Chatting about local arts scene with arts advocate Brian Paco Alvarez

Step into his living room (it’s all the art on the walls).

Then out onto his balcony (it’s the vista of downtown Las Vegas).

Then know this is one serious, arts-loving dude.

“Some people have called me a cheerleader,” says 37-year-old arts advocate Brian Paco Alvarez. “Call me what you want. I’m proud of my unwavering support for the cultural arts in Nevada.”

You know the arts scene? Then you know Paco, as his friends call him.

Native Las Vegan. Urban historian. Exhibit curator par excellence, as well as curator of the Las Vegas News Bureau archives, with its 4.5 million photos. Major collections he assembled include those at the ex-Liberace Museum, Neon Museum and Hispanic Museum of Nevada. He has served on the boards of many valley museums and foundations, currently advises the Contemporary Arts Center, the Music and Arts Society and the Las Vegas Railroad Society, and writes the Las Vegas Arts and Culture blog.

His opinions on art and culture are highly regarded. Here are some of them:

Question: Before arts questions, some personal ones. Is Paco your real middle name?

Answer: No. Paco was given to me in junior high school. We all had nicknames and I used to like wearing Paco Rabanne cologne. I don’t think I’ve worn it since I got out of junior high school.

Q: Of all the art on your walls, which were painted by you?

A: Anything that looks like a Lego or very Tetris or very architectural is my work. The rest are things I have collected. I used to love building things. I wanted to be an architect. I am trained as a draftsman. All the great artists were draftsmen: Picasso and da Vinci and so many others. I understand the importance of using pencil and paper.

Q: Can you explain how your views on art and culture are influenced by an interest in Native American spirituality?

A: They look at the world very differently than Westerners. The artistic forms of Native Americans are fascinating. When you study it, you understand the pottery they’ve made, you look at the Incas and their fascinating tapestries. They don’t create just for creation’s sake, they create because they’re spiritual. And they’ve been able to bring art as a spiritual form of expression.

Q: Beyond painting, do you get a creative charge out of curating exhibits?

A: When I curate exhibits, my heart and soul are in them. One of the most satisfying moments I’ve had was in 2002 when we opened the Liberace Museum after the remodeling. I created a timeline of Liberace’s life. I watched 5,000 people come through and I started tearing up because people were bottlenecking in front of it. That was my first major exhibition, and I was like, “This is what I want to do for a very long time.”

Q: What’s your overall take on arts and culture in this state?

A: I believe Nevada is two states. We are historically and geographically and culturally different from Northern Nevada here in Southern Nevada.

Q: Can you break it down?

A: Reno has an amazing arts scene, they’re more organized, have a longer tradition and are more invested in their arts scene than we are. They learned a long time ago they can’t compete with our casinos so they’ve embraced public art and culture. Go anywhere in downtown Reno and you find art.

Elko has cowboy poetry. Fascinating! It’s not the cowboy culture we’re used to in Southern Nevada, which is the NFR. That’s one little part of being a cowboy. There is cowboy art and poetry. Their entire culture that revolves around the land. This is something all America needs to see. Ely has a fascinating mural program, more murals per capita than any other place in the world. In Eureka, Nev., there’s the Eureka Opera House, completely restored. Fascinating culture, it’s all over our state.

Q: And Las Vegas?

A: Vegas is just beginning to get it. In the early 2000s, things started changing. First Friday has become a cultural phenomenon with thousands of people every month, whether it’s what’s in an art gallery, or kids break dancing in the street or a girl playing Lady Gaga on her electric violin. It’s awesome. It’s culture.

Q: How has the recession impacted downtown?

A: The best thing that happened was the real estate market collapsing. It stopped all of the bulldozing of buildings, people getting these crazy zones to build high-rises. Everyone was able to breathe. It’s given people the opportunity to invest here. The Economic and Urban Development Department, they’ve been exceptionally proactive with the mayor’s office and the city manager’s office to encourage small businesses to open. You have little supermarkets and restaurants, creating a culture unique to downtown. Las Vegas finally has a culture people are protective of.

Q: In a city more about tourism and gambling than art and culture, why is this important?

A: To build a future foundation in this city, we have to have the arts. It’s not just because it satisfies our human ambition for pretty things, but it’s economics. We’re not going to attract the dot.coms or the creative class if we don’t have investment in the cultural arts.

Q: A lot of expectations for the promotion of the arts are being placed on the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Is too much being expected?

A: The Smith Center is to Las Vegas what the Metropolitan Museum of Art was to New York in (1872). New Yorkers realized that for their city to be a great world capital, they needed a world-class museum. I’m sure I could go through the archives of the New York Historical Society and find newspaper articles full of people criticizing the Met.

The Smith Center is a true legacy project, that building is being built to last 300 years. It’s being analyzed, whether it’s too expensive or overfunded or tax breaks. Twenty years down the road, no one is going to care. They’re going to say, “We have this world-class theater at the level of La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.” I can’t wait until the bells start tolling and I can open my doors and listen to that.

Q: How would you rate Oscar Goodman on his impact on the arts scene?

A: On a scale of one to 10 I’d give Oscar 110. He’s made a few comments disparaging the arts scene and that’s just Oscar, we expect it from him. But we’ve watched him tirelessly encourage people to move downtown. Telling them that we have an arts district has been huge. He’s acknowledged we need art and culture and bookstores and cafes and restaurants and that we need the gay community. He gets it. That’s the beauty of Oscar Goodman. And that’s the beauty of his wife continuing that legacy.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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