MUSEUM MURALS DEBATED


The Erotic Heritage Museum sits on Industrial Boulevard next to, but separate from, Déjá Vu Showgirls, a nude dancing club. A billboard for a topless bar towers over its parking lot.

In that environment, it might seem strange that murals featuring nudity would raise eyebrows -- that stretch of Industrial is home to several skin joints, after all, and on the Strip nearby people hand out racier material to tourists on street corners.

And although the museum is kitty-corner to the Fashion Show mall, it's not the kind of neighborhood that families and children are likely to spend much time in.

But last week, Clark County inspectors who were checking on an expansion at Déjá Vu saw the murals and said they probably violated the county's sign ordinance.

"I was actually surprised," said Laura Henkel, executive director of the nonprofit museum. "It's art."

She put a temporary fix in place -- pasties that cover up nipples and pubic areas depicted in some of the pieces.

The situation, however, might raise First Amendment issues if it can be shown that the county is interfering with an artist's free expression rights.

"It was clear to our inspectors that they had violated Title 30 in our county code," said county spokesman Erik Pappa. "Legal counsel is reviewing what they came up with to see if they meet the code requirements.

"Our view is that these are wall signs. They are all part of the signage throughout that complex."

"They are not signs," countered Allen Lichtenstein of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. "There was no violation of anything. This is art."

County code defines a sign as an "attention-gaining device used to advertise products, goods, services or events, or to make anything known."

Signs cannot show aroused human genitals, sexual acts or the fondling of the pubic region, buttocks or female breasts, according to the ordinance. The pubic region, buttocks, female breasts or "male genitals in a discernibly turgid state" must be covered on a sign.

Almost a dozen murals are by several different artists working in different styles. One depicts two exotic dancers (who are clothed enough to meet the county ordinance); another is of a topless woman with playing cards featuring nude women, and there is one representing topless peep show dancers. Those last two are among those found objectionable.

Together, the exhibit is called "Ho/Down," Henkel said.

And she plans to expand it with more murals on other parts of the building.

Lichtenstein said there should be a distinction between signs and public art, adding that the museum didn't have to cover anything.

"They did put covers on them, not because anyone required them to but because they wanted to be sensitive," he said.

The museum opened in 2008 and offers a range of exhibits, including historic and contemporary paintings and sculpture, posters and mementos from the adult film industry, and film clips going back to the earliest days of motion pictures.

The museum is also a satellite campus for the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a San Francisco-based graduate program.

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

 

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