February 17, 2013

Art and nature really do exist in, near Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS – There is, here in Sin City, dance beyond what's performed on one's lap. I have seen it. It really exists. It's something called ballet, in which dancers wear costumes modest by G-string standards and move in fluid motion and with utmost dignity onstage at the stately Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

LAS VEGAS – There is, here in Sin City, dance beyond what's performed on one's lap. I have seen it. It really exists. It's something called ballet, in which dancers wear costumes modest by G-string standards and move in fluid motion and with utmost dignity onstage at the stately Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

There is, too, art beyond Elvis on crushed velvet. It's dotted around town, often shoehorned next to casinos, phallic hotel towers and theme restaurants. But now, a nexus of high art is centered at the recently revamped Marjorie Barrick Museum on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

There even is a sense of history in a town that too often implodes its buildings every 15 or 20 years, like some aging mogul trading in his trophy wives.

Just head a bit northwest of the Strip and a little over a mile west of downtown to the Springs Preserve, which offers the compelling story of the true native tribes (Indians, not mobsters) and presents all manner of reptilian residents (and we don't mean the Maloof brothers or Donald Trump).

And, 20 miles west of town, there is the rutilant splendor of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, those sandstone, iron-oxide-rich rock formations that draw hikers tired of pounding pavement. Beats Carrot Top at the Luxor any day.

So, yes, it is possible to visit Las Vegas, eschew the Strip and leave enriched in culture rather than empty of wallet and bereft of artistic nourishment.

And, by the way, the only reason you might need a long, hot shower after visiting this side of Vegas is because you've been tramping through the great outdoors.

Culture without the 'K'

Thirty minutes to curtain for a performance by the Joffrey Ballet at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, people are drawn, like a drunk to a "yard-long" margarita stand, to the 17-foot winged figure, a bronze sculpture titled "Genius in Flight," in the marble lobby.

Smartphones are whipped out, snapshots taken.

In fact, the building itself is as much the star as the dancers on this evening. Less than a year old, the Smith Center lies in the city's ignored railyards area near downtown. But the structure, with its 16-story limestone bell tower, stainless-steel crown and its lobby made of Italian marble, is impossible to overlook, even if dwarfed by casino towers.

More than 2,000 tons of Indiana limestone were used to craft the clean, sleek lines of the facade. It's meant to pay homage to the glory of Hoover Dam an hour outside of town. But, unlike the faux Eiffel Tower and Pyramid on the Strip, the Smith Center is one "imitation" that outdoes its inspiration.

As Myron Martin, the Smith Center president, told the Los Angeles Times before the March 2012 opening, "We no longer wanted to be the largest community in North America without something important."

Residents noticed and appreciated something cultural without the "K."

"When this opened we didn't know what to expect," said Fran Campbell, a city resident since 1997, attending the ballet with friend Kathy Intihar. "Because it's Vegas, you figure everything that's really nice is going to be down on the Strip. But coming in here was just, like, wow. Very classy and chic.

"It's probably for the tourists, but it's really more for the locals. That's who'll really appreciate it."

Tourists – maybe those who couldn't cop tickets to a Celine Dion show – do make up a chunk of the Smith Center's patrons.

John Gibson of Bethesda, Md., came to the Joffrey performance with his sister, Charlotte, and family friend Brenda Stout.

"I didn't even realize they had this in Las Vegas," he said. "It's certainly beautiful."

Stout, a Las Vegas resident since 1995, said the Smith Center goes a long way in dressing up Vegas' gaudy, shabby image.

"I don't think that calling it (tacky) is a bad rap, but I do think it's myopic to just think of Las Vegas as the Strip," Stout said. "We have culture."

Finding a home for art

It's not true that you can't see art on the Strip. The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art's "Warhol Out West" exhibit is open now, and Monet had his moment last fall at the same venue. National Geographic's top 50 photographs exhibit opened recently at the Venetian hotel and casino.

Just walking around, you're liable to stumble into pop-art sculptures by the likes of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Just two weeks ago, Wynn Las Vegas unveiled "Tulips," a sculpture by Jeff Koons. But where did they place it? Right in the lobby between the Wynn and Encore resorts. Sure, it'll get a lot of foot traffic by people hell-bent for the roulette wheel.

Too, there are galleries next to food courts. The omnipresent (overexposed?) Dale Chihuly has a retail space to sell his giant ashtrays, er, glass sculptures. Next to Chihuly in the "Art Experience" troika of galleries are Rodney Lough Jr.'s landscape photography gallery and Richard MacDonald's figurative sculptures inspired by Cirque du Soleil. If you want to know how much MacDonald's "Leap of Faith, Heroic" work costs, well, the sign reads "Price upon request." Gotta be a high roller, pal.

But these works are exceptions, mere ancillary galleries to cash-cow casinos. True museums haven't fared as well here.

The Guggenheim Heritage Museum inside the Venetian lasted only seven years before closing in 2008. And, in 2009, the Las Vegas Art Museum at the Sahara West Library closed, a victim of dwindling attendance and a similar economy.

