Libby Lumpkin

After 20 years in Las Vegas, the former art museum director is leaving for New Mexico. While packing, she talked to us about art and culture in a tourist mecca.

From the moment Libby Lumpkin and her husband, Dave Hickey, arrived here, many of the hopes and dreams of Las Vegas’ fledgling arts community came to rest on their shoulders. And rightly so. Hickey is an art critic, and Lumpkin is an art historian and curator. They both are nationally renowned, and together they became the power couple of the Las Vegas art scene. Lumpkin helped put the city on the art map when she curated Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and later his gallery at the Wynn. In 2006 she became director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, determined to bring art to the forefront of the city’s culture. Lumpkin left that post in late 2008, and the museum closed in early 2009. And now she and Hickey are leaving town for good. Lumpkin has taken a position as tenured professor in the art department at the University of New Mexico, where Hickey will also teach. We caught up with her as she packed to leave the city she spent 20 years trying to improve.

Do you think the art museum will come back?

I hope it comes back. I know that the board intends for it to come back, and I don’t know exactly what form that will take. I know it will be a challenge to get that back and going in this economy, so I don’t see it coming back in the near future. But I do think there will be a groundswell for an art museum at some point down the road.

Do you have a favorite Las Vegas moment?

The day we arrived was pretty special, actually. We had driven into town to look for a place to stay and we got here in the afternoon and checked into some hotel somewhere, I can’t remember, and then we decided to drive down the Strip. But there was a huge rainstorm, one of those that just dumps water on the Strip, and the streets were flooding and the neon was reflected in the light. It was dusk and the neon was beautiful in the deluge and it was very apocalyptic. I remember we were playing Pink Floyd on the radio, and we both kind of looked at each other and said, “Oh, this is the place for us.”

How should Las Vegas change?

I think it’s fine for Las Vegas to be what it wants to be. Maybe not every city needs to also be a cultural destination. Of course it was my thought that this would be an excellent place to have a cultural destination because high-end tourists do like to come here. Over the last 10 years, you have enormous amenities for the cultural tourist in the form of things like fine wine, good cigars, great restaurants and upscale shopping, so making this also a cultural destination seemed like just putting in that extra peg that was missing. But it’s hard to get these community investments going in this town because everyone is in the same business. In this town, all the major businesses are invested in having feet walk in their door and not the other guy’s door, so it’s a little harder to get it together to create an entertainment destination that doesn’t benefit your business. It fails.

What does New Mexico have that we don’t?

The arts are a very high priority because their tourism is grounded in huge part on the arts—Native American art, all kinds of art. In fact, the art department at the University of New Mexico is one of the biggest departments in the university. That’s a good thing. So, the cultural aspect of life has been exploited in New Mexico to also be an economic engine for the state.

Why is that so different from Nevada?

They had a long tradition of artists going to New Mexico. It’s a beautiful state and they had their Georgia O’Keefes and their Paul Strands and their John Marins and the modernists who went there, and many lived there and made their lives there, so they laid groundwork for a cultural tradition that was missing in Las Vegas.

Where will Las Vegas be in 2020?

Las Vegas will recover and it will continue to be a destination, but I predict a slow recovery. It’s just so overbuilt at this point it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen in this city. The world is changing, there are more gaming destinations, but Las Vegas has always found a way to shine brightly in the area of creating an entertainment destination. If I had to predict in the next 10 years, I think we’re going to see more live entertainment and I think it’ll be more of a mid-market town than an upscale town in the immediate future. I don’t know if upscale will ever come back in the way it has been, but there’s nothing wrong with a mid-market town. It was a mid-market town when we got here, and it was a lot of fun.

What will you miss most about Las Vegas?

Las Vegas, with a population of around two million, has a very disproportionate quantity of glamour. So, I suppose, that really adds to the life in this city. You have huge movie stars all the time and huge music stars, performers of all kinds; you have glamorous parties going on all over the Strip all the time. You just don’t find that level of glamour in other cities of comparable size.

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