Preserving the (Neon) Light of Our Lives

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So much of the allure of Las Vegas is built on lore, and the Boneyard provides an exceptional context for a one-of-a-kind oral-history experience—an opportunity to share Las Vegas history in complement to its spectacular art form.

Neon Nirvana set out to show how an art form shaped a city; instead, the Oct. 24 event at the Historic Fifth Street School demonstrated how Las Vegas’ love of its indigenous art form inspired the city to define itself. Las Vegas may not have invented neon, but the city’s mid-century sign designers elevated it to museum-worthy status.

“No city is great if it doesn’t understand who it is,” said Alan Hess, an architecture critic, author of the classic book Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture and one of the panelists at the event. When members of a community recognize an important piece of their artistic heritage and join together in an effort to preserve it, that community has experienced a significant moment in its evolution.

That encapsulates what happened with neon signs in Las Vegas from the mid-1980s until the opening of the Neon Museum on Oct. 27. What started as a small group of concerned citizens has culminated in a nationally recognized cultural institution supported by local government, major philanthropists and everyday residents.

“Historical preservation of this sort is a mark of maturity of a city,” Hess said. “All the great cities of the world build on their past.”

If Hess’s art-world cred wasn’t enough to persuade listeners, Las Vegans themselves stepped up to prove his point. During the town hall-style Q&A that followed the panel discussion, one person after another bypassed the highbrow rumination in favor of practical matters:

“What happened to the Glass Pool Inn sign?” one asked.

“Would it be possible to recreate some of the lost neon signs, at least in miniature form?” wondered another.

“How can we prevent existing signs from being destroyed?”

“What are your favorite signs?”

The questions reflected a shared love of neon art, an inherent identification with it and a desire to protect it as an emblem of what it means to be a Las Vegan.

“We have a cultural inferiority complex,” Neon Museum Executive Director Danielle Kelly said. “This museum sets the stage for legitimizing this art form … for understanding our past more fully and what it means to us and the world.”