Fortunately, the newly renovated Majorie Barrick Museum at UNLV obtained rights to the LVAM's collection, mothballed for three years.

In mid-January, the Barrick unveiled "Into the Light," showcasing half the erstwhile museum's collection, including works by UNLV graduate Yek, whose pop-abstract paintings have drawn raves from art critics for their "silent eloquence." Alisha Kerlin, the Barrick's collection manager, said the one-named Yek "likes to call himself 'the Barry White of Post-Conceptual Painting.' "

While there may not be a Las Vegas School of painting, Kerlin said "Into the Light" shows that the area is not culturally arid, as some may presume.

"We are fortunate to have a lot of local artists," she said. "And it's great to show these pieces again for the first time since (2009). Las Vegas actually has a thriving art scene. Plus, L.A. is so close, too. And we get a lot of interest from all over."

Finding the real desert

Out in the endless strip-malled suburbs, passing three Carl's Jr. joints and several pawn shops along the way, you arrive at Las Vegas' past. The real past – way, way before gambling-chip-toting tourists roamed the Earth.

That was back when Las Vegas was nearly indistinguishable from most of the Mojave Desert.

The Spring Preserve, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is 180 acres of urban wilderness with museums and sustainable-living structures that teach people about the environment and water conservation, something vital in these parts.

As its name implies, the Spring in historic times was the area's main water source, enabling the urbanization of the Vegas we know today. It's now run by the Las Vegas Valley Water District and features several educational structures, most notably the Ori-Gen Museum that charts the region's flora and fauna.

The Nevada State Museum also has relocated here but is open only four days a week.

But, really, all you need to know about the origins of the the area is in the Ori-Gen Museum. The coolest interactive area is the Flash Flood Exhibit, in which, every four minutes, torrents or water come careening down faux sandstone rocks while visitors on a nearby platform get only slightly sprayed. Flash floods are a way of life in greater Las Vegas, even if the city gets 4 inches of rain in a year.

The hyper, geek-chic young narrator in the accompanying video says: "The hard-baked desert floor can't absorb all that water; it rushes downhill to recharge the ecosystem. Don't think you can outrun one. You will lose."

Those weary of museums (read: children) can rent bikes or hike on cactus- lined trails or stroll around botanic gardens. A favorite of Shannon Heisler, mother of four young children, is the playground – the sandbox in particular. It's not your usual play area. Kids can go on archaeological digs in the sand and dust off items such as faux clay pots buried by Springs Preserve workers.

"The kids just love it here," Heisler said. "In fact, we've only been (to Ori-Gen) and the play area. There's a lot more to explore. But it's tough to get them away from here."

Sin City to Sandstone City

A rainy, sodden morning on the Strip, when perhaps the previous night's sins could be washed clean, is as good a time as many to escape to the great outdoors.

Head 20 miles west to Red Rock Canyon. See bighorn sheep, not ladies with great big hair. See lizards, not lounge lizards. A pleasant day can be spent traversing what park rangers call "the Grand Loop," 11 miles, much preferable to wending through the endless MGM Grand.

All it will set you back is $7 to park at the visitors center. Then, head for the hills. Hills of red sandstone and gray limestone. Hills usually devoid of other humans. Listen to the quiet, such a stark change to the incessant piped-in pop music both in and out of doors in Las Vegas-proper.

Now this is an experience.

The rain can make climbing the boulders tricky, because the rocks turn both slick and brittle. So, no rock climbers are scaling the ochre faces, but many of the trails, such as Calico Tanks and Turtlehead Peak, require considerable hand-and-foot scrabbling.

Trekkers are rewarded for the effort by winding up sandwiched by the geologic marvel made possible by the earth's plates clashing with awesome force.

It's a perfect way to lose that Strip-induced cloistered feeling, even as you amble between closely spaced rocks.

Upon returning to the Strip, you'll probably feel a Prozacian calm and better able to tolerate the frenetic Vegas scene. You may still not be ready to see the Blue Man Group, but at least you'll no longer feel blue.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed from the print version to correct errors regarding exhibits at The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts. Corrected on Feb. 18, 2013.

Feb. 10: A look at four museums showcasing the city's quirky culture. Read it at

Today: High art and exhilarating outdoor venues.

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

361 Symphony Park Ave., Las Vegas

Upcoming events: "West Side Story" (Feb. 26-March 3).

Cost: Varies

The Marjorie Barrick Museum

Campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

4505 South Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas

Current Exhibition: "Into the Light," art from the Las Vegas Art Museum

Cost: Free

Springs Preserve

333 South Valley View Blvd., Las Vegas

Hours: Preserve open daily, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.; Nevada State Museum open Friday-Monday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Cost: Adults $18.95; seniors 65 and up and students 18 and up, $17.05; children ages 5-17: $10.95.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Hours: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily

Cost: $7 per car.

Related content




Editor's Choice Videos