David Walker, who has been director of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, since 2007, says his museum “likes to take on big projects that are risky,” like Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains sculptures and Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector satellite, which was recently disabled by the government shutdown. But the NMA’s biggest project by far is a plan, announced last June, to open a branch in Las Vegas. This week, that plan comes closer to reality with the hire of a person to run the project. The NMA’s deputy director, a newly created role, is Heather Harmon.
“It was time to hire a full-time staff member to become the face and voice of the initiative,” said Walker, to whom Harmon will report.
“Expanding to Las Vegas presents one of the most exciting institutional opportunities of the 21st century and offers a chance to shift the global perception of an ever-growing, changing, diverse community,” Harmon told ARTnews. “Creating a new paradigm for a statewide institution opens vast possibilities for collaboration and allows us to rethink and respond to an institution’s responsibility toward the communities it serves.”
Harmon, who is leaving a position in development with the New York alternative space Artists Space, has been involved in the NMA’s Las Vegas initiative for a couple years. Until she accepted the deputy director position, she was a trustee of the Nevada Museum of Art. Walker, who has known her for seven years, called her “highly intelligent, and intuitive.”
During the search process, Walker said, “it began to be clear that it would be challenging for someone to parachute into this project and establish relationships with Las Vegas. After a national search Heather was someone who was close to us.” Harmon’s family settled in Las Vegas in the early 1900s. Her great-grandfather and grandfather were deeply involved in politics and the development of the city.
At Artists Space, Harmon supported director Jay Sanders and the campaign for the institution’s future home at 80 White Street in downtown Manhattan. Before that, she was instrumental in the development of Lune Rouge and Art Projects Ibiza in Spain, a private initiative by the art collector and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté. She credits both experiences as preparing her well for the new challenge in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is the largest metropolitan city in the United States that does not have an art museum. The NMA was established in Reno in 1931, and its Las Vegas project is the result of a merger with an advocacy group called the Art Museum at Symphony Park. The members of that group have been pushing for an art museum in Las Vegas, and three years ago joined forces with the NMA. The new building will be located in Symphony Park, a site donated by the Las Vegas City Council.
The NMA started looking at possibilities in Las Vegas ten years ago, around the time the Smith Center, a performing arts center, opened in Symphony Park and set a precedent for a cultural institution in the city. Unlike previous, pre-recession attempts to bring art to Las Vegas—a now-closed branch of the Guggenheim, for instance—the current museum effort is aimed at residents, rather than tourists. Walker sees the museum as being important to local families and schools.
Walker said the building would likely measure around 125,000 to 150,000 square feet. The budget—in the neighborhood of $250 million—would include an expansion of the existing building in Reno, and an endowment. The museum in Reno and the potential future museum in Las Vegas will share a board, Walker added, and “there will be an economy of scale in sharing current collections and growing collections both in Reno and Las Vegas.”
Last fall, the city of Las Vegas said it would give land, cash, and parking facilities to the museum, valued at around $6 million. In order to lock that in, NMA has to do a 2 to 1 match—it needs to raise $12 million by October, which will enable it to move forward into a capital campaign. Not surprisingly, Harmon sees this as the “most immediate challenge,” but, she said, “we hope to secure a single donor.”
Harmon will wear many hats in addition to fund-raising. She will work with curators and the museum’s education department, and help Walker build the board. At the moment, there are 40 members, but Walker wants to get to 60 in the next 18 months. The museum will continue to do pop-up exhibitions in Las Vegas. (The biggest recent one was Seven Magic Mountains. Last year, the NMA also co-organized a show of local artists in the city in a renovated warehouse.)
Walker said the NMA has “quite a few commitments and pledges” from “large companies down to individuals” and has gotten a commitment in cash from the State of Nevada. He said, if all goes according to plan, the completion of the building is five to seven years out. “My dream,” he said, “is that Heather Harmon will be standing in front and welcoming guests in five years.”