LAS VEGAS — It's a desert oasis that hangs its priciest paintings on casino walls, where neon signs are a point of a pride and themed-hotels pay tribute to architecture's golden eras. Still, Las Vegas' cultural offerings have long taken a back seat to the glamour and crudity of its most notorious vices. People come here to party, the stereotype goes, not broaden their artistic horizons.
Now a new $470 million arts complex is daring to challenge that. The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a gleaming art deco-inspired jewel in a downtown redevelopment zone, hopes to reintroduce Las Vegas as a cultural destination in its own right.
The five-acre campus will host touring Broadway shows, jazz artists and classical singers, as well as the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre, two local institutions often drowned out by the wealth and flash of the Las Vegas Strip. In homage to the nearby Hoover Dam, the multi-theater complex features steel trimmings, geometric patterns, marble walls, scalloped edges and other 1930-style flourishes.
Much is resting on its March 10 opening. Business owners, elected officials, casino executives and local artists are counting on the Smith Center to bring new life to the city's struggling economy and arts scene. Nevada's brutal housing crash and hospitality-dependent workforce are behind the nation's highest unemployment and foreclosure rates, and community leaders hope an influx of art-seeking tourists will help broaden the state's appeal and job market.
"This will change the world's perception about the place we live in," said Myron Martin, president of the Smith Center and a longtime arts player in Las Vegas.
The attractions and restaurants along the Strip have for years cultivated a creative class of dancers, chefs, photographers and musicians. But until recently, there was no infrastructure to support them.
The philharmonic performed in a campus amphitheater where the acoustics were so poor the musicians couldn't hear themselves. Art houses shuttered because the city's blue-collar workers didn't buy anything. The ballet held its annual Nutcracker performance at a casino.
What's changed is Las Vegas is becoming much more urban. Southern Nevada's population grew by nearly 600,000 people in the last decade, and business and community leaders in recent years have pledged to make the city more livable to attract and retain white-collar workers. Tony Hsieh, the 38-year-old CEO of Zappos.com in Las Vegas, is helping to fund the Smith Center as well as a monthly downtown arts festival. The Mirage, Bellagio, Wynn, Plaza and Cosmopolitan casino resorts have also embraced local artists in recent years.
Meanwhile, the housing collapse has made the city more affordable for striving artists. With some studios renting for as little as $250 a month, galleries, playhouses and dance workshops are flourishing. There were 30 art galleries within Las Vegas in 2007. This year, 144 are operating, according to city records.
There are other signs of growth. Emergency Arts, an abandoned medical center converted into a cultural haven, has attracted more than 40 tenants, including artists, galleries, filmmakers and graphic designers. The city's four-year-old Shakespeare troupe is slated to open its first theater in April. And at least three museums are opening or undergoing significant renovations in Las Vegas this year.
"Every well-rounded community has an arts community that is part of the fabric of that city and that's exactly what is now happening in Las Vegas," said Rob McCoy, chairman of the city's arts commission.
City officials recently commissioned several public art projects. CityCenter, a retail and casino complex that opened on the Strip in 2009, boasts a $40 million art collection. The Cosmopolitan, the city's newest casino, has massive murals in its parking garage, art vending machines and an artist-in-residence program.
Tipsy visitors are particularly fond of the installations, and have been known to climb on the oversized sculptures, including a 9-foot stiletto heel by California artist Roark Gourley at the Cosmopolitan.
"At first we were a little precious about it," said Lisa Marchese, the casino's chief marketing officer. "We said, `This is art. Please don't stand in the shoe.'"
The casino ultimately decided to let people have at it. The once shiny shoe is now covered with nicks and scrapes.
The Smith Center, a temple of visual and performing arts, is easily the most grandiose of Las Vegas' new cultural institutions.
Its inaugural season will feature cellist Yo-Yo Ma, author David Sedaris, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Broadway hits "Wicked," "Mary Poppins" and "The Color Purple." Its campus includes a jazz cafe, a children's museum, a small park earmarked for outdoor concerts and an ornate bell tower that has transformed downtown Las Vegas' skyline.
Locals seem eager to embrace the performance center as their own. More than 10,000 season subscriptions have been sold, exceeding the Smith Center's early projections. In a nod to the city's many low-income workers, tickets start at $24.
"We've been very careful to make sure we are not building something for the rich and famous," said Martin.
The center also houses several classrooms designed to introduce local students to the arts and promote academic achievement, a difficult feat in a state with the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation. On a recent morning, 60 teachers from area schools were invited to the Smith Center to prepare for upcoming fieldtrips to the Alvin Ailey performance.
The Las Vegas Philharmonic plans to perform its most ambitious pieces yet and expand to a 10-concert season under its residency at the Smith Center. An upcoming show will feature the score from Charlie Chaplin's 1931 romantic comedy "City Lights" as the silent film is projected on a screen.
"Most people in the world, in our country, don't have any idea that we have culture," said Jeri Crawford, president of the professional orchestra. "If we ever have a change, it will be with the Smith Center."