New Downtown Center
Wed, Nov 26, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Susanne Forestieri
Hold on to your paper party hats, because when the new year arrives, the moribund Neonopolis promises to spring to life with the addition of Telemundo, Wet Ultra Lounge and the Star Trek Experience. But for the moment things are quiet at the Southern Nevada Center for the Arts, a warren of artists’ studios/galleries that circle around the second floor where a food court used to be.
When I visited a few weeks ago, these pristine white cubicles were unoccupied, and I was reminded of the Anchorite cells built into the walls of cathedrals in the middle ages to isolate men and women from secular life and allow them to devote themselves to religious contemplation. On my next visit, many studios were already functioning, with easels set up, brushes in coffee cans and paint splattered everywhere. A few artists were in the process of moving in—a rolled-up area rug here, paintings stacked against the walls there.
I expected my first monastic image to dissolve and another metaphor to take its place, say a beehive abuzz with activity, but the monastic image persisted even though it was at odds with the center’s goal of bringing artists and the public together to form a synergistic community. I think its potency has to do with the true nature of the art enterprise, which is different from and sometimes at odds with the marketplace.
Art is a calling, not unlike that of a religious person. This analogy had more resonance in the age when religion and art were intertwined, and the church, along with kings and queens, was the arts’ primary patron. When the royals lost their heads and the popes lost their power, artists were forced to compete in the marketplace, hawking their wares like any other vendor.
But artists are not like other vendors, and art is not like other commodities. An artistic creation grows from a talented individual’s gifts; and turning that gift into a commodity by treating art as a business discomforts many artists. The second difference between an ordinary commodity and art is the slipperiness of assigning a value to art, which is often validated by a high price tag.
Although art springs from a place deep within the artist that must be nurtured, our culture exerts pressure on artists to prematurely develop a style and pursue a “career.” The studio/gallery is a compromise that works by placing the hermit-like space required to make art within a public setting, which allows for the free flow of ideas among artists. It invites viewers to observe artists at work and maybe make a purchase. This model has been very successful in other cities. Whether it will succeed here is an open question.
It’s off to a good start. All 30 spaces are leased. The studios/galleries are attractive and provide a good amount of wall and work space. The developer wisely retained the squiggly shaped overhead lights, which give the space an authentic Vegas feel.
Artists, craftspeople and designers have adapted the spaces to suit their needs. Some have even added homey touches like curtains and easy chairs, which add a layer of ambiguity. But even in the less personal spaces, the uncertainty is palpable. Standing at the threshold of each cubicle, I hesitated, sought eye contact with the artist and asked for permission to enter. Unlike when entering a store, where the transaction is impersonal and unambiguous, my asking permission highlights the sensitive and special nature of selling art.
The artists themselves are a mixed bag, falling roughly into four categories: those who tailor their product to suit the market (e.g., attractive but banal images of cafes and canals); others who, having honed their prodigious skills as commercial artists, now turn their talents toward the fine-art market but retain a market bent; those whose business acumen has fought their artistic nature to a draw; and lastly, those whose need to share their work is so urgent that they haven’t given themselves time to develop their art, but are optimistic the market will come to them.