Arts and Culture in Nevada
Nevada's art and culture scene is a curious mix of highbrow and lowbrow. The state's most populous city, Las Vegas, is arguably also its cultural center. But it’s difficult to view the city as having any cultural authenticity when a vast portion of it relies on recreation: Where else in the world can you see a replica of the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, and the Statue of Liberty all on one stretch of avenue? While the city's tourism industry now relies as much on families as lone gamblers and high rollers, its plastic point of view and often-mature cultural subject matter have garnered it a reputation as a sort of Disneyland for adults.
As seen from space, Las Vegas is the brightest city on Earth. That neon glitz represents a large part of Nevada's cultural picture (although certainly not all of it). In Vegas, retro lounge acts and gaudy, gargantuan theater productions mingle with dazzlingly grandiose—and dazzlingly expensive—works of fine art. Slovak-born sculptor Dale Chihuly's Fiori di Como, composed of over 2,000 hand-blown glass flowers, covers 2,000 square feet of the lobby ceiling of the Italian-themed Bellagio Hotel. The hotel also boasts a conservatory and botanical gardens and the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, which has featured exhibitions of works by masters like Monet, Picasso, and â€¦ Hollywood actor Steve Martin. It's safe to say that Vegas—and Nevada as a whole—embraces the fine arts, so long as they have plenty of flash and star power.
Of course, Nevada is more than just its most famous location. The state's greatest alternative cultural event is undoubtedly Burning Man, an arts and culture festival held from the last Monday in August until the first Monday in September (Labor Day) in the state's Black Rock Desert. In many ways, Burning Man defies categorization. Culminating with the setting alight of the titular "Man" (a giant effigy made of straw), the quasi-festival was born in 1996 in San Francisco as a summer solstice bonfire ritual. Today it has become a cultural touchstone for many across the country. Known as "burners," devotees devote much of their time to creating art projects for the event, which are usually destroyed along with the Man on the final day of festivities. In 2008, just under 50,000 attended Burning Man, but its reach into the national cultural zeitgeist is certainly much larger.
For a much different cultural experience, the annual National Basque Festival in Elko celebrates the rich Basque cultural contributions to the state (the university of Nevada is the only school in the country with its own Basque Studies department). Of course, like all Western states worth their weight in cowboys, Nevada offers an annual rodeo: In operation since 1934, Helldorado Days—featuring a rodeo, parade, and carnival—is held annually in (where else?) Las Vegas.
"High" culture is not necessarily Nevada's forte, but it is available to those willing to ferret it out. Based in Las Vegas, the Nevada Ballet Theatre has been in existence since 1972 and recruits dancers from around the globe. In 2011, it will relocate from the University of Las Vegas Performing Arts Center’s Judy Bayley Theatre to the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts (see "Theater" below). The Academy of Nevada Ballet Theatre provides dance training and is the official school of the ballet proper.
Another major organization set to make the Smith Center its new home is the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra, which will make the move in 2010. Established in 1998, the orchestra has hosted luminaries like Andrea Bocelli and Placido Domingo and promises to soar high above the "din" of the city's slot machines. Farther north, Reno is home to the Reno Pops Orchestra, an all-volunteer community orchestra founded in 1982. The orchestra is composed of more than 65 musicians ranging in age from 11 to 90 and includes professional and semi-professional musicians (it's unclear whether they are able to drown out the Reno slots).
The fine art world in Nevada has been dealt some serious blows as of late. Hotel magnate and art aficionado Steve Wynn dismantled his public fine arts gallery, and the Rem Koolhaas–designedGuggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas closed its doors in 2008; when the Las Vegas Art Museum shuttered in early 2009, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art becamethe city's only major fine art destination.
