BY PATRICK PACHECO | February 27, 2012 | Lifestyle
In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after dedicating Nevada’s power-generating Hoover Dam as “a great feat of mankind,” paid the first presidential visit to Las Vegas, then a flinty cow town of fewer than 9,000. Seventy-seven years later, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts will open in Las Vegas, now an international city of roughly 2,000,000 in the metropolitan area. And while the movers and shakers who have brought the $470-million arts institution to fruition would not describe it in FDR’s grandiose terms, the Hoover Dam has been the Smith Center’s chief inspiration, not only for its design but also for its enormous potential to transform a region—this time through the power of the arts.
“This creation is something of which all of our residents can be proud and become a part of by sharing in its activities,” Mayor Carolyn Goodman says. “It is definitely the cultural hub around which our citizens and visitors will congregate.”
“The goal from the beginning was not just to build an arts center but to build a community,” says Donald D. Snyder, chairman of the Smith Center’s board of directors. It was “the power of the project,” he adds, that helped the Smith Center survive decades of development. “It was often frustrating,” says Elaine Wynn, who attended some of the first planning meetings at the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in the early 1980s. “It took longer than it should have. But nothing of enduring quality is ever smooth. Everybody realized you can’t be a truly world-class city without a world-class arts center.”
The civic leaders landed on a classic and elegant design by David M. Schwarz Architects, who on a five-acre campus within a 61-acre park built three performing arts buildings—the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall, the more intimate Boman Pavilion, and the Discovery Children’s Museum. Schwarz says his firm was at first “apprehensive” about the project. The mandate, after all, was to bring a sense of high culture to a city that is home to so much “inauthentic architecture.” “We didn’t want the building to attach itself stylistically to ‘faux stuff,’ to be a copy of a copy,” he says. “We chose inspiration from the one thing that is truly indigenous: the Hoover Dam.”
Myron G. Martin, president and CEO of the Smith Center, says he hopes the appealing design of the buildings combined with state-ofthe- art technology will become an irresistible magnet for international performing arts groups that have previously passed on Las Vegas. Wynn, whose $5 million offering was the largest individual donation, is hopeful that the Center will motivate Las Vegans, particularly the young, to have higher aspirations.
“Las Vegas is known to have the smallest percentage of high school graduates who go on to college,” she says. “It attracts a population that feels they can get entry-level positions in the casinos and hotels. These families hope for a better life for their children, but you can’t inspire them when they’ve never been near a university much less seen a ballet, or play, or symphony performance.” Here, we introduce a few of the A-listers who helped make the Smith Center a reality.
Myron G. Martin, President & CEO
Martin has an impressive résumé, including a bachelor’s degree in music, 15 years as a New York concert producer, and a stint as executive director of the arts-based Liberace Foundation in Las Vegas. But his master’s degree in business administration is what helped most in building the Smith Center. “Too often cultural institutions don’t take the business of show business as seriously as they should,” he says. “Early on, we decided the Smith Center was going to be run in the same way we would run a for-profit business, and Don Snyder gets full credit for setting that tone.” A solid business plan gave the project credibility with local politicians and civic leaders, and three things happened within a week to ensure the Smith Center’s construction: the county commission approved a car rental tax to help finance the project; the city council approved the land, parking facility, and infrastructure; and the Reynolds Foundation committed $50 million to the project. “The irony is that the Reynolds gift was not for bricks and mortar, but for the endowment,” Martin says. It provided operational funds after opening so that “we would not be in the position of always chasing our tail. Their brilliance and foresight held our feet to the fire to raise the money to actually build it.” Martin says the project’s long-term success lies in keeping tickets affordable ($24 is the lowest price for a touring Broadway show) and “not forcefeeding culture to people. It depends on giving the people what they want, whether it’s a blockbuster like Wicked or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. This really is their living room.”
Candy Schneider, Vice President of Education and Outreach
Schneider doesn’t necessarily consider movies, television, and video games as competition in her bid to attract young people to the Smith Center. “I don’t think you wean them away as much as you provide them with diverse opportunities,” the veteran Nevada educator says. “Children automatically respond to rhythm, music, colors, and live visual imagery. They are naturally drawn to the arts.” Introducing the performing arts to people of all ages and backgrounds is among the most important of the Smith Center’s objectives, and Schneider says she is “beyond excited” to meet the challenge, especially given the facilities she has been provided. These include the Elaine Wynn Studio for Arts Education on the fourth floor of the Boman Pavilion, which will house classrooms, conference rooms, and offices for education program staff, interns, and artistsin- residence. “We are looking for that special synergy of artists gathering together and learning from one other,” Schneider says, pointing out that local groups will now have the advantage of creative exchanges with some of the world’s leading arts performers and organizations. The levels of programs vary widely, from children’s activities to near professional. “There will be master classes, workshops, the opportunity to sit in on rehearsals, and other events. The best way to get to know people and understand their culture is through the arts.”
