How Wrong Was He?

An exit interview with renegade cultural critic Dave Hickey about having to leave the city he has long championed—and what that means for us

Libby Lumpkin tried her best to flatly sum up the end of her and husband Dave Hickey’s 20-year mission in Las Vegas: “Now we will do what we do best elsewhere.”

But sometimes words intended to have no emotion carry the most. It was like a scripted response that she was trying out for the first time but couldn’t quite pull off the PR tone. You can still hear the underlying refrain that will follow her and Dave for a long while: Why couldn’t we do it here? Before we get into that maze, this much is clear: Dave and Libby are out of here, and unlike the last time they packed and left, they won’t be coming back. Come August, they’re off to Albuquerque, where the University of New Mexico has full-time professorships waiting for them, and the two Texas natives are taking their deep résumés, connections and knowledge with them. This is news on several levels, because … well, for those not in the cultural loop, Dave and Libby are influential scholars whose careers revolve around art, design and culture, and for the past two decades their substantial operations have not only been based here, but here has been their substantial operation. And before Dave and Libby, here was never even invited to these types of conversations, except as the butt of a joke.

Libby, 58, has been a visiting professor of art history at Yale and Harvard, but she couldn’t make it work at UNLV (she failed her mid-tenure review for being “noncollegial,” she says, a result of philosophical differences). In 2002 she and Dave left for Los Angeles so that she could continue teaching. They eagerly came back a couple of years later so she could start a design institute. That idea never got off the ground, and eventually she took the reins of the Las Vegas Art Museum. Under her leadership and with Dave’s cache, the long-humble program hit great heights for a few years, but when money became a problem in Las Vegas, that didn’t work out, either. Libby, founding curator of the Bellagio Gallery, is now wrapping up her final gig in Las Vegas: curating the art collection at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which will be fully unveiled on May 22.

Dave, 71, once called “the bad boy of art criticism” by Newsweek, is one of America’s leading thinkers on design, culture and the arts, and his bold ideas, as well as his sharp wit, have long kept him in demand on the lecture circuit. In 2001, he became the first Nevadan to earn a MacArthur Fellowship—a.k.a. the “genius grant.”

During his first stint at UNLV, in the art department, he coached a group of grad students who eventually formed a movement that attracted worldwide attention. Of this period, 1990-2001, Los Angeles-based art critic David Pagel wrote: “It turned an anonymous department into a hot spot, provided an impressive number of artists with the chops and confidence to go out into the world and do their own thing, and changed the contemporary debate about what counts in art.” His second stint in Las Vegas has been as professor of modern letters at UNLV, but most of his days are spent “typing” in his home office. The results are often printed in art catalogs, but also in Vanity Fair and Harper’s, and he has written a number of paradigm-shifting books, including Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy (Art Issues Press, 1997) and The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty (University of Chicago Press, revised in 2009). There are more in the works: Pagan America, Hot Stuff (a collection of writings on women artists) and Connoisseur of Waves, a sequel to Air Guitar.

With credentials like these and the connections that Dave and Libby have, they could have lived anywhere. In addition to his distaste for the stuffy, old-school institutions out East, it has been Dave’s love for and faith in Las Vegas that has kept the couple here. But since the art museum closed in February 2009, they’ve been wrestling with the heart-sinking possibility that, after two decades of investment, there isn’t a big demand in Vegas for what they do best.

The root problem is that they are university people who never really fit in at this particular university. “The University of New Mexico is not that much better than UNLV,” Dave says. “It’s some better. But why wouldn’t they want us here? At New Mexico, they’re excited to have us.”

Although it’s not unusual for Las Vegas to be cruel to gamblers, it’s disturbing to see this particular pair leaving broke, and in Dave’s case, somewhat broken. There’s the looming short-sell on his beloved house (“we’re $165,000 underwater,” he says, “and I’ve never had a debt in my life”), the $100,000 out of pocket for dental surgery that was ruled a preexisting condition by his insurance through UNLV, the contemplation of selling his art collection at a time when he of all people knows it’s a terrible time to sell, and the general pain in the ass of starting over at this point in life.

The first time Vegas Seven talked to Dave upon learning of this possibility, in late April, there was no disguising the pain of Why not here? It was apparent that the stress had gotten to him physically, and that the separation was only going to get tougher. Even the prospect of his typing somewhere else was difficult to bear.

“This is a good place to write,” he says of the city while sitting outside a Starbucks at Flamingo Road and Maryland Parkway. “Busy is a good place to write. In New Mexico, they’re too invested in quiet.”

He let loose a quick, raspy laugh—standard punctuation for his infamous arsenal of one-liners. He took another drag from his cigarette and let the prospect hang with the smoke. On this day, the jokes were noticeably few. It was mostly a conversation about personality conflicts and two decades of issues with the university, which he accuses of having a “commitment to mediocrity.” Those factors, combined with the sudden lack of money in Las Vegas, led to a bitter end.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I really don’t know. I just don’t know.” After another pause: “But it’s my fault. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t want to make things better. It never occurred to me.”

To know that Dave Hickey didn’t have Las Vegas figured out may have consequences beyond one couple’s misfortune.

