The Las Vegas Art Scene – Sin City Goes Boho

Illustration by Joseph Watson

One interesting development in Las Vegas in these lean years is that the downtown area is turning into some kind of artists’ colony. There are galleries and poetry readings and street musicians and guerrilla theater and contortionists and coffee house hangouts and freaks carrying signs. It looks like Greenwich Village in the 1930s (like I was there), or SF’s North Beach in the 50′s (or there), or the Haight-Ashbury in the 60s (Yay!).

It didn’t used to be this way. This hot, dry burg in the desert used to be about nothing but emptying the pockets of tourists. The strongest impression I had of Vegas when I moved here ten years ago was that it was a money scam masquerading as a town and that everybody living here was “in the life.” Didn’t matter if you were a dealer, waitress, clerk, manager, auto parts salesman, preacher, Elvis impersonator… Just by living here, you were in on the scam.

But in this city, that’s more like a wet dream of P.T. Barnum’s, why do we now have this explosion of artists and writers and poets and rebels and sidewalk saxophone players?

I come up with five reasons:

1) The economy. Housing crash. Economic free-fall. We go from being the fastest-growing city in the country to the fastest dying. The builders had been going nuts in this town, egged on by speculators who were going just as nuts as the builders. Their whole attitude was “if we build it, they will come.” The fact that they suddenly stopped coming means lots of empty houses and condos and apartments available for rent.

Rents in Vegas are cheaper than ever. An apartment that would have cost you $1150 per month a few years ago is now about $800. With all the foreclosures, there are now more renters than owners in Las Vegas, and 70% of those who still own their homes are underwater (so don’t expect cheap housing to be going away any time soon. Not in Vegas.) Look at the housing costs in San Francisco and New York, compared to Vegas.

Average Rent for a 2BR apartment (source data here):

New York City:  $4,145
San Francisco:  $3,842
Los Angeles:  $2,715
Detroit:  $843
Las Vegas:  $802

The median rent—meaning half above/half below—in Las Vegas is only $765, and the only reason it’s that high is because so many of the rentals in Las Vegas are newly-built condos and would be considered luxury pads in any city. If you’re willing to live in a smaller place, outside of a gated community, there are rentals in the $300-$400 range.

So, if you’re a struggling performer, or an artist of any type, where you gonna go? Detroit, or Las Vegas…

2) For those who live here, the food and entertainment costs are also low, compared to most cities. This is partly because Vegas has that old carny attitude of we-take-care-of-our-own.  Most clubs here allow locals in for free, or at reduced rates, or at reduced rates on locals’ nights or Service Industry Nights. You’re paying ten bucks for a drink at Club Paradise? I’m a local. I pay five. Just about everything the tourists find so expensive in Vegas is a lot cheaper for those of us who live here. We can pick and choose from all the deals in town, and in addition to all the freebies and cheapies for locals, there’s no state income tax in Nevada. The rubes are paving our highways. In my adult life, I’ve lived in nine different cities in four different states and Vegas is the only place I’ve lived where locals, as a rule, get a break on prices for food, drinks, and entertainment.

Another contributing factor to the cheap eats here is that casinos use food as a loss leader to bring in customers to their slots and gaming tables, and they compete with each other to offer even better deals to locals. I don’t think there’s another city anywhere in the country where a person can eat as cheaply and as well as in Las Vegas. Very down-and-out people here can dine on shrimp cocktails, because they’re only 99¢, sold in plastic cups to go, downtown on Fremont Street. When’s the last time someone who was hard-up for funds in L.A. or Chicago or any other place had a shrimp cocktail for lunch?

3) Oscar Goodman. This town could not have asked for a smarter, more visionary mayor to guide us through the crash than Oscar. Fremont Street is what it is today because Oscar Goodman loved this town, loved the people, and had the vision to create a downtown environment that’s as much of a party as Bourbon Street in New Orleans. What wasnot too many years agoa depressed and depressing ghetto of has-been casinos, where the down-on-their-luck denizens panhandled and passed around bottles in paper bags, is now one of the most lively, entertaining, and downright fun block parties to be found anywhere. Every night.

