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 theme 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.
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, hopes to reintroduce Las Vegas as a cultural destination.
It 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.
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 has the nation's highest unemployment and foreclosure rates, and community leaders hope 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.
The attractions and restaurants along the Strip have 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 concert hall 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.
But now, Las Vegas is becoming much more urban. 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 scheduled to open its first theater in April. And at least three museums are opening or undergoing significant renovations 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.
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.
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 Las Vegas Philharmonic plans to 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 shown.
"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."