“Much of his philosophy, which has been influential around the globe, was closely tied to his thinking about things here in Las Vegas,” Libby says. “How Vegas stands in relation to the rest of the culture, and Dave finding the positive aspects of that—that’s the really sad part. When Dave was formulating his ideas, as he was defining contributions to the discourse of contemporary philosophy, he was thinking seriously about ideas of taste, ideas of …”

Libby has to take a phone call—it’s another whirlwind day in preparation for the Ruvo opening. But what she’s talking about includes ideas of art and democracy, which are the rails of much of Dave’s thinking and writings. And his prime case study has been Las Vegas. Many of his statements in Air Guitar are rays of guiding light to those of us who live here in hopes that we might create something beyond the superficial Vegas seen by the outside world: “Here, in the heart of the drift, is the last refuge of unsanctioned risk and spectacle—the wellspring of our indigenous visual culture—the confluence of all the hustle and the muscle. …” Therein lies the possibility of doing your thing, and—unlike most other, more established American cities—not needing permission to do so.

Libby returns to finish her thought: “One of the aspects of Las Vegas that’s so enjoyable is that it’s free of some of the traditional ideas that characterize so many other cities. And of course there’s the incredible design and freedom of expression of those ideas, and the embrace of spectacularity. Dave championed that idea.”

Upstairs, in his office, surrounded by all the books and artworks he’ll soon have to pack, Dave sees the big question coming—Las Vegas has been a venue, or a vehicle, for a lot of your theories about art and democracy …—and cuts it off bluntly:

“Right. And I was wrong.”

This is like Santa himself telling you there is no Santa Claus. It’s a disorienting admission after two decades of championing, especially when his baby blue eyes lock on you with purpose, letting you know flatly that that’s it—sorry, no punch line.

Wrong about the whole thing?

“Pretty much.”

But on this day, three weeks after the Starbucks session, the vibe is not hostile. Dave seems to be more accepting of his destiny. And it sounds like he and his wife have had a long talk; they’re ready to leave the baggage behind. Well, as much as Dave can leave anything behind. The one-liners are flying again (many followed by “but please don’t print that …”), but mostly he’s in a constructively reflective mood.

“I wrote one time about Vegas being invisible,” he says, “but actually a lot of things aren’t invisible, and that has sort of filtered through the infrastructure. In other words, it’s a very old-time American city. It isn’t run from the country club [which is the problem he has with most other places], but it is run from the synagogue, it’s run from the temple, it’s run from the cathedral. So there are a lot of residual, you know, conservative agendas at work. And also the conservative agenda of the mining community and all of that. So it’s not quite as loosey goosey as one might think. And I was wrong about that.

“Art really flourishes in places—large commercial cities—where people love the new, and Vegas is not as much like that as you’d think. We found our best supporters among people who can afford not to be afraid, and you know who they are—you can count them on two hands. And so there’s not as much a thriving middle class here as I had suspected. You really need a culture that has people who understand good art. Vegas has some, with these casino guys and ad guys who are kind of hip, but that first step down is a looong one.”

But, it seems, Dave’s Vegas problem always comes back to Dave’s university problem.

“It’s a very small place in which a relatively small faculty serves a relatively unprepared student body. And I think they do as good as they can do, but they’re certainly not concerned with turning out rocket scientists. They want the kind of students that Nevada business needs. … So if I’m up there trying to turn out students with a certain level of excellence and that’s totally out of tune with the school’s mission, then I’m going to be in the way. And I was in the way there for 20 years.”

And a couple of side effects of being in that position gnaw at him, too: He had too few close colleagues (“I can never remember the names of the pets of my colleagues, and that’s all they ever want to talk about”) and too many social snuffs (“I’m still not the one who gets invited to the wienie roast”).

He takes some of the blame, for being outspoken. “I give myself privilege here that I would give myself in New York,” he says. “But the people who run the town here are really not used to smart-asses making fun of them. I pissed some people off.”

The good news for the rest of us is Dave stands by more of his theories than he originally threatened. Because while all that he and Libby attempted to do—whether it was coach artists or hang serious contemporary art—never fully took flight, there were dramatic moments that demonstrated the potential of Las Vegas.

“I think my theories about Vegas as a good education environment were true. The advantage that my art students and writing students took of the availability of the city were incredible. It’s just a great place full of subject matters and views, and the class distinctions are soft, so you can kind of go around and up and down. So as a place to become a writer or an artist, I think it’s wonderful.”

That said, he’s not sure where Las Vegas is headed. He’s not a fan of CityCenter (“It’s no fun”), he doesn’t see the university catching up in the sophistication department anytime soon, and the economic situation could change our unique creative climate forever.

“I think the real problem that’s presenting itself that’s never presented itself before is that there is beginning to be a real need for government in Nevada. The old way is, ‘Why do ya’ll elect all these stupid people?’ Well, because we’re smarter than they are and we always win. But with the urban problems developing you really need somebody who knows how the fucking government works.”

Knowing how that might affect the spirit of art and democracy here is a long ways off, probably 10 years, he says. What’s unfortunate, in the meantime, is that Dave Hickey will no longer be around to either defend or criticize what it becomes.

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