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Las Vegas gambles on performing arts venue

The city will soon break ground on the $475-million Smith Center amid deep economic slump. Project officials say the project is aimed at locals, not tourists.

March 23, 2009|Reed Johnson

LAS VEGAS — Within 90 days, this city founded on risk-taking is supposed to break ground on one of its biggest cultural gambles to date: the $475-million Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

The ground-breaking is taking place at a challenging time for Las Vegas' biggest cultural institutions, which have been buffeted by the recession. Most notably, the Las Vegas Art Museum closed last month. The museum's closing and cutbacks elsewhere have raised questions about whether a city that in recent years has tried to cultivate a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan image can sustain a high-arts presence and fill the seats at its fancy new cultural center. Previously, Las Vegas attempted to lure out-of-towners away from the slot machines and showgirls by offering brand-name artworks at splashy venues such as the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at the Venetian Resort, now closed, and casino magnate Steve Wynn's Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.

By contrast, said Myron Martin, the Smith Center's president, the "vast majority" of patrons at the new performance hall downtown probably won't be tourists, but southern Nevada residents.

"It's important for people like me who live here and raised my family and call Las Vegas home to make a distinction between the kinds of things that have been opened in commercial settings and the kinds of things that we're trying to do to make this a more livable city," he said. "I think we've reached critical mass, that our citizens demand a better quality of life."

The Art Museum had existed for nearly six decades in various incarnations. Libby Lumpkin, who stepped down last December as executive director in the face of drastic staff and budget cutbacks, said "it just seemed like a no-brainer" in the late 1990s that high culture could attract tourists while also serving one of the country's fastest-growing local populations.

"But in retrospect I have been doubting the wisdom of my thinking," said Lumpkin, who previously had worked for Wynn as a curator and editor at the Bellagio Gallery. "I think maybe now Las Vegas is going to be what it's going to be, a cowboy town with a libertarian streak."

Nevada is being hammered not only by dropping tourist visits (down nearly 12% in January from the previous year) but by some of the highest mortgage-foreclosure rates in the country. Casinos are struggling with debt acquired during the era of booming real estate markets. Many hotels have drastically lowered their room rates and are offering more discount cross-promotions with restaurants and casino shows to attract customers.

The Nevada Ballet and the Philharmonic are in better shape than the museum, although the former recently had to cut nine dancers due to the recession and the Philharmonic cut its staff and reduced its board following an administrative shake-up last year. The two institutions will be anchor tenants of the Smith Center when it opens downtown in early 2012.

"We're cautiously optimistic," said Jeri Crawford, who will become the Philharmonic's president in May.

The Philharmonic, which has no endowment, a $1.7-million budget and 1,000 subscribers, will be trying to add subscribers and roughly double its number of concerts to 20 per season by the time it switches from its current home at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to the Smith Center's principal, 2,050-seat multipurpose hall.

A versatile venue

The center, designed by David M. Schwarz Architects, also will house a 300-seat cabaret theater and a 200-seat flexible black-box space. The entire complex is being financed in large measure with $150 million in gifts from the locally based Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, named for the late media entrepreneur, plus $170 million in public funding largely derived from a 2% car rental tax.

Patrick Duffy, the closed museum's board president, vowed that the facility, which watched its budget drop from a high of about $2.7 million to $800,000, would reopen, although he couldn't specify when. "Are we going to hell in a handbasket? I don't think so," he said. "We've really only put it in dormancy. We've put it in cryogenics."

Duffy said museum officials had held discussions about a number of potential new venues for the museum, including UNLV and the Community College of Southern Nevada.

Under Lumpkin's direction, the museum focused on contemporary art with a number of well-received exhibitions, including one curated by her husband, the art critic Dave Hickey.

Lumpkin said that because its galleries were relatively small, the museum had no choice but to go dark between the removal of one exhibition and the installation of a new one. Sometimes she and her staff personally drove tourists back to their hotels if they'd wandered over only to find the museum closed between shows. The museum shared part of a modern building with a public library branch, about a 16-mile round-trip from the Strip, an expensive cab ride for car-less tourists.

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