Las Vegas May Be The Hottest Art City in America Now
Where else can you eat dinner in view of a Banksy or admire the myriad, melting iterations of an ice sculpture? This desert city is becoming the country’s capital of creativity.
By Matt Villano
Fun. Excitement. Indulgence. Relaxation.
Over the years, Las Vegas has prided itself on giving visitors an anything-goes escape they can’t find anywhere else on the planet. And while the city still delivers on that promise, it seems Vegas is cornering the market on something totally new: Inspiration.
This development stems directly from a burgeoning art scene that has taken over the city. On the Strip, in pockets favored by locals, and downtown, private and public art is popping up everywhere. Poetically, the trend comes at a time when locals and visitors alike across the country seem to be embracing this culture crescendo, seeking art whenever they’re out and about.
“Art in this town is alive, vibrant, and–like Vegas itself–growing like crazy,” says Vegas artist Abbie Paulhus. “As the art scene here grows, there are more opportunities for people to make, sell, and appreciate it.”
If anybody understands art in Vegas, it’s Paulhus. She’s been creating whimsical commercial art in this town since 2013, selling regularly at the Market in the Alley pop-up behind Fergusons Downtown, and watching the scene evolve from a small, disparate group of West Coast transplants to an eclectic and tight-knit community of creative thinkers from all over the world.
Most of this action has unfolded around the Arts District, an 18-block area on the southwest end of downtown. This is the part of the city with the greatest number of galleries, the place where artists used to be able to find the cheapest studio space to do their thing.
Five years ago, the Arts District could be best described as gritty, a hipster haven that only in-the-know locals visited. Today, however, the neighborhood has transformed into a destination onto itself. The city widened sidewalks. Galleries extended hours. Restaurateurs moved in and converted the area into a place foodies make special trips to. On any given Friday night, the Arts District is just as hopping as any other neighborhood in town.
“Everything about this neighborhood is independent and free-spirited,” says James Trees, who opened Esther’s Kitchen in January 2018 and has received plaudits ever since. “That’s what makes it so interesting.”
Local artists also attribute a significant amount of this growth to Life Is Beautiful (LIB) music festival, which will celebrate its sixth anniversary when this year’s event kicks off in late September. Art is a huge component of the festival, with organizers bringing in muralists from all over the world to create original masterpieces on downtown buildings. Over the years, LIB has also commissioned public art sculptures, like Mike Ross’ “Big Rig Jig,” a tangle of oil tankers that now sits in front of Fergusons.
All told, since the event began in 2014, it has featured more than 30 artists, including Shepard Fairey, Sebas Velasco, Joakim Ojanen, and Egle Zvirblyte, according to CEO Justin Weniger. The lineup for 2019 will include murals and installations by Danny Cole, DAKU, MANTRA and others.
“Life is Beautiful exists to aid in the positive transformation of communities and perspectives by collectivizing, inspiring, and empowering, and the art program plays a critical role in that transformation,” Weniger says. “Every year, we leave the festival footprint better than we found it. The impact? An inspired community, a stronger sense of identity, and a general feeling of pride.”
Flying high at Palms
Elsewhere around town, the new owners of Palms Casino Resort are making the property an art destination for the ages. Over the last 20 years, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta have quietly amassed one of the biggest and boldest personal collections in the country. The collection is so large that they decline to put a value on it (even when pressed). And when their company, Station Casinos, spent more than $1 billion to buy and renovate the Palms earlier this decade, they knew they wanted to turn the place into a gallery for some of their best treasures.
This explains the original Jean-Michel Basquiat in a private dining room of steakhouse Scotch 80 Prime, and the original Banksy in Greene St. Kitchen. The Fertittas’ vision has enabled visitors to gaze upon original works from Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami, Jenny Boot, KAWS, and Dustin Yellin, all for free.
British artist Damien Hirst designed an 8,500-square-foot suite that comes with 24-hour butler service and is the most expensive hotel room in the world at $100,000 per night with a minimum two-night stay. But any visitor to the lobby bar can glimpse another Hirst piece gratis–“The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded)” comprises a 13-foot-long tiger shark cut into three pieces and suspended in three tanks of formaldehyde.
