Flowing softly across resonating wooden bars, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” wafts from the back of the gallery, marimba players caressing the doubly symbolic tune as cocktail-sipping, hors d’oeuvres-nibbling guests stroll the hall.
Yes, it’s Elvis—Vegas and all that. Perhaps it’s also a hint that this room needs a city’s love.
Backpedaling from the financial abyss, UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum recently tossed itself this little coming-out party—or more accurately, a coming-back party—to celebrate its rechristening.
Call it the museum that came in from the cold.
This was a reflective moment, as Aurore Giguet, the Barrick’s program director, can tell you: “It was a scary year. We didn’t know what was going to happen.” This was a “Phew!” moment, as Jeffrey Koep, dean of UNLV’s College of Fine Arts, can tell you: “If anything good comes out of a budget crisis, this may be it.”
One year ago, this scene—people milling under the stately high ceilings and across the polished hardwood floors, gazing at some of the city’s best artwork from the Las Vegas Art Museum collection—seemed improbable. State budget cuts had ripped through the university. Among the programs and services imperiled, as usual in fiscal meltdowns, were the arts (the postgraduate playwriting program was a notable casualty).
Swept away was the $267,000 annual operating budget for the Barrick, a former gymnasium that was reconstituted in 1969 for natural-history exhibitions—concentrating on the American Southwest and Mesoamerica—and is the third longest-standing museum in the state. Lecture series held there featured the likes of Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Suddenly, Barrick was running on fumes: $280,000 in reserves that would have evaporated right about … now. Fundraising efforts included a “We Will Survive” exhibition and auction, naming opportunities, a friends-of-the-museum program, even a staging of the play Red, about painter Mark Rothko. Result? “We were getting community support, it was bringing us to the public, but we weren’t getting enough money to survive,” Giguet says. Nor were any lifelines forthcoming from private foundations, the overall situation exacerbated by the Great Recession.
Rescue, it turned out, came from within. Long a part of UNLV’s Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies, owing to its natural-history focus, the Barrick, which had been branching out into art and photography exhibits, was enfolded into the College of Fine Arts late last year.
Its fortunes in turnaround, the museum closed for remodeling in January, reopening with expanded storage units and 6,000-plus square feet of exhibit space after gutting the walls, creating two smaller galleries within the larger area.
“The provost has already stepped in to help us with remodeling and putting in nearly $100,000 in lights,” Koep says. “But it’s like everything else on campus right now, we have to reach out and shake hands. You know, our performing arts center hasn’t had state funding in around seven years. We have to get people to appreciate art because it’s part of our family now.”
Brightening the Barrick’s outlook further was UNLV’s acquisition of the collection of the Las Vegas Art Museum, which shuttered in 2009. Excepting several pieces on display at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the inventory is headquartered at UNLV, some at the Donna Beam Gallery and Artemus Ham Hall, but about two-thirds of it at the Barrick. Inaugural exhibit Into the Light spotlights the museum’s artwork. Supplementing it is the permanent, longstanding collection of pre-Colombian art donated by Mannetta and Michael Braunstein.
“Most of these pieces, I could tell you when we purchased them, it’s like going back in time,” says an excited Patrick Duffy, president of the Las Vegas Art Museum board, at the Barrick reception. “This is the closest grouping of the actual collection that you will be able to see and the most representative. In Boston, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, the community never sees the permanent collection unless it happens to be part of a curated show. In Las Vegas, this is your art collection.”
Yet questions remain about the Barrick, one of its strengths having been its thematically challenging and eclectic array of exhibits. Among them: Viva Frida (2010), featuring iconic pieces by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; Ice Next Time (2010), Stephen Hendee’s fascinating rumination on a post-apocalyptic world; and Great Basin: Exteriors (2011), a photographic exhibit of that region’s stark beauty, via images by Daniel Cheek, Nolan Preece and Adam Jahiel.
“It probably won’t be that eclectic now,” Giguet says about the Barrick, which, when it was part of the Reid Center, programmed independently of UNLV’s other galleries. “We’ve been enfolded into the UNLV galleries. There are seven galleries, and hopefully there will be a synergy between all of them. We’ll have to see. This is a whole new beast.”
Physically, the well-appointed Barrick has the high-end feel of a major-market museum, is a great resource for students and is sought out by local art devotees. Yet it is hampered by being relatively cloistered and a challenge for nonstudents to find on campus, where it doesn’t invite walk-in or drive-by traffic, especially considering UNLV’s often inconvenient parking.
“If we were on Maryland [Parkway] front, that would be so much better,” Giguet says. “But already we’re getting more questions about where we are and what’s going on.”
On this night, odd little signs underline the past and the present. On the former gymnasium floor that once played host to UNLV basketball, there remains the logo of its original mascot, a Confederate cartoon wolf named Beauregard. Nearby, marimba players have shifted from Elvis to The Beatles, their mallets producing a mellow version of “Hey Jude.”
Given the Barrick’s journey over the past year, perhaps its lyrics are prophetic: “Take a sad song, and make it better.”