David Schwarz, Architect
Perhaps surprisingly, Schwarz, the renowned Washington, DC-based architect, says some of the best examples of Art Deco and Art Moderne architecture in the world can be found in the West. “Its roots were in the West, and the Smith Center is very much steeped in that tradition,” he says. Creating a building that is welcoming was a priority of the Smith Center’s leaders, says Schwarz, “so everyone could feel good coming together, to see each other, engage each other, rub shoulders.” He describes as a “happy accident” the campanile, which fronts the Smith Center because it was born out of the need to produce music for the park. “It provides an architectural focus that is visible from the freeway,” he says. “And it also gives us the ability to introduce the performing arts to people outside the building.” When the architect is asked what aspect of his work on the Smith Center has been most personally satisfying, he says he has yet to realize it. “The greatest moment in any building’s life is when the public is admitted,” he says. “I can then wander around and listen to what they have to say. That to me is the greatest joy.”
Mike Ruppert, Director of Patron Services
While “guest” is often the moniker for those who attend arts performances, Mike Ruppert says he instructs his staff to treat the visitors to the Smith Center as “patrons.” “This is their venue,” he says, “and we want them to feel that way.” Ruppert caters to all art lovers by maintaining a balance between a certain level of formality and a familial approach that erases any gloss of elitism. “Our primary purpose is to serve the local population,” he says. “So whether you are a millionaire or hard-working service industry worker who has scraped the funds together to buy a ticket, we want you to leave glowing from the experience.” That means seating which he describes as “roomy,” a staff that is multilingual, and a floor plan that is easily navigable. Ruppert says that he’s fully aware that word-of-mouth from his patrons will be the ultimate litmus test.
Tessie Poggione, Director, Major Gifts
In pre-recession 2005, when Poggione joined the Smith Center, there was a palpable excitement about the new arts organization, which translated into substantial contributions. That excitement impressively remained even after the economy faltered. “We have almost 400 donors of $10,000 or more and—this is unheard of—we have an annual fund that started even before the building opened,” she says. The fund’s donors, which number close to 400, gave $100 or less. “They wanted to be part of something that they knew would enhance the quality of the community,” she says. The Smith Center has attracted the interest of those with a love of arts and those who have never before donated to such an organization. “They tell me, ‘I’m not the artsy-fartsy type, but I know what this will do for the kids.” Poggione credits the business plan devised by Martin and Snyder as the anchor for her efforts, giving confidence to prospective donors who wanted to know that their money would be wisely spent. “Their vision,” she says, “really helped in keeping us on course.”
Matt Edwards, Projects Manager
For Edwards, who oversaw more than 2,600 construction workers and numerous design consultants for the Smith Center, the devil was in the details. The overriding objective, he says, was “to instill in every worker’s mind that everything had to be done perfectly—no cutting corners. It’s a tough thing to teach people to do. Everybody wants to do it quickly and get on to the next thing.” He finds it particularly gratifying that the Smith Center is an ecologically advanced building— it has been awarded the highest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified ranking—on what had been the toxic site of a former railroad yard. “It wasn’t just another job,” he says. “We were all proud to be a part of that vision.” That camaraderie was reinforced when the builders were included in various ceremonies that marked different phases of the construction, all of which came in on time and on budget. “The last thing you want to have to do,” he says with a laugh, “is go back to the donors and say, ‘We need more money because we screwed it up.’”
Tim Bavington, Artist
Bavington rarely accepts what he calls “requests.” But the British-born artist readily agreed when the Smith Center’s leaders asked if he would consider creating a work based on Aaron Copland’s symphonic suite “Fanfare for the Common Man.” “I thought it just fit,” says Bavington, who has lived in Las Vegas since 1993. The results are two works: Fanfare (for the Common Man), a five-byeight- foot polymer painting in the lobby of Reynolds Hall; and Pipe Dream (Fanfare for the Common Man), a three-dimensional, 80-foot-long installation of steel pipes in varying lengths in the adjacent Symphony Park. Copland’s music itself guided the works, he says, although the colors and specs of the stripes are not exactly correlated to the length of the notes as in previous works. “It begins with the score as a sketch but then the work becomes adjusted as I proceed,” he says. “For the piece in the park, it worked out perfectly. The score is just under 40 bars [of music], so every couple of feet of the work is a bar.”
Tim Sage, Technical Director
Sage says he doesn’t mind if patrons place high demands on him and his team of technicians. For Sage, what is paramount is the patron’s appreciation of the aural and visual experience at the Smith Center. “You want to define every single instrument and the vocals on top of that—and the audience is expecting us to deliver on that,” he says. “We have to make sure that those who come to the Smith Center walk out knowing that they have experienced a magnificent show on every level.” Unlike arts institutions devoted to one discipline, the center must be versatile enough to accommodate symphonies, dance concerts, Broadway shows, even the occasional wedding. “The acousticians have very carefully designed the house to reflect, refract, and re-route sound,” he says, noting that drapes and doors can be opened and closed to either reflect or absorb sound as the occasion requires. “I want people on my team who’ve failed, and picked themselves up and gone on,” he says. “They know what to expect and to anticipate something before it hits.”
ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL O’LEARY. photography by jared mcmillen (martin, schneider, edwards, sage, bavington); beverly poppe (Schwarz); leila navidi (Ruppert/Poggione)