I drove out to the art gallery at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), whose director, Jerry, was balding, with white wispy hair like Hermes's wings above his ears. Clad in khakis and a white-collared shirt, he had the stoop of a humble academic.
To my question about the art scene in Vegas, Jerry answered, "We eventually had to end the graduate program here because so few artists stay. Most leave because there's a stigma. There are only about twelve real galleries in town. In a lot of cases, graduate students sold paintings for four hundred dollars that could have been sold for ten thousand dollars. People who make money here, they're more apt to go into LA to buy something. They rely on name brands. They'll go and buy an artist they've heard of. But they will not go buy an original piece of work by someone who is living here.
"Now, there had been galleries in the hotels: commercially, tourist-oriented kind of a thing. You know, 'You don't like it in red, we got it in blue.' The Rio Hotel started to do a gallery of fine arts, and they sold tons; people lined up. He discovered the market was there and opened it up. Then, shortly thereafter, the Bellagio opened the museum and gallery, which again opened the door a little bit to galleries. Hopefully, it sends the message. 'Oh, maybe we don't have to be afraid of art. The Bellagio where we're staying is sponsoring it.'"
"You might talk with Jack here," Jerry corralled an art faculty member, a wiry young artist with spiked hair and a face as plastic as a clown's. His bifocals hung so low that the top of the pale gray plastic frames covered his eyeballs. "He'll give you a different perspective."
"I think the rest of the city's not quite ready for contemporary artists," Jack explained. "I'm not talking just about contemporary art, but quality art in general. The town has different priorities, I think."
"Well," Jerry interjected, "the demographics of this city, it's tourists and community. Everybody here essentially works for the hotels. You don't need much of an education to work gaming tables, to take bets and stuff like that. Educational levels have a direct relationship to the appreciation of the arts."
"I grew up here," Jerry recalled. "I've seen it grow and grow and grow. Yet growth seems to have brought the same kind of crowd. It never has had cultural growth. If you look at the residential areas of town, everybody's got a block wall in their back yard. So they've got their own private living space which isolates them from their neighbors. And there is, I think, some, you know, Hopperesque kind of isolation."
"Vegas," Jack concluded, "is gonna take a while. I come from a city of about 150,000 people, and we have more of a cultural base there: Lafayette, Indiana. I was just back there a month ago, and there's more going on than there is in Vegas. I mean, not only with the arts, but with a sense of community and everything else. Vegas is Vegas. Hopefully, one of these days..."