In fact, Reno's Nevada Museum of Art is now Nevada's only accredited art museum. The oldest cultural institution in the state of Nevada, it was founded in 1931 as the Nevada Art Gallery. The new NMA opened in 2003 and is housed in a curving, 55,000-square-foot charcoal gray building designed by acclaimed American architect Will Bruder. Past exhibitions have included the works of Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright, James McNeill Whistler, Alexander Calder, and Rembrandt. The museum features a strong emphasis on Nevada's land—its newly opened Center for Art + Environment encourages the "creation of artworks expressing the interaction between people and their environments."
Most people associate Nevada's music scene with the lounge acts of Las Vegas. The city has played regular host to some of the most famous crooners in various revues over the decades. Most famously,Frank Sinatra and his "Rat Pack" (which featured Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, andSammy Davis, Jr.) became synonymous with the Vegas lounge scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Sinatra is even sometimes credited with bringing down the city's color barrier when he refused to perform in hotels that would not host the African-American Davis. Other stars, from Wayne Newton and Robert Goulet in the 1970s to Celine Dion in the 2000s, have solidified Vegas' reputation for offering staple stars performing standard tunes.
But Nevada's musical community stretches far beyond the camp of the Vegas Strip. Indie music darlingJenny Lewis (who enjoys a successful solo career and fronts the popular rock band Rilo Kiley) and the rock band the Killers both hail from the state, as well as popular acts like Panic! at the Disco and the seminal punk rock band 7 Seconds. In fact, northern Nevada (Reno in particular) is something of a hotbed for edgier musical forms like punk rock and heavy metal. And for those desiring more melodious tones, there is always the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra.
Notable music festivals include the Reno Jazz Festival and the Nevada Chamber Music Festival.With a heavy musical component, the hybrid Burning Man festival could also be added to the list.
Nevada's theater culture is usually high on camp. You're much more likely to encounter a gold lamé-ensconced magic act than a spare experimental theater production. Since 2005, The Blue Man Grouphas been featured at the Venetian, and the Quebec-based theater troupe Cirque du Soleil has a number of productions throughout Las Vegas, including the Bellagio Hotel's O and the Mirage's KÀ.Magicians have always featured prominently in Las Vegas revues. Criss Angel, Lance Burton (who has an eponymous theater) and others continually wow wide-eyed tourists with arguably hokey showmanship and lavish production values.
The Las Vegas theater scene is about to get a huge facelift in terms of respectability, however, at least of the middlebrow variety. Scheduled to open in 2010, the $485 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts will be located in Union Park in the city's downtown area. In addition to housing the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre, the center will likely host Broadway shows and other major touring attractions.
For more highbrow fare, Reno's Nevada Shakespeare Company describes itself as an "activist" company practicing "theater outreach" in the community. Founded in 1989, the group stages productions throughout Nevada. Despite its moniker, it produces non-Shakespearean theater as well, including adaptations of Annie Get Your Gun, The Music Man, and the original production A Single Woman (they have also staged a "rock and roll" version of Macbeth).
Nevada has a thriving film industry, mainly due to the lure of Las Vegas as a shooting location. But the state's plentiful deserts also attract filmmakers looking for desolate cinematic landscapes. Most productions are based out of state, but Nevada does boast a large contingent of homegrown production companies. The non-profit government-run Nevada Film Office, which is headquartered in Las Vegas and has an office in Reno, offers resources and incentives for filmmakers in the form of free location scouting, production resources, and tax breaks. Notable films that have been shot in the state includeCasino, Bugsy, Austin Powers, Hard Eight, Ocean's 11, Swingers, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Vanishing Point, The Misfits and the infamous Showgirls.
Nevada also boasts a wide array of film festivals in various locations throughout the state. The Las Vegas International Film Festival is probably the most famous, but other notables include the Reno Film Festival, the Reno Jazz and Film Festival, and CineVegas, launched in 1998 and held in early summer at the Palms Casino Resort. Given the locale, these festivals are often high on star power (actor and artist Dennis Hopper is even chairman of CineVegas' creative advisory board).