4) America’s Got Talent. This popular TV show has turned into the biggest audition for the casino showrooms that’s ever existed. Anyone can take a shot at performing on AGT, and many of these actsboth the winners and loserscome to Vegas looking for work. Many find it. Where there used to be one animal act matinee for kids, now the casinos can’t add matinees fast enough. We’ve got so many shows nowanimal acts, ventriloquists, comedy-psychics, hypnotists, male strip shows, daredevil stuntsthe casinos are running out of showrooms and starting to put shows outside into air-conditioned tents. Other than gambling, the only real industry in this town is entertainment, with a hundred showrooms that need ever-changing musicians and singers and dancers and actors. This town needs crazy artists to survive. This influx of talented performers, as a direct result of AGT, has also brought in a lot of the performers’ crazy friends and hangers-on.

And consider the skilled technicians required for all of these showrooms. Lighting and sound engineers. Electricians. Stagehands. Prop and costume creators. Directors. All of these people are artists as well. Stage people and theater people are not the same as the middle American audiences who come to be awed by their talents. These are more educated people than the average American, more worldly, more driven by creativity than paycheck, and often, a bit more into partying and loose living.

5) An appreciative public. Now that house-flipping’s no longer a gravy train, many people here are struggling to make ends meet. Everyone’s ready to let loose, unwind, listen to music, wander through galleries, watch street performers, kick back and enjoy the night air with the busted-out gamblers and the families from Nebraska and the slummers from Summerlin and the college kids taking a break from their studies. When the going gets rough, the rough want to party.

Las Vegans have always been open and accepting of artists, and just as accepting of the “weird” and “unusual,” as so many artists are weird and unusual. So, it was natural for Vegas to become one of the coolest places on the planet to live if you’re an artist, or even if you just appreciate artists. Go to Fremont Street on a summer night and count how many beatniks, hippies, punks, goths, sharpies, hip-hoppers, smoothies, jazz cats, zoot suitors, and sometimes just plain uncategorizable people you see as you walk from the Plaza on Main Street to the Beat Coffee House at the corner of Fremont and 6th. When you do this counting, don’t count the people who are wearing costumes; only count the people who live in their costumes. How will you know? Just give it your best guess.

There’s an anything-goes poetry movement happening here. Open-mike performances often include musical accompaniment, multiple performers on stage together, props, gags, song, freestyle raps, dance, improvisationit’s anarchy. We’re all poets here and everything is poetry.

The number of independent art, photography, and sculpture studios downtown has exploded along with the First Friday movement. You can’t really see all of the galleries in one Friday. The “arts district” encompasses multiple downtown neighborhoods, with clusters of galleries in different areas. Incredible art is being produced in our midst. Many of the artists own their galleries and feature not only their work, but the work of other local artists they support. Art chosen by artists is more diverse and compelling than you generally find in “professional” galleries that have to show work that might appeal to doctors or casino execs. The art scene in Vegas is also free of the oppressive academic cliques that dominate places like New York and Chicago, where gallery showings are often influenced by whatever contemporary styles are being studied in the “important” schools. Young artists who want the freedom to experiment are moving here to get away from the pressures to please critics. If you’re not gallery-hopping in Las Vegas on First Fridays, you’re passing up something special.

If you haven’t done so already, go to the illustration at the top of this post and click on it (to enlarge it). It’s a painting by local artist, Joseph Watson. His paintings are character studies, including studies of crowd-character, and place-character, and character-over-time. His deeply-hued, painterly, urban work is like a cross between the 16th-century Flemish painter, Pieter Bruegel, and the underground comix artist of the 1960s, Guy Colwell. Like both of them, he tells stories with his paintings.

Joseph Watson’s website is here.

Artists, regardless of medium, are a strange breed of humans that sometimes don’t blend well into the middle American dream world. In Vegas, they’re okay. They’re our people. They’re in the life. If you’re some kind of artist/iconoclast/musician/writer/magician/dancer/hypnotist/singer/sculptor/poet or just an all-around genius waiting to be discovered, living in a small town and looking for a place to live where you might not feel so alienated, where you might actually find friends and like-minded humans, consider Las Vegas.

I’ve begun a campaign to bring more artists to Vegas. We have our own Statue of Liberty, standing in front of the New York New York Casino at the corner of Trop and Las Vegas Blvd. It’s my goal to change the inscription in front of the statue to something more appropriate for this town:

Give me your tired writers, your poor painters,
Your huddled dancers, yearning to bust a move in public,
The wretched rappers of your dying ghettos,
Send these, the punk garage bands and comedy club rejects, to me,
I lift my coupon books beside the cheap buffet.

If you’re some kind of loony and you don’t fit in wherever you are, c’mon to Vegas. The winters here are a helluva lot nicer than in Detroit.



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