Writer in Residence: Resurrecting the Record

I’ve lately been racking what’s left of my brain for details of an old exhibit — a show by local artists who created work to protest Steve Wynn’s implosion of the Dunes. So, this would’ve been sometime in 1993, maybe? Organized by the then-newish Contemporary Arts Collective, it took place in a storefront on Maryland Parkway near UNLV. I think. I mean, it’s been a few years.

To be clear, I didn’t set out to ponder my leaky memory. Rather, the show in question was the earliest example I can recall of local artists rallying their work around a specifically Vegas cause — just the sort of idle rabbit hole into which I will happily plunge. But as I asked a few longtimers for their memories, and didn’t hear many, and as I looked for archival traces of the exhibit, and couldn’t find much (in a far eddy of the internet I dug up an old memorandum about the CAC’s history, which didn’t mention this show at all), I began to wonder how much of our cultural life just evaporates after the fact, and what, if anything, that means.

Hello, completely different rabbit hole.

I’D LIKE TO think most of us believe the arts matter somehow. They have a sizable economic impact, as advocates remind us when politicians threaten to trim cultural funding. They’re a chief way we remember great civilizations. Certainly, we don’t want the future residents of the Las Vegas biodome to assess our era solely through tallies of casino wins and the fossilized remains of Girls Direct to You billboards. I hope there’s a big tranche of local art in that mix to deepen, complicate, and humanize the picture of who we were. Hell, even politicians agree, at least tacitly, simply by funding culture at all.

And yet, for something we consider socially vital, we sure do a haphazard job of documenting it.

Most cultural events are accompanied by a calendar listing, a social media mention, and, if they’re lucky, a morsel of press coverage. After that, they disperse into online hinterlands, or disappear. (And sometimes that’s fine; not every exhibit, poetry reading, or theater production is built for the long haul.) We essentially rely on the archives of local publications to maintain most of our cultural record. Such official documentation as may exist usually retires into unread files none of us can access, while organizations and municipal culture providers move on to the next thing.

I get why this is: time, money, manpower. The usual. Nonetheless, I submit that these are, let’s say, less than best practices. We like to think nothing truly disappears from the internet, but whole media archives have either blinked out of existence recently (The Messenger) or face a tenuous future (Vice) as business plans shift; this happens on the local level, too (the important capital news site DCist). The journal Nature reported in January that millions of online scholarly articles have been lost or misarchived. This inaccessibility presents the same problem for academics that fleeting cultural information does for the Las Vegan interested in her city’s backstory: It severs us from elements of our usable past.

Here’s one way this matters: accountability. If you’re determined and already know a few Google-able keywords, you can patch together a spotty account of the Great City Hall Art Debacle of 1990 (city commissions huge artwork; mistakes are made; original concept is replaced by ugly piece everyone hates). But it will be light on primary sources and hard, verifiable facts. I’ve long thought that episode has haunted the city’s public art process, and thus influenced the valley’s visual life, and curious residents should be able to understand how it unfolded without having to burrow like scholars through ancient newspaper microfiche.

Our shared artistic past has plenty of chapters worth reflecting on — the exhibit of paintings by serial killer John Wayne Gacy that roiled the Arts Factory in 2011, or the exhibit kicked out of a Clark County gallery in 2018 after a small but instructive squabble. (Rather hilariously, the artist piled stacks of his personal junk in the exhibit space as the art. The county has since expunged the incident from its list of gallery shows.) Each has its lingering relevance, if only by posing thoughtful questions — but if you don’t remember them, you’ll need blind luck to learn they even happened, let alone get the full picture.

Just as importantly, a broader account of our cultural life might yield patterns useful in a doomed-to-repeat-it sense — who’s been given a voice, and who’s been underrepresented or left out entirely, and what course corrections might be called for.

And, on a philosophical level, a local cultural history of robust specificity would further ground us in this place, with all its glorious singularity, backdating our claim that this isn’t an arts wasteland, and resisting an accelerating monoculture that would swamp everything in a monetizable sameness.

Anyway, there’s a lot of great stuff being lost! For 20 years, the Las Vegas Book Festival has imported big-name writers — John Irving, Walter Mosley, Jennifer Egan, Chuck Palahniuk — to give keynote talks. When I asked if the festival had a list of those authors, they responded by asking me, a longtime festival volunteer, if I had any old emails that would shed light on that question. (Sadly, no; I clearly suck at taking my own advice.) I guess I won’t ask about videos, *smiley face*.

