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Exclusive: Elaine Wynn talks about her lasting legacy for children

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Robin Leach interviews Elaine Wynn on the Andre Agassi Grand Slam red carpet at the Wynn on Oct. 9, 2010.
Photo: Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

Yesterday morning, as we reported here at VegasDeLuxe.com, resort hotel mogul Elaine Wynn gave a $5 million donation to set up an arts education studio at the new Smiths Performing Arts Center that is under construction at the downtown Symphony Park.

Right after the announcement, I was able to talk one-on-one with our hospitality queen.

Dr. Aniuello Musella, the Italian trade commissioner to the U.S., Valerie Salembier, publisher of <em>Harpers Bazaar</em> and Elaine Wynn at Outfit on March 25, 2010.

Dr. Aniuello Musella, the Italian trade commissioner to the U.S., Valerie Salembier, publisher of Harpers Bazaar and Elaine Wynn at Outfit on March 25, 2010.

Elaine Wynn, Kevyn Wynn, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf arrive at the 14th annual Andre Agassi Foundation for Education's Grand Slam for Children benefit at Wynn Las Vegas.

Elaine Wynn, Kevyn Wynn, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf arrive at the 14th annual Andre Agassi Foundation for Education's Grand Slam for Children benefit at Wynn Las Vegas.

Robin Leach: This wonderful gesture, this wonderful gift, how does it make you feel to be able to donate an initial $5 million?

Elaine Wynn: Oh my God, I was giddy when I made the decision, which was a couple of months ago because it was just so right. It had come full circle because we had started conversations about a performing arts center when I was at the Golden Nugget 30 years ago. We started having conversations back then with local people. We hosted kind of a community meeting with like-minded people to talk about the prospect of having a performing arts center in Las Vegas and through the years in different shapes and forms. I said, “You guys keep working on this, I’m going to keep working on my education stuff, at some point we’ll all get back together when it’s proper.” And their hard work finally got this thing lifted off.

When they came back this fall and asked if I wanted to participate, there wasn’t anything that was really resonating. I didn’t want a named VIP box. I didn’t want to have some kind of sterile connection. Then when I saw there was this opportunity for an art studio and education and community outreach, that was it. I said, “That’s what I want to do: Create audiences, bring these things to the children and to the families that otherwise don’t know about it, or wouldn’t have access to it or appreciation for it.” So it all made sense.

RL: Why it is so important for kids of today, who grow up to be our leaders of tomorrow, to have this kind of hands on and emotional attachment to the arts?

EW: For me, it is more philosophical than a tangible thing. … For me, it goes to the heart of the child’s identity of himself/herself and the time and place of which they find them. The children that I tend to gravitate to and work with are children -- we call them at risk, and I call them at hope. For them, very often the only comfort they have in their lives is in their imagination. They need to have permission to know that it’s good to live a life outside of your physical circumstances, that what you dream of what you hum, how you twirl, how you paint is a marvelous way of claiming your place in the world.

They don’t get to understand those as well as they do when they get to see manifestations of that. When they hear a concert, when they see a dancer, when they see a beautiful piece of art, you can’t help it, it strikes you in some indescribable way no matter who you are, how old you are, where you live, what you do. To be able to have those experiences brought to the children, or to have those children brought to the experiences, I hope that this is an elevation of their soul. I know it sounds really lofty, but that’s what I hope will happen.

RL: It does change their life. It makes them better people of the community and potentially leaders into the future.

EW: Plus, research has demonstrated that kids who are involved in the arts do better in English, math and all of their other subjects. Which is why kids who go to performing arts schools test so much better, a definite correlation and link with academic performance and exposure to the arts.

RL: Elaine, is this your most important legacy?

EW: Let’s just say it’s a link to the legacy which my most important one is, the community’s and school’s national dropout program. I’m national chairman. It’s the fifth-largest youth serving agency in America. I’m dedicated to children who don’t have resources and to children who need to understand the value of education and how staying in school will ultimately be their path to success and fulfillment and not drop out of school.

RL: So all of it combined becomes your legacy? Are you happy how far you’ve come with it?

EW: That’s my legacy. I’m humbled by it. Anything worth doing is a marathon, not a sprint. Everything that is coming to fruition today are things that I have been working on for more than 20 years. To have the president acknowledge our Vegas communities and schools as one of the best programs of its kind is something that wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.

To have Secretary of Education (Arne) Duncan come and speak to our board and acknowledge it as one of the best programs in the country, to have funders and foundations and the government give us funding to expand our work, it’s just an incredible thing. I’ve had two years of incredible highs from the success of these things.

RL: I sense you’re in a happy and contented place?

EW: I’m blessed. I know where my next meal is coming from, I have a couple of roofs over my head, my children are healthy, I’m healthy, and I’m doing what I love doing. The real legacy of my life is what I’m doing now.

RL: It’s great that it’s come out of an industry that gets frowned on too often.

EW: Hard work and enterprise done with a pursuit of excellence usually results in that. And for people who have traditionally looked down their nose at gaming, we never conceived what we did as pure gaming. We always looked at it as hospitality or entertainment. We elevated this concept by expanding the menu choices and keeping it classy. I’m proud of the work that has been done here and all of the thousands of people who have made it happen.”

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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