administrative positions. She believes that male artists are more supported here, and many of the women I interviewed agree. The men—Hickey, UNLV art department professors and administrators, art handlers—all take themselves more seriously, or are allowed to. They can define themselves as artists first. But this condition is pervasive throughout the art world. Once you get an administrative job, it becomes difficult to define yourself otherwise, and women tend to have these jobs. “Women are there by default,” Borg says.

The fact is that there aren’t many people who can live just off their artwork—and that’s the case everywhere. That’s the crux of the challenge for artists in Las Vegas. Ultimately, what’s needed in Las Vegas is perseverance and cooperation. Everyone is working so hard to maintain their garden that they are forgetting to look over the fence next door. Maybe we need to just tear those fences down. After all, as Lumpkin says, “Vegas isn’t kind to the helpless or needy of either gender.”

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