Gallery Girl

Amy Finchem launches an exhibit space meant to spark dialogue on Vegas’ architecture and design

Our architecture should be reflective of where we want to go as a city,” says Amy Finchem, who comes on like gangbusters when the topic of conversation is design in Las Vegas.

And why shouldn’t she? Last week, Finchem, herself a designer, opened a new chapter in her own life, and quite possibly the life of the city, with the launch of COLAB, her downtown architecture and design gallery.

The 600-square-foot nook is adjacent to Faciliteq Interiors at 817 S. Main St., along an industrial stretch between The Smith Center and the Arts District. It’s an apt spot for the exhibit space and clearinghouse for new ideas about the city’s future.

COLAB’s first show, which runs through April, features winners from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ 2011 Unbuilt Design contest and 2010 Built Design contest. Displaying these works is “a really great introduction to some really great design projects,” she says. Finchem aims to have one new design exhibit a month, as well as host lectures, panel discussions and workshops.

Finchem believes the time is right for her idea. Amid new development in the urban core and the new minds engaged in its future development, there is a growing sense that more Las Vegans are committed to staying and building a more substantive metropolis. And if Finchem has her way, COLAB will be at the heart of the conversation. “Las Vegas could be at the forefront of innovation to show progress,” she says. “We want to be relevant to the city. We want to redefine the city.”

The 34-year-old originally wanted to be a children’s book illustrator and writer, but her family influence—Dad was a contractor, and her brother was in construction—led her down a different path. She went to work for an architect at age 19. Her boss took her under his wing, and she gradually worked her way up. After architecture school, she became a project manager. In the wake of the recession, she was laid off, and a year and a half ago she started a residential design and architectural consulting business.

Her focus shifted when she started volunteering at the Tonopah Community Garden, the urban farm north of downtown. She brought together fellow designers to create a master plan. “Really that project was about community,” she says. “I kind of fell in love with nonprofit work because of it. I was more passionate about the work I was doing in the community than I was in my business.”

She began to think about ways to wed her interest in nonprofit work with her growing passion for tackling the city’s urban challenges. Why was it, she wondered, that big-ticket projects downtown were not utilizing the talents of local architects, at a time when the local market for architectural design had really taken a plunge? “That’s a missed opportunity to put people back to work,” she says. “And it’s a missed opportunity for designers to have a voice.”

Finchem wants to show the community that design matters. A well-informed citizenry can demand better, and astute clients give designers more room to push the envelope. A positive feedback loop gets established—and eventually it pays off for the city as a whole.

Still, COLAB faces a few challenges. Unlike a regular art gallery, there’s no art to sell. Finchem will pursue grants, but most of the organizations that issue them prefer to deal with nonprofits with an established history. She’s already held one fundraiser and will continue to seek donations and corporate support.

“My hat’s off to her; she has done this on a shoestring budget,” says Quentin Abramo, who owns Faciliteq and is helping Finchem lease the small space. “She’s very passionate about this. She has a lot of energy and is willing to roll up her sleeves and get in it.”

As the name suggests, she can’t do it alone. COLAB is a portmanteau of “co,” meaning (take your pick) “connectivity,” “collaboration” or “community,” combined with “lab.” Together, the words make for a verb, as in, Finchem hopes, “I can’t wait to colab with you.”

And they make for something Las Vegas hasn’t seen yet. “It is meant to be an action word.”