So, if this essay amounts to anything, it’s a plea for more arts orgs to prioritize public-facing archiving. Especially with recording tech so cheap and easy to use — iPhone, tripod, hit record, voila! Don’t leave the record of our cultural life to the whims of newspaper assignment editors. The insistent utopian in me believes this will pay off in the long run by offering the valley a richer, more varied cultural continuity.

BY THE WAY, the CAC exhibit that got this essay rolling was titled The Dunes Show, and it ran through January 11, 1994, in the Temporary Contemporary, the group’s makeshift gallery in a storefront at 4171 S. Maryland Parkway. I gleaned these details from a story published in the Las Vegas Sun on January 4 of that year — written, as it turns out, by me, yet another fact I had completely forgotten.

Anthony Bondi didn’t. About 1990, the local artist began clipping and scanning arts and culture stories from the local papers. He was diligent about it, too, occasionally paying people to help. He eventually had hundreds of stories covering the vital years 1990-2015. Realizing this might have some archival value, he began handing out flash drives containing the whole thing. He’s now put it all online at lasvegasarts.org. It’s rudimentary, sure, but it’s there, including my story. (You know where my story isn’t? On the Sun’s website.)

Others have also taken it upon themselves to flesh out the story of our cultural life. They include artist Wendy Kveck, first with her website Settlers + Nomads, now with Couch in the Desert, and Sarah O’Connell’s theater-focused Eat More Art. Until he died in 2019, the late scenester Ed Fuentes would show up practically anytime someone uttered the word “art”; his blog, Paint This Desert, was an important chronicle of those years.

These are all easy to get to; you needn’t burrow through hard copies in a museum back room to get a sense of what came before. But there could, and should, be a lot more.

IT’S WORTH NOTING, this is hardly a problem unique to Las Vegas. And credit where it’s due: Some institutions do make an effort. The Black Mountain Institute has event videos on its YouTube channel, though I’d like to see them go much farther back. Clark County’s website lists past exhibits in its gallery spaces. There appear to be Contemporary Arts Collective materials stored in UNLV’s Special Collections and Archive, though I lack the search-ninja skills to access them through the school’s portal. Meanwhile, the Henderson Library has online facsimiles of Arts Alive, a long-ago magazine that extensively covered local culture. You’ll encounter my byline frequently in those pages, but that shouldn’t stop you. It’s a great ’80s-’90s time capsule.

I SUPPOSE THERE’S an argument to be made for not worrying about this at all. Maybe evanescence is built right into the experience of art — you encounter it, take it in, and move on. If it’s good, it’ll keep informing you on deep background, while the mediocre stuff falls away, and what else do you need? It’s fair to wonder how many of us care about the larger tidal motions of culture over time.

But I don’t think I’m out on this limb by myself. Plenty of people understand the way art opens a window into a society’s values and collective psychology. For the annual City Arts and Culture Summit in February, organizers devised a Las Vegas cultural timeline to remind attendees “that there is a rich history there,” says Jasmine Freeman, a cultural affairs manager with the city.

“We thought maybe we were gonna get 15 or 20 things to highlight,” she says, “then allow for space to put your own pieces of history on Post It notes and put them on the wall.”

The list is currently above 350 items, she says. The entries are wide-ranging, from the 1962 opening of the Teenbeat Club, “the first teen nightclub in the U.S.,” to a 1990 art show touted as marking “the social birth of the arts district.” I’m told the full timeline will eventually be added to the Cultural Affairs section of the city’s website.

So if your suggestion box is open, Office of Cultural Affairs, here’s what this insistent utopian proposes:

Build your timeline into a truly useful resource hub. Ferret out and link to all the far-flung web pages, YouTube channels, media accounts, hard-to-access archives, and art-loving blog posts where this information resides. Don’t treat it solely as an occasion to celebrate — include the controversial events that might prompt conversations, rather than pretending they never happened. Remind us of the women and artists of color who’ve had to struggle for a foothold. Then do your best to tell the world it’s there. Let a thousand new rabbit holes open!

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