Working in the arts anywhere is a struggle, but, as in all things, Las Vegas offers a unique set of challenges. Vegas may be the Entertainment Capital of the World, but high culture often rides pretty low on our priority list. “If you actually put your heart into things here, you’re a chump,” Todd VonBastiaans says. “And that’s exactly what a lot of us are, we’re chumps.”
But it’s chumps like him who keep the Vegas arts scene afloat, whether it’s through the rough waters of recession and gentrification or Sin City’s particular brand of flux. Originally from Chicago, VonBastiaans functions behind the scenes as owner of the ALIOS lighting agency as well as a supporter of several local institutions, from the Cockroach Theatre to KNPR.
While most creative folk are laser-focused on their clay or canvas, VonBastiaans sees the arts in widescreen. “We’re not just putting on a play, we’re not just putting on an art show,” he says. “What we’re doing is making sure there are always multiple components so there is exposure.”
His own work can be seen at bus stops (the ones that look like swimming pools viewed from above), apartments (pillows mimicking giant pancakes) and local stages (the dazzling array of lights that turned the Onyx Theatre into a rock ’n’ roll club for Hedwig and the Angry Inch).
VonBastiaans moved to Las Vegas in 1996 on “the day Tupac was shot in front of my apartment at the Meridian on Flamingo and Koval,” he says. ALIOS creates architectural and entertainment lighting for properties including City Center, the Cosmopolitan and numerous Cirque shows. But the lighting business is more means than end: “We make our living on the Strip so we can take our money and invest it in the community,” he says.
He tries to make that investment go as far as it can. “Everyone’s fighting for the same audience and the small amount of dollars,” he says. “But how can we do things smarter and actually bring people together?”
It’s not just about bringing people together, but keeping them here—especially after a summer that has seen a number of art-scene stalwarts leave for greener pastures. “We used to see the cycle as people are here for five years, then go. Then it was three. And then it was a year,” he says, adding, “At the six-month point, people realize what is special and unique to Vegas, but also what they’re missing.”
Community also informs his work. “We don’t put anything in our space or anything on a stage unless we feel it will be important to the people of Las Vegas,” he says. He and his partner Bryan McCarthy have produced plays including Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England and The Leslie Hall Show under their Todd + Bryan aegis.
One of their new projects is a play that originated at the National Theater of Scotland. “It’s based on the movie Let the Right One In, and the composer of the score also is one of the composers from The Hunger Games,” VonBastiaans says. “So here’s an opportunity to bring in a play that, one, is very entertaining, and two, is very current with the kids. They don’t understand who John Williams is, but they certainly know who this DJ and producer is.” And naturally a multimedia show about vampires and bullying would appeal to younger audiences. They’re still seeking the right space for the show, as well as related artworks and musical performances. “If you come to the show, you can do three or four artistic things at once with the same understanding. That’s something that’s not done here and it should be done.”
VonBastiaans’ other forum, ALIOS, has provided display space for many local artists, most recently Justin Favela’s Chop Shop. It has also been home to the Contemporary Arts Center’s juried show and the annual art exhibit by Las Vegas high school students.
However, VonBastiaans says he is rethinking the ALIOS space and will shutter it soon. “We don’t own the building,” he says, “[and] there are a lot of other things we can do with that money,” including theater and other, “more interactive” forms of art. “Nobody buys art here,” he says. “We’re really good at giving out awards … but I’d rather see action.”
Like other Las Vegans who’ve stayed in the city over the decades, VonBastiaans has also seen the neighborhood change: “I think that time has moved on. … It’s now just vintage antique alley.”
The departure of ALIOS will leave the street with just one space for art, the Gallery Red on Main Street. VonBastiaans remembers stopping in shortly after it opened and meeting the proprietor.
He smiles, “She welcomed me to the neighborhood.”