Years of Glory

When economies turn upside down and take communities with them, memories of better times can echo with legend. I distinctly remember that we had a boom here, and that at its height, high arts and literary culture made an improbable reach into Sin City. Lately, I have to remind myself that it all really happened, that Vegas reached for glory and achieved it, for a time.

In my mind, it all began with Steve Wynn’s venture to profit from his private art collection at Bellagio in 1998. Over the next seven years, cultural experiments tested their viability in the palaces of Las Vegas Boulevard and beyond. The upscale Guggenheim Hermitage Museum opened at the Venetian, then a serious art gallery and independent bookstore launched at Mandalay Place. All over town, energy for the arts pumped up—the Vegas Valley Book Festival and First Fridays debuted, UNLV and the Library District mounted high-quality literary experiences, and the Las Vegas Art Museum at the West Sahara Library reconceived itself into a venue offering serious art instead of kitsch. Las Vegas was on a cultural roll.

Prosperity brought refined tastes and new visions for Las Vegas, and I felt lucky to be a part of it. For me, the peak moments came in 2004. What a high it was to stroll along the posh shopping corridor of Mandalay Place to the Godt-Cleary gallery to admire the work of Richard Serra, Ed Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg. In November, at the opening of his photography exhibit there, Dennis Hopper leaned against a wall, interacting with the wealthy and the local arts crowd like the coolest human being on Earth, which he was, and I recall thinking: What a gift this is to our city!

Earlier that summer, the Guggenheim Hermitage mounted its Pursuit of Pleasure show of classic, priceless sensual masterpieces. One afternoon, I stumbled on a very pretty, plus-size girl gazing at a zaftig nude by Peter Paul Rubens. She struck a pose in perfect imitation of the voluptuous figure and joked, “You suppose if I just stood like this under this painting that I might catch the right guy?”

Some people were experiencing great art for the first time, with innocent joy.

Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate in literature and human rights activist, taught at UNLV from 2000-2005. I remember striding across the casino floor at Mandalay Bay alongside him with my friends Richard Wiley and Eric Olsen, toward meetings for Las Vegas City of Asylum, which rescued persecuted writers, to our city’s great credit. Wole’s abundant gray afro, rising as if electrically charged from his scalp, caused tourists to keep mistaking him for the boxing promoter, Don King, and in a way that wasn’t so far off, since we felt the literary arts had its own big-time promoter here now, a cultural balance to sports books and boxing rings.

Mandalay Bay President Glenn Schaeffer was the force behind a nonprofit organization, the International Institute of Modern Letters, that brought outstanding writers to town. Literary lions flew in for presentations at UNLV, the Library District and area high schools. We hung out together, talking books and ideas at the edges of the casino floor: Russell Banks, Jane Smiley, Mary Karr, George Saunders, Tom Perrotta, Sandra Cisneros, Gary Snyder and John Irving—to name a few. Dave Hickey, a MacArthur Fellow in art criticism, enlightened or jabbed out at us with his provocative voice.

At Mandalay Place, Schaeffer opened the Reading Room in November 2003, the only independent, non-chain bookstore in Las Vegas. It became a welcome refuge, its warm wood shelves offering an unusual mix of titles: How to Win at Blackjack and Hungry Planet guides alongside the latest from Alice Munro and Edmund White’s cultish biography of Jean Genet. The Reading Room hosted book club meetings, the Socrates Café and author appearances, all within earshot of the casino noise.

I was the first author to read fiction at the Reading Room, at an event for my book, Looking for War and Other Stories. About 80 guests, mainly friends, sat in chairs or stood listening, sipping wine, celebrating. Others—tourists and gamblers—watched from the edge of the casino carpet 10 yards away. At one point, a group of what looked like pampered fraternity boys looked in, elbowing each other, as if saying, What’s that? I was reading from my story, “The Perfect Wife,” about an investment banker who hires a Spanish-speaking actress to pose as his wife to help him land a gas pipeline deal in South America, a tale of lies and deceptions running the world. I glanced up at one of the frat boys. He looked at me and mockingly scratched his crotch. Girls in skimpy club dresses joined the boys, and they wandered off, whooping, shouting, toward the House of Blues. I projected my voice to drown out their noise. My story carried out over the bleeping slot machines—a joyful, defiant moment, fixed now in memory.

The economy imploded. Godt-Cleary shut its doors in 2008. So did the Guggenheim Hermitage—a tragic loss. City of Asylum lost its funding, though it’s still trying to recover. The Las Vegas Art Museum collapsed, wealthy board members pulling their money. Literary life withdrew mainly to UNLV’s new Black Mountain Institute and the book festival.

After MGM Mirage bought Mandalay Resort Group in 2004, the Reading Room soldiered on for a few years before the company closed it in 2008. A frozen yogurt shop opened in its place. “We want to make sure we are offering the right type of mix for the type of customer demographic that is frequenting the mall,” said the new vice president of hotel marketing.

Our city brushed with artistic greatness of many kinds during the boom years. Most quality cultural experiments fell apart, replaced by the relentless machinery of consumerism. Still, we owe a lot to those years, and to all the good people—you know who you are—who worked so hard to make Las Vegas into a happening place for the arts.