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Art

Richard Hooker discusses art, the Neon Museum and his new gallery in Downtown Las Vegas

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Richard Hooker inside RTZvegas.
Photo: Leila Navidi

The Details

RTZvegas
1017 S. First Street, Suite 195 (in Art Square)
(702) 592-2164

For more than a decade, Richard Hooker has been the man behind culture in Las Vegas, working with the Neon Museum and the Vegas Valley Book Festival and as a liaison between the city and the Arts District. Prior to that, he worked for the Nevada Arts Council.

After retiring recently from his post as urban arts coordinator for the city, Hooker opened RTZvegas gallery in Art Square.

A recipient of this year’s Nevada Humanities Awards, the artist from Santa Fe—who worked for the Santa Fe Council for the Arts and New Mexico Arts—talked with the Weekly about the arts, in the community and in his own life.

Why art? I believe you’re born with a predisposition to be an artist. I was just drawn to being a creative person.

Did you know you could have a career in art? No, I didn’t. I come from a working-class family. I graduated in political science.

Why Las Vegas? I had seen that article in Art in America. It was about the art scene in Las Vegas. It was a really important piece, and they talked about the Neon Museum. This was Art in America talking about Las Vegas as a potential art city. I remember reading that and walking into my office and saying, “I’m going to live in Las Vegas.”

And Santa Fe? I felt like I’d done what I wanted to do. I’d lived there for 15 years. I collaborated with a whole lot of young, crazy artists. We did a series of projects called Santa Fe City Streets. We were young, emerging hipsters. The paper called us the “local trendies.”

What were some of the projects? Performance art and pop-up galleries. We’d have shows in the gas station when it would close. One of the artists drove a taxi. He’d have the passengers do art and then drive them to the gas station to drop off the art to be part of the exhibit. Another artist drove the Taxi Libre—“the free taxi about town.” He’d drive up to people and say, “This is your free taxi, where would you like to go?” And that was his art.

I also had a gallery. The last show was The Wigs of Georgia O’Keeffe. We did 10 episodes of performance art in the window. The wigs were artworks unto themselves.

And your gallery here? I was never going to strictly open an art gallery itself. I wanted a space that would lend itself to entrepreneurial efforts and also be a gallery. I’m going to be doing cultural mapping, and I’m working on a pop-up book of the pop culture of Las Vegas.

You offer a diverse mix of artists and shows. I’m interested now in this younger generation that is emerging in Las Vegas and artists who have been at work for 20 years. It’s important to know that there’s a foundation for an arts community in place and to draw from this historical significance.

In Santa Fe, we thought we were the beginning of it all. Then, sure enough, along came Allen Kaprow, the inventor of happenings. He was sent out to evaluate projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. He told us about the origin [of performance] from his point of view.

Were you intimidated? Oh, no. We loved him. We had no fear. We once had lunch with Allen Ginsberg. At the end, he picked up his plate and licked it totally clean.

What did you do? Nothing. We sat there being quiet. (laughs)

What kind of art are you doing now? I’ve been working with neon. When I worked in Santa Fe, I did very text-based works, language; that’s why I love literature, why I love the book festival. Also, I’m pursuing my spiritual life through art. I think there’s an intrinsic connection between spirit and art. Art is a change agent in your own life and in a community.

What were some of your favorite projects with the city of Las Vegas? Who couldn’t love working for the Boneyard? I got to basically run the Neon Museum for the first two years. It was so thrilling to move the first sign—the Aladdin lamp. There were no signs in there. Right after we fenced it off, I went to a holiday party and met someone from the Aladdin who said they were in possession of the Aladdin sign but that it was going to the Smithsonian. We arranged for the hotel to give the sign to the Neon Museum with an agreement it could be loaned to the Smithsonian.

What else? The City of 100 Murals, the book festival; I loved the Aerial Gallery. It’s almost like an encyclopedia of Las Vegas arts. Over 100 artists exhibited. It’s moving to First Street.

Is the city supportive of art? Oscar Goodman always felt the arts could contribute to Las Vegas as a world-class city. It’s a measure of growth and maturity that the city would create a cabinet-level department for the Office of Cultural Affairs. That’s a big deal for a city.

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Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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