For insight into the recent opening of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, we turn to the erstwhile NFL coach Dennis Green.
On Oct. 16, 2006, after Green’s Arizona Cardinals blew a 20-point lead and lost to the Chicago Bears, he glimpsed the true, unwavering nature of core identity: “The Bears,” he said, “are who we thought they were.” He believed this deeply enough to say it four times in 35 seconds. Green’s insight was that the Bears, who had surprised pundits by starting the season undefeated, really weren’t so good after all. (He ends his tirade with “And we let ’em off the hook!”)
But here’s the thing: Those Bears wound up 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl. They weren’t who we thought they were. Either we’d thought wrong, or institutions have the capacity to change profoundly.
As The Smith Center makes its triumphant introductory lap, most commentators have seen it as transformative for our city: We are who they—the vast constellation of snarky Vegas haters—thought we were, but at least we’re changing. At the gala opening of the center on March 10, host Neil Patrick Harris, star of that high-culture touchstone How I Met Your Mother, informed us of his surprise that people actually live in Vegas. There are, he revealed, Laundromats and schools here—“although I’ve never seen them.”
The point here is not that Harris was recycling the Vegas visitor’s equivalent of “Take my wife, please!” but that the audience cheered for it. He told us that we aren’t quite who he thought we were—and that was good enough news for us. After all, we’re transforming—and the 2,000 or so VIPs at The Smith Center opening were the catalysts for our civic metamorphosis. It’s easy to laugh along at old lies when you’re part of the new truth.
Film crews loomed heavy over the event; word was the big show might wind up on PBS someday. PBS! Las Vegas would at last be featured on a network that airs exactly zero shows with the word “housewives” in the title. This was our town’s big night at the grown-ups’ table with cities that have performing arts centers, such as New York, Los Angeles and Fort Worth, Texas. To introduce us to the heretofore-unknown-in-Vegas brand of high culture we’d soon enjoy, Broadway performers sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” a song from The Lion King, which just closed after a nearly three-year run at Mandalay Bay.
The evening also had its soaring moments, including an orchestral piece, “From Dust to Dreams,” that (like the design of the building itself) linked The Smith Center with Hoover Dam as epoch-making projects—the kind that ensure a place is never again what they thought it was. In quiet moments—and, thanks to the TV production, there were a few—one could even daydream beyond the center’s obvious value and consider the corollary to the Green Doctrine: If we aren’t who we they thought we were, then who are we?
Just down the road from The Smith Center, a group gathered for an after-party. Some hadn’t been invited to the gala; others made the short trip from the $470 million center to the warehouse studio of David Ryan and Tim Bavington—the latter of whom created the sculpture in front of The Smith Center. Nestled between the railroad tracks and the freeway, the studio was the kind of simple space that, idea-by-idea, conversation-by-conversation, has been transforming Las Vegas all along. Such modest places are part of an unfolding dialog with the gleaming Smith Center about the past and future of Las Vegas. In this conversation, there are no Vegas jokes except for the ultimate insider line: We never were who they thought we were.