Betting Big on Art: Can Las Vegas Philanthropists Succeed in Getting Their City a Museum?

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here are many arts for which Las Vegas is known. Contemporary art is not among them. The city has museums devoted to the Mob, and to its own famous neon signage, but it lacks a world-class art museum. When artist Wendy Kveck led school tours through the Guggenheim art collection formerly housed at the Venetian Resort, what bothered her most was not navigating kindergarten-through-12th-graders through a casino, but what she discovered about the kids’ experience of art: “Many of my students had never been to an art museum in their entire life,” she says.

After decades of teasing and flirting, though, smart money is betting in favor of efforts to build an ambitious contemporary art museum in Las Vegas. There’s funding in the state budget, a matching grant of downtown land and cash from the city, a search for an architect is underway—led by Richard Koshalek, former longtime director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—and a newly arrived, well-connected director is gearing up a fund-raising effort that will involve naming rights.

The move could see America’s most notorious city join Des Moines, Omaha, Fort Worth, and other midsize cities in having a boundary-pushing art museum. It would follow an era of hope that fizzled even as casinos hosted megawatt art collections from the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian to draw tourists to the Las Vegas Strip.

“Vegas has been the entertainment capital of the world, and it has been daunting to introduce a bona fide cultural institution into this energized mix,” says David Walker, director of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. The new Las Vegas museum is being developed with the well-established Reno institution, forming a creative bridge between northern and southern Nevada.

The Reno partnership has been integral to establishing credibility for these Las Vegas plans after a short-lived entity known as the Las Vegas Museum of Art, led by then director Libby Lumpkin, shuttered in 2009 for lack of funding.

The particular dynamics of Las Vegas worked against that effort, says Lumpkin, now a professor in the University of New Mexico’s department of art. She struggled to raise significant support for the tiny museum, located in part of the local public library in a suburb called Summerlin, in a city whose major art collectors included Steve Wynn and his wife at the time, Elaine, a company co-founder and now a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “In Las Vegas, the foot that falls into a museum does not fall into a casino,” Lumpkin says.

“It was a very bitter end,” says Walker.

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