Art is not an attraction

13 November 2023

Coming to work at an arts organization undergoing many transitions and coming out of the pandemic was daunting, but I was nevertheless enthusiastic. Even before my arrival as executive director at Black Mountain Institute and for some months in, people were saying “Congratulations” followed by “I’m sorry.” Or “Thank you for coming to Vegas” and — long pause — “Good luck.” Or, one of my favorites: “I would not want your job.” But big transitions of all kinds are bound to happen, for one reason or another, and this city does not shy away from them. BMI is extremely fortunate to have had enough support and goodwill to make it through.

In and among all the positive, encouraging welcomes I received, BMI’s pre-pandemic and well-loved festival was still fresh in the minds of those who reached out. “So I’m guessing you’ll do a festival” was often said. Other feedback included comments such as “There was this long-ago speaker series I loved; maybe you could do that again.” Some, even more straightforwardly said, “I only ever liked events with poets. Do more of those, please.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell them that so much change often makes continuing something from the past impossible, and that all those examples of beloved events grew organically, over time and through long conversations. I know what it’s like to have members of a community love a program that goes away and want to see it again. I didn’t want to be a killjoy or resist the optimism of people in the new city where I now live. I wasn’t trying to be averse to the Vegas trope of the big splash. In a place where growth sometimes involves a fast-build and then a razing when that does not work, I kept thinking more and more about how art is slow.

And art is not an attraction.

I realized soon after I’d arrived at BMI that I could not bring back many of these things from the past. And that’s totally fine. Really. Because events are a culmination of the deep, often yearslong work of writing, publishing, thinking and being among other artists in the community. A performance, a poet’s reading, a keynote lecture, a conversation with luminaries, a book signing with a line of folks out the door, an art exhibition — these are variations of cake-icing.

There is always the work that comes before. It’s hard to track that without the big splash or sparkle, because artists do this work alone, in studios, at desks, on stages with no audience. Creativity lives in the long game where we all spend our days. 

I meet people every week — from students to professors to colleagues in the nonprofit sector— who make the daily effort, incur the expense and expend energy to make music or books or visual art for someone else, an eventual public. They are nourished by knowing that other artists are nearby, despite Formula One Las Vegas Grand Prix construction or the unbearable traffic for a stadium game, and that they are working at it somewhere between The Strat and the Sphere and out to the valley’s edges from which they might see both. 

One person on my team is convinced we’ll do a big festival again for the community and for faraway friends in nearby cities and the southwest. 

“Maybe,” I tell her. 

In the meantime, we’re in a city of so many debuts and performances, showstoppers and grand openings. It’s important to support the labor and commitment of artists, the time and practice it takes to make something that has legs to stand on. We can elevate art every day by being patient, even in fast-moving Las Vegas. Applause comes later when we celebrate what we’ve made. 

Colette LaBouff is the executive director at Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

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