With the planned art museum moving forward with city and state funding—a merger between the Art Museum at Symphony Park and the Nevada Museum of Art—Las Vegas City Councilman Cedric Crear took a moment earlier this year to offer a quick reality check.
“I do have some concerns,” Crear stated at the May 2 council meeting, where agenda items included identifying Symphony Park land for the museum.
“You’re going into a ward that is probably the most diversified ward in the city,” Crear said, pointing to its 40 percent Latino population and 20 percent African American population. “I look at your board, and I don’t see a lot of diversity. It’s going to be tough for me to understand how you’re going to maintain the integrity of our ward if you don’t have people who understand our ward to help guide you.”
Though the museum is a ways off, Crear’s timing is not premature.
“I look at your board, and I don’t see a lot of diversity.” —Las Vegas City Councilman Cedric Crear
Symphony Park, home to the Smith Center of the Performing Arts, the Discovery Children’s Museum and the Cleveland Clinic—Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, sits in Crear’s Ward 5, as do the Historic Pioneer Trail, the Historic Westside and, more prominently, a very tight community well-steeped in the fresh history of segregation.
Built and developed during racial segregation to house African American residents, businesses, night clubs, celebrities, performers and travelers, the Westside provides an important narrative on oppression and mistreatment in America—and in Las Vegas. As politics and attitudes slowly changed over the decades, many residents moved outward into the Valley’s other neighborhoods. Others remained in the community, comparatively neglected as public projects, growth and funding were directed elsewhere in Las Vegas.
And then when Symphony Park—the downtown, master-planned, high-dollar cultural epicenter—took hold, it did so with a sting for Westside residents. They found themselves waking up to a towering concrete wall dead-ending F Street—the main road linking the neighborhood with the new development—in the name of freeway expansion. Protests and community activism led to the reopening of the street in 2014 with gateway markers and narrative murals designating the Historic Westside.
Crear has said that he would like to know how the museum and the city’s $3 million investment will benefit the citizens of Ward 5 in terms of employment, education, student internships and cultural programming.
When asked about the arrival of another cultural institution in Symphony Park, oral historian Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center, largely responsible for the PBS documentary African Americans: The Las Vegas Experience, said, “I would like this group to remember the cost of closing F Street during the construction of the Smith Center. That was a $17 million lesson. This time, the relationship, if it begins now, can be rewarding and inclusive for the entire city and can foster a cohesive collaboration that benefits everyone.”
Vicki Richardson—a businesswoman, former educator and civil rights activist whose multicultural Left Of Center gallery and is just outside of the Ward 5 boundaries—has yet to hear from anybody involved with the museum project. She agrees that the museum should reflect the community it represents. Her gallery is by leaps and bounds the city’s most diverse center when it comes to artists—but those artists often aren’t part of the Las Vegas arts conversation.
Currently, says Councilman Crear, events and programming at Symphony Park aren’t entirely relatable to the residents in his ward.
But the Nevada Museum of Art, an 80-year-old institution with a vast permanent collection, educational mission, outreach and accreditation, is working to avoid the appearance of operating with cultural blinders on. It was, in fact, the NMA’s executive director, David Walker, who was the first to tap into the wealth of diversity in Southern Nevada at the May City Council meeting.
Nevada Museum of Art, an 80-year-old institution with a vast permanent collection, educational mission, outreach and accreditation, is working to reassure any appearance of operating with cultural blinders on.
“We don’t have quite the diverse population that you have in Las Vegas,” he said in the meeting. “That’s something important to us.” Walker, who grew up in Los Angeles and worked in education and arts for nearly two decades there, reiterated at the meeting that the NMA’s entire mission is designed through the lens of education.
When contacted later, Walker added that the museum has had a successful history because it respects and reflects the community it serves. He noted the 2013 launch of the El Arte initiative, designed to engage Northern Nevada’s Latino population with offerings such as Spanish-language gallery tours.
Walker touted NMA’s strong relations with the indigenous communities of Northern Nevada. Museum events, exhibitions and publications feature Native American artists who work in the Great Basin region.
Furthermore, he said, “The Nevada Museum of Art has been most successful when we engage with youth and families.” Among the museum’s offerings are K-12 tours, a monthly free family day and programming for teens.
The northern museum’s core values will inform its approach, Walker said, “Not only will the new art museum reflect Ward 5 and the larger Las Vegas community in programming, we will also have board positions available, and be a new employer … expecting many opportunities to engage people in Ward 5. … The art museum will be enriched and successful when all the voices in the region are represented, welcomed, and active in the life of the museum.”
He added that the NMA plans to hire a founding director soon for the planned Las Vegas branch.