Prayer Booth from the exhibition “Private Faith in the Public Sphere”
Dylan Mortimer
Steel, plastic, vinyl
100″ x 36″ x 16″
Photo: Trifecta Gallery

Untitled (83.8 Kr. 36)
Pasha Rafat
Pyrex glass, 10 mm Uranium tubing
3 rings 1/2″ x 12″ diameter
Photo: courtesy Brett Wesley Gallery

Think “Las Vegas.” Take a deep breath. Now think again. Las Vegas has art. Not just good art. Great, heart-stopping, world-class art. From the largest James Turrell Ganzfeld installation ever built to small-format drawings by RC Wonderly, from the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art with its blue-chip exhibitions, to TastySpace with emerging artists of every stripe, the city that is known for sensory excess is also a city reinventing itself with a vibrant arts culture.

And it’s picking up speed. Plans for the new museum, the Modern Contemporary Art Museum, with its adjacent Center for Creativity and sculpture park, were just announced. Not far from the future site of the “ModCon” in the Arts District, Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into city renewal, attracting hoards of smart, hip 20- and 30-somethings who are opening gallery spaces and commissioning murals from D*Face and Interesni Kazki. Pop-up exhibitions, art hotels, and a range of alternative spaces–Las Vegas is poised to become an art destination in its own right.

“Vegas is a young city of 2,000,000 that perpetually reinvents itself,” says Shannon McMackin, of VAST Space Projects. “The Renaissance in downtown Las Vegas is revitalizing the arts community, and people are finally starting to pay attention.” McMackin knows what she’s talking about. The Nevada native did time on the LA arts scene before directing VAST gallery for over two years. “I feel like I exhausted the white-cube gallery space,” she smiles. “At least for now.”

“1 IS THE ZERO THAT COMES BEFORE” (Installation view)
Nicholas Shake
On view at VAST Projects
Photo: Checko Salgado Photography
Courtesy: VAST Projects

McMackin currently curates a range of satellite spaces, including intimate, classy pop-up exhibitions in Emergency Arts, the downtown creative hub, and large, performative exhibitions in a whopping 5,000-foot warehouse on the edge of town. Running through January is “1 IS THE ZERO THAT COMES BEFORE,” a solo exhibit by LA artist Nicolas Shake presenting sculptures, large-scale oil paintings and a site-specific photo collage. Next up in the warehouse is Mark Brandvik’s “Volume Control” in February. “Long-term exhibitions are important, but I like to foster spaces and make something happen, for a day, for a week,” McMackin says. “There are so many great sites around town–it’s hard to choose.”

Temporary art exhibits are popular in Las Vegas because the real estate is available, a legacy of the 2008 crash. During the two-day “Life is Beautiful” art/music/food/learning festival in October, Patrick Duffy transformed the shuttered Town Lodge Motel into game-changing galleries, with works by Chuck Close and William T. Wiley, along with an impressive cadre of emerging artists. Michael Litt and Green Jelly’s one-night-only “Greetings from Las Vegas” pop-up art event at the historic Gateway Motel followed suit in December, showcasing works and installations by talented local artists. Along with Preview Thursday, when galleries and pop-ups host openings on the first Thursday of every month, and First Friday, a vigorous, sprawling street fair, Las VegasÕ temporary arts events lend spontaneity and vibrancy to the scene.

The small but feisty arts district, located between the Strip and downtown, deserves credit for helping get everything going and keeping the fires burning. Two monumental sculptures by Dennis Oppenheim–electric, color-morphing, paintbrushes seemingly swabbing the sky–mark District 18b, where two roomy complexes, known respectively as The Arts Factory and Art Square, anchor the neighborhood, with the Modern Contemporary Art Museum slated to go up next door.

Among the handful of galleries sharing storefronts with vintage goods and antique stores, restaurants and bars, is Trifecta Gallery. Located in The Arts Factory, Trifecta is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this February with the group show, “Past Present and Future.” “I’ve nurtured long-term relationships with artists and collectors,” says Trifecta Director Marty Walsh. “I was one of the first ones here, and I’ve watched it evolve. There’s real passion now, and too many things to do on a given night–you have to choose.” Walsh believes the investment in downtown Las Vegas has triggered an uptick of interest in the arts and in collecting. She hit her 2013 sales target well before the year’s end. While figurative artists, such as Sam Davis and Casey Weldon, were once the gallery’s mainstays, Trifecta is moving in the direction of pattern-based work by artists such as Philip Denker and Jim Stanford. “If you pick the right artists for the time and the place, then you’re going to do well,” she observes.

Across the street from Trifecta sits Brett Wesley Gallery, in a fetching mid-century modern building with the Oppenheim paintbrush in front. Promoting mid-career and emerging artists, Brett Wesley Gallery was founded in 2009 and recently added a satellite space nearby in Art Square. The main gallery is usually reserved for solo or paired shows, while the satellite showcases an eclectic range of the gallery’s artists. The provocative group exhibit, “The Male Mind,” takes a reading of gender and art with works by 16 artists, including Pasha Rafat, whose light-based work feels at home here. “Our goal is to show art that is bold and relevant,” says Director Victoria Hart. “Whether you love it or not, there’s always something worth talking about.”

Other gallery favorites in the heart of District 18b include Sin City Gallery, with its emphasis on “cerebral sexy” art; the newly opened Downtown Contemporary; and the nonprofit powerhouse, Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). Founded in 1989, CAC showcases cutting-edge art and promotes dialogue with national and international artists. “CAC can take bigger risks than the galleries,” artist JK Russ explains, referring to January’s amusing “Cannibals and Survivalists” installation by Nathan Cote, which incorporates air plants, light tents and cannibalized radishes.

