What Are Some of the Oldest Cultural Attractions and Institutions in Las Vegas?

Nevada Ballet Theater performs The Nutcracker. | Photo by Virginia Trudeau

Nevada Ballet Theater performs The Nutcracker. | Photo by Virginia Trudeau

What culture? This is Vegas, baby; everyone knows we have no culture! Yawn. Of course we do. But like much of our maverick city, it’s often of a unique brand. Or it gurgles underground. Or both. Example: In the 1980s and 1990s, the local coffeehouse was a primordial ooze of cultural experience and exposure. With all the body-painting, slam-poeting, fanzine-scribbling, clove-smoking, acoustic weirdness, the Guggenheim it was not. But the scene did birth the Killers!

Our lawless outsider attitude helps shape Vegas’ unique culture (see: any book by P Moss), but that hasn’t satiated the naysayers, or kept transplants from seeking “traditional culture,” or stopped the efforts to give it to them. Hence, the actual Guggenheim, which opened two museums at the Venetian in 2001 (one closed in 2003, one in 2008), and the venerable Las Vegas Art Museum, the city’s first fine-arts institution, which shuttered in 2009 after nearly six decades. RIP also to the Allied Arts Council, and don’t get me started on Shakespeare in the Park, a 27-year Henderson tradition that was jettisoned after 2013. Ugh.

But this is Las Vegas, where we chase the wins and ignore the losses. So chin up, culture dog! Sure, some of our most important traditional artworks are housed in casinos. But it’s important to celebrate places like the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, while drawing a distinction between them and successful local institutions. For instance, our libraries and university campus were cultural centers long before The Smith Center arrived. Fittingly, two favorite spaces to contemplate my place in the desert are in the shadow of Claus Oldenburg and wife Coossje van Bruggen’s “Flashlight” (UNLV, 1981), and Rita Deanin Abbey’s “Spirit Tower” (Summerlin Library, 1993).

Other institutions have stood tall over the years: the Clark County Museum (1968), Nevada Ballet Theater (1972), Nevada State Museum (1982), Discovery Children’s Museum (1984), Las Vegas Natural History Museum (1991) and the Las Vegas Philharmonic (1998). Long-running arts/culture/community events include Helldorado Days (1934), the Boulder City Art Fair (1962), First Friday (2002) and Super Summer Theater, the latter a pleasant series of musicals staged under the stars at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park. The next show in its 40th season (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) runs through June 27. So let the culture snobs scoff. You have arty things to do!

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