Art is so pervasive at the Palms that it’s hiding where you least expect it—in a center island out by the pool, in a stairwell that connects a restaurant and a lounge, even flanking the Porte cochère when you first pull up. Tal Cooperman, the property’s creative director, says this notion of discovery was exactly what the Fertittas were hoping to cultivate.
“You won’t find a collection like this anywhere else in the world,” says Cooperman, who adds the property will soon publish maps for visitors to use on self-guided tours. “I think everyone thought it was a joke until they started reading about it. Now they have to see it for themselves.”
Culture on the Strip
No survey of the Las Vegas art scene would be complete without mentioning the push in recent years to bring art to mega-resorts on the Strip.
One of the best spots to experience this vibe: Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. This intimate gallery space inside Bellagio has become a prized spot for contemporary artists to show their work. The newest exhibit, Permeating Landscape, displays sculpture, photographs and mixed media from Japanese artist Yasuaki Onishi and opened August 12. In conjunction with the show, Onishi also works in the Artist Studio next door, producing a sculpture that incorporates locally sourced materials and his unique adaptation of traditional metalwork and casting.
Elsewhere, public art reigns supreme. CityCenter boasts a multimillion-dollar collection, including Glacia, 15 towers of ice protruding from a pool that melt in different patterns every day. The Park, a green space connecting New York-New York with Park MGM, has become famous for Bliss Dance, a 40-foot sculpture inspired by artist Marco Cochrane's first experience at Burning Man.
Demecina Beehn, curator and manager of programs for MGM Resorts’s Art & Culture department, oversees all three of these specific installations. The way she sees it, her job is to bring art to the masses in a way everyone can appreciate.
“Visitors to Las Vegas want to experience something they can’t anywhere else,” she says. “One thing people from middle America don’t always have access to is high-end contemporary art. We view that not only as a part of the experience of entertainment but also a luxury value that we want to offer to all our guests.”
The team at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is taking a similar tact. This property that has embraced art since it opened back in 2010. While there’s art all over the place here—you could argue that even Chandelier Bar and its 7 million Swarovski crystals qualifies—two projects continue to captivate.
The first: Art-o-Mats, refurbished cigarette vending machines that dole out original pieces of artwork instead of smokes. The second: Digital art clips that play on video screens, which wrap around columns near hotel registration. Emily Labéjof, senior marketing manager for the property, says both installations exemplify the hotel’s push to get people to rethink traditional Vegas experiences and inject everyday moments with art.
“From a cultural standpoint, I like to think that until recently Vegas was a bit of a blank slate,” Labéjof says. “Today, everybody in the art scene is filling that void. People see the blank slate and they know they can do so much with it.”
What’s coming next
The Las Vegas art scene looks primed to continue to grow exponentially over the next decade.
The Neon Museum, itself an art gallery of neon signs dating back to the Rat Pack era and before, announced that it will host an exhibition of artwork by director, producer, artist, writer, and animator Tim Burton, the mind behind Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton’s pieces will grace the grounds from October 15, 2019 to February 20, 2020.
For visitors in the future, Nevada Museum of Art (NMA) plans to build an outpost on the land just north of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. NMA dipped its toe into the Vegas arts scene when it sponsored Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone to create Seven Magic Mountains, composed of seven towers of colorful stacked boulders that rise from the desert about 10 miles south of town. This next project will be much more involved: a standalone building with rotating and regular exhibits, classes, and other public-facing programming.
Deputy Director Heather Harmon says the museum is still at least five years away, but notes that whenever it opens, it will represent the perspectives and creative genius of a broad swath of artists and thinkers from around the Vegas Valley. “While the Nevada Museum of Art provides organizational expertise to support the development of this museum, the Las Vegas community will define the museum’s identity and priorities, deciding how it will best serve the larger southern Nevada population,” she wrote in a recent email.
In other words, as exciting as the Las Vegas art scene is today, the best is yet to come.