Nevada isn't known for its literary giants. The Nevada Writers Hall of Fame even includes celebrated Missouri-born author and onetime Nevada resident Mark Twain. Perhaps the most famous book aboutNevada is Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which describes a drug-addled trip the author's alter ego takes to Sin City, coinciding with a police convention.
Nevertheless, Nevada does have homegrown literary luminaries. Its most notable is arguably Sarah Winnemucca, the first Native American to secure copyright and publish in the English language. Born in the mid-19th century, Winnemucca's autobiographical account Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims Life recounts the first 40 years of her tribe's contact with explorers and settlers in the region.
Other historic notables include Dan DeQuille and Sam Davis, both part of the Sagebrush Schoolalong with Twain (see "Historic Art Movements" below). Reno's Walter Van Tilburg Clark garnered fame for writing The Ox-Bow Incident at the age of 30. A Nevada-set Western, it was turned into a 1943 film starring Henry Fonda. Contemporary writers include non-fiction authors Sally Denton and Hal Rothman, Pen/Faulkner Award-winner Richard Wiley, and Jeannette Walls, who spent part of her childhood in Battle Mountain and authored the best-selling memoir The Glass Castle.
Nevada also boasts a rich culture of cowboy poetry, a literary art form that sprung from a uniquely western oral tradition of campfire tales. Steeped in the romantic notions of the Old West, cowboy poetry is often disdainful of modernism and progress—but one need not be an old-fashioned cattle driver to practice it. The Western Folklife Center hosts the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which draws thousands of folklorists, poets, and musicians to Elko each year.
Las Vegas depends on imported talent much more than local. But the city does have its own art community. On the first Friday of each month, the appropriately named First Friday celebration is held, exhibiting and performing works from local artists and musicians in the city's downtown region, called the "Arts District." Begun in 2002, First Friday is as much giant block party as it is gallery crawl, and has featured everything from fire breathers to fortune tellers in the past.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
Nevada's Native tribes like the Washoe and Western Shoshone are largely responsible for the traditional forms of the state's handicrafts, which include pottery, basketry, textiles, beadwork, and jewelry,the latter particularly in the form of turquoise. (Along with Arizona, Nevada has the largest turquoise deposits in the country.) Decorative beadwork can be found gracing Bandolier bags, Indian pipe bags, moccasins, war shirts, belts and other clothing. In celebration of Nevada's rich cultural and artistic history, the Clark County Heritage Museum holds the annual Native American Art Festival each spring in Henderson. It also includes the Native American Craft Market, which features artists from across the Southwest.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
The Sagebrush School refers to an informal association of writers in the Virginia City area during the Nevada Silver Rush of 1859–1914. During that time, writers like Mark Twain, Dan DeQuille (a.k.a.William Wright), Sam Davis, and Alfred Doten depicted the mining boom along with Nevada's frontier justice and spirit. Chronicling a particularly crucial period of Nevada's history, the writers of the Sagebrush School played a critical role in not just the state's art history, but also its history in general. The wit of the Sagebrush School was often matched only by its irreverence for authority and lack of respect for tradition. Most were journalists—at the time, Twain was employed by the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. All could be considered humorists and delighted in written hoaxes (which they called "quaints"), despite the commitment to fact-finding associated with the profession. Most members of the Sagebrush School also wrote fiction prose and poetry.
The land art movement (also known as Earthworks, or Earth art) emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Nevada desert. In Land Art, landscape and art are inextricably intertwined. Designed as a response to growing commercialization and the plastic aesthetic of movements like Pop Art, Land Art generally features massive landscape works that utilize natural materials found at the site. The beginning of the movement featured largely American artists like Michael Heizer, who produced large-scale works in the Nevada desert. These culminated in Double Negative, a 1,500-ft trench cut into the mesa, and the City, one of the largest sculptures ever created, which is located in a desert valley in Nevada's Lincoln County. Heizer has yet to finish the latter, begun in 1972.