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Las Vegas: Portrait of a struggling arts scene

By luring artists, city leaders hoped to renew downtown and add culture to its glitz. Then the recession hit.

April 04, 2009|Ashley Powers

LAS VEGAS — The painter was the first artist to move to the downtown corner. His neighbors included a strip club, the Little White Wedding Chapel, a Thai barbecue joint and red neon heralding the Tod Motor Motel.

Others might have shunned the gritty storefront near Las Vegas' embryonic arts district, but here, Ezequiel Lee Orona could grasp a decades-old dream for $900 a month. The painter opened 3rd Street Revolution gallery in January 2007, as Las Vegas wooed artists with promises of renewing its downtown and bringing culture to a city of sequins and kitsch.

But the arts district remains a largely unfinished canvas. And like so many other problems in this town, the recession is partly to blame.

On a recent morning, Orona, 59, admired his 900 square feet through tendrils of Basic cigarette smoke. Canvases popped with Crayola-bright colors and mixed-media works incorporating a tattered American flag and a radiator cover. He's sold only two or three pieces this year and thinks the entire arts scene is scouring the couch for quarters.

"I think Vegas is becoming the Emerald City or some damn thing," he grunted. "When you pull back the glitter and the lights and the glamour, people are really hurting."

Downtown Vegas attracted Orona with the same sales pitch that other cities have used in recent years: Arts groups, galleries and lofts could reinvigorate even decaying communities. But the economic downturn has endangered cultural endeavors in nearly every state, according to the nonprofit Americans for the Arts.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival canceled a production of "Les Miserables." The Phoenix Center for the Arts discontinued most education programs. Even New York's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art cut staff.

In Vegas, the arts push was about more than moving real estate. The city had already found wealth through blackjack and slot machines, but like many nouveau riche, it was mocked as tasteless and unrefined. As the population boomed, civic leaders hoped Vegas would find its soul -- through art.

"That's what people say: The one thing Las Vegas lacks is culture. No one says we need another casino, and no one says we need another bar," says Wes Isbutt, who in 1992 opened the Arts Factory a few miles north of the Strip. The former crematory houses 17 galleries and is the hub of the city's nascent arts district.

Isbutt and others prodded city bigwigs to support the fledgling 18-block district, which is mainly devoted to antique shops and visual artists. As part of a larger downtown redevelopment push, the city began sprucing up the area's landscaping, lighting and streets -- along with adding public art -- in hopes of attracting artists and patrons. In 2002, locals launched First Friday, a monthly gallery showcase whose attendance has grown from 300 to 10,000. The city helped support that too.

In recent years, about half a dozen upscale condo projects were planned nearby. Storefronts, including Orona's, opened just beyond district boundaries.

Then the economy tanked, and Las Vegas became a poster child for economic malaise. Two of the region's cultural mainstays -- the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre -- are hurting financially. In February, the Las Vegas Art Museum, which relied almost completely on private money, closed.

But hopes were still high when Orona moved into the neighborhood. He was soon followed by Ed Dominguez, 42, who sold his home in Phoenix and opened Cob4lt Blu3, an airy space with oil paintings whose subjects range from Strip casinos to Catholic nuns.

Last year, sales halted for about five months, and he ran through thousands of dollars in savings. Still, he balked at scaling back prices or closing shop. "This is it. This is my life," he says. "That's why I can't let it go for nothing -- it's a part of me."

Already the portrait of a starving artist -- he mixes paints in red plastic cups -- Dominguez gave up his sole indulgence: CDs of electronica music. A friend suggested he offer paintings suburbanites might like in their living rooms: geometric motifs in tangerine, green and brown.

Dominguez has sold only five paintings this year, just enough to scrape by, but is optimistic an interior designer he recently met could order up to four more. "I'm dangling on hope right now," he says.

In 2008, more than 30 of 170 galleries and studios in Las Vegas went out of business, said Carol Meyer, a city business licensing supervisor. Six more closed this year. In recent months, Isbutt cut rent 15% for some Arts Factory tenants (they start at $1.25 per square foot), and he has seen a higher rate of turnover among them.

Only two of the proposed condo towers opened, says Dick Geyer, neighborhood association president, and many owners intended to flip their units, not live in them as civic leaders had hoped.

"It's never not been a baby arts district," says Naomi Arin, who runs a contemporary art gallery downtown. "It's never taken hold. It's never grown up."

Orona fears it never will. This morning, he mopped the storefront, which smelled of paint thinner and linseed oil. He's wanted a gallery since he lived near Fresno as a young artist inspired by Cesar Chavez. Now, with his hair starting to whiten and his forehead creased, he works part-time as a security guard.

He stubbed out a cigarette and considered his options, including renting out part of the gallery. "I could try to make art for the masses," he said. "But what's that? A T-shirt?"

He showed off a creation inspired by the first round of bank bailouts. He took a toilet found by a homeless man, spray-painted it gold and stuck nails to the seat, pointed ends up. "I wanted the title to be: 'Have a Seat, American Taxpayers, the President Will Be Right With You,' " Orona said.

Passers-by have stopped to gawk, but no one has offered to buy it.


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