A short walk away on the ground floor of the Soho Lofts, next door to the popular Lady Silvia lounge with its speakeasy decor, the Amanda Harris Gallery of Contemporary Art is geared toward new genres and multimedia exhibitions, from minimalist artists, such as Wess Dahl-Berg, to photographers, such Kent Anderson Butler. In February, Butler is exhibiting large “photo tapestries,” portraits of LA art world figures, such as curator Andi Campognone, literally woven into blankets and hung on the wall. “I’m always interested in creating dialogue between LA and Las Vegas,” says Director Amanda Harris.

The local galleries walk a delicate line, between supporting emerging and established Las Vegas artists and reaching out to the national/international arts community. No one knows the situation better than former New Yorker Michele Quinn, who’s been a mover and shaker in Las Vegas arts since she brought her knowhow and connections back to her native city in 2003. Directing the downtown MCQ Fine Art gallery (showing RC Wonderly through January) is just one of Quinn’s activities. As principal of Michele C. Quinn Fine Art Advisory, Quinn has served as curatorial advisor for the largest public/corporate cont
emporary art collections in the country. In Las Vegas, Quinn has left her mark with exhibitions of Rauschenberg, Serra and Ruscha, among many others. Of all Quinn’s art activities–curating, advocating, nurturing, advising–her selection of 16 blue-chip public art works permanently displayed in the heart of the Strip is a standout contribution. The CityCenter Fine Art Collection app lays it out on the phone: next to the Crystals mall at CityCenter, the Henry Moore; at the Aria Resort & Casino, Jenny Holzer; in front of the Vdara Las Vegas, Nancy Rubins; and at the Mandarin Oriental, Masatoshi Izumi.

The Strip, in fact, is home to numerous contemporary art treasures, including James Turrell’s magnificent, show-stopping Akhob, located on the rarified third floor of Louis Vuitton in the Crystals CityCenter mall (by appointment only), and Jeff Koons’ sci-fi Tulips, an out-sized polished steel sculpture at the Wynn Las Vegas. But the standout resort for art-minded tourists is The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, with its permanent “WALLWORKS” mural exhibitions and Art-o-mat vending machines (up-cycled cigarette machines that offer pack-sized original artworks). Rotating digital exhibitions spool and snap throughout the resort, including the 65-foot “PAUSE” marquee, featuring David Shrigley’s New Friends this winter.

Negligence always leads to cannibalism – radish
Nathan Cote
Photo: courtesy: Contemporary Arts Center, Las Vegas

Currents and Undercurrents
Wess Dahl-Berg
Sun-thickened acrylic paint on wood panel
38″ x 38″
Photo: courtesy of the artist and Amanda Harris Gallery

Cosmo’s P3 Studio occupies a corner space on the third floor next to the pool table lounge where it gets a lot of traffic. Open from 6 pm to almost midnight, P3 Studio is a collaborative space where art goers can wander in and interact with the resident artist and art works, such as adding a piece to Dan Kopp’s mural-size sculptural puzzle, or visiting the vigilante Bumbys for a customized fashion-assessment souvenir. Alisha Kerlin’s voyeur habitat, “Marking Territory,” runs through late January. Further down the Strip, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art hosts top-notch 19th- and 20th-century exhibitions that do double dutyÑuser-friendly for the casual viewer, significant for the initiated. The recent “Warhol Out West,” for example, displayed Warhol’s famous soup cans, but also the melancholic, and rarely seen, Cowboys and Indians series. “We have an unusual setting and an unusual audience,” says Executive Director Tarissa Tiberti. “The challenge is keeping the blockbuster artists vital and fresh for the savvy public.” Opening on Valentine’s Day, “Painting Women: Works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” brings artworks that rarely travel from the East Coast to the desert in order to trace the struggle of women to earn artistic recognition, from Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun to Georgia OÕKeeffe.

Over at University of Nevada Las Vegas, The Galleries at UNLV house two modern and contemporary art collections, the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel 50×50 collection, and the Las Vegas Art Museum (LVAM) collection. Formerly run by art historian Libby Lumpkin, the LVAM collection includes work made by the students of famed cultural critic Dave Hickey, who taught at the school until 2010, when the influential art world couple moved on to the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. After the recession forced the LVAM to close, it partnered with UNLV. “When it comes to art,” says Patrick Duffy, President of LVAM, “UNLV can provide the infrastructure in the coming years for the collection to grow.” UNLV also hosts a dynamic artist lecture series, free and open to the public, with talks by Llyn Foulkes, James Elkins and Aram Moshayedi, to name but a few.

Other lively exhibition spaces in town include the Winchester Cultural Center Gallery and The Rotunda Gallery in Clark County Government Center, as well as 5th Wall and TastySpace in the Emergency Arts center, and Blackbird Studios in the newly opened Downtown Container Park. But the real power of the Las Vegas art scene is the artists who call the city home. Whether they show locally or exhibit in New York or LA, or points beyond, the artists are among the city’s chief cultural resources–Robert Beckmann, David Sanchez Burr, Matthew Couper, Sush Machida, David Ryan, and Tim Bavington, among many others. Las Vegas has an openness and an ability to get behind projects that older, more stratified cities donÕt have. The potential seems to vibrate in the streets. And that makes Las Vegas an interesting and exciting place to be.