On Friday afternoon, Heather Harmon walked out to the parking lot behind The Smith Center for the Performing Arts at Symphony Park and stood there.
“I think this is going to become part of my daily routine when I’m back here for good,” she said. “Coming out and standing here, connecting with this space.”
That space marks the eventual location of Las Vegas’ first standalone art museum, Nevada Museum of Art.
Harmon, a 42-year-old Las Vegas native, is the museum’s newly appointed deputy director. The move follows years of discussion and planning for a downtown museum, and the merger eight months ago of local museum planners and the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.
On her first trip back to the city since accepting the position, Harmon made the rounds visiting with city officials, county commissioners, friends and family.
“The overall temperature has been so warm and welcoming,” she says. “Everyone is excited. I’m realizing that being the steward of this incredible gift to the community means that my biggest responsibility will be listening. And that’s what I’m here to do.”
Harmon officially begins in her new role on March 1. It will be her first time living in Las Vegas since 2001, when she graduated from UNLV with a degree in art history.
After UNLV, Harmon earned her master’s degree from a competitive Art Theory and Criticism program at Art Center College of Design in California.
From there, she traveled halfway around the world, with stops in New York, the island of Ibiza and Vienna. She brings with her experience working in world-renowned galleries, building exhibition spaces and fundraising for museums.
Most notably, she brings a love for the city and people of Las Vegas.
“I’ve done several building projects from the ground up,” Harmon says. “But this one is so significant to me as an individual. Just being from Las Vegas and being someone who studied art here and grew up in a city without a museum — what a huge legacy project it is to give an art museum to a city that I love so dearly.”
The Nevada Museum of Art in Las Vegas will be part of a statewide expansion of the Reno-based Nevada Museum of Art.
Last year, David Walker, CEO of both locations, launched an international search for a deputy director for the Las Vegas museum.
It became increasingly clear to Walker that Harmon was the ideal candidate. “Our paths had crossed several times over the years. First when Heather was working as gallery director at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. Then in Ibiza.”
“I was working directly with artists on an exhibition and sculpture park for Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberte in Ibzia,” Harmon says. “When you have artists guiding you in how you build a space, you get these open conversations about how to present their work. That’s what I want to do with the museum here.”
For Harmon, a museum in Las Vegas isn’t just an amenity, but a necessity. “Art teaches you how to problem-solve, how to think in different ways and understand other people’s cultures, time periods, languages, their positions. My life would have been so different if I had had a museum to go to when I was growing up.”
While the search for a director will come later, Harmon’s hiring marks the first boots-on-the-ground efforts for the museum.
“She’ll be busy 60 hours a day,” Walker says. “She’ll be the voice of the museum down there, working with us to continue building community relationships, doing research involved in fundraising, building consensus and identifying future trustees.”
Special to, and for, Las Vegas
Harmon wants to be clear. Nevada Museum of Art in Las Vegas will not be a replica of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. She says her next steps will be to take the temperature of the city, and determine what residents want from a museum and how best to represent them.
“Las Vegas has a large African-American community, which we don’t really have in Reno,” Walker explains. “I’m really excited about what that means to the identity of the museum.”
Harmon follows: “It’s a diverse 2 million people here. That representation will fundamentally change the nature of the museum.”
In its 85 years, Nevada Museum of Art in Reno has contributed projects throughout the state.
“Tilting the Basin: Contemporary Art of Nevada” brought the work of 35 Nevada artists from Reno to Las Vegas for a two-month pop-up in March 2017.
In May 2016, Ugo Rondinone’s “Seven Magic Mountains” was installed in the desert off Interstate 15 south of Las Vegas, and it continues to draw more than 1,000 people a day.
“It’s a remarkable piece of art,” Walker says. “People with no art background, who don’t read art magazines come to it with a smile and a sense of joy and the feeling of transformation when they leave.”
The towering technicolor boulders’ two-year run was extended last year.
Harmon hopes Las Vegas’ Nevada Museum of Art will be one more big push in elevating the city to the caliber of culture in other major metropolitan areas.
“A lot of great art cities function through collaboration,” she says. “Here, we have so much support from our art community — even artists I went to college with like Tim Bavington.”
Las Vegas is a city where every discipline is represented: graphic design, architecture, photography, entertainment and more.
“It’s so much a part of daily life,” Harmon says. “You grow up looking at this visual cacophony and it really informs you.”
Connecting with young people
A secondary goal for Harmon and Walker is educational outreach.
She plans to continue efforts to provide students and young people with access to art by way of pop-up events and conferences. She’ll also work alongside Clark County School District teachers to enhance the arts curriculum.
“There is a real potential to touch people here,” Harmon says. “Museums changed my life.”
“It’s in both of our DNA,” Walker says, turning to Harmon. “I love history. But I love the future a lot more. I think we have tremendous potential in Nevada to really look into the future.”
Many years in the making
Eight years ago, Katie O’Neill joined the board of directors of what was then known as The Modern Contemporary Art Museum, an early iteration of a Las Vegas art museum. The goal was to build The Modern in downtown’s Arts District.
The great-granddaughter of legendary casino magnate Benny Binion, O’Neill endeavored to bring her love of art to the city that she loves.
“I grew up without an art museum,” O’Neill says. “It’s important to me to give back to the city that’s been so good to me and given me a good life.”
In 2015, when the project moved to Symphony Park, O’Neill became president of the board for the rebranded Art Museum of Symphony Park.
The city contributed $2 million plus the 1.2 acres of land and fair market value of any parking facilities the city dedicated to it, according to Bill Agent, the city’s economic and urban development director.
At that time, Art Museum of Symphony Park board members began talks with Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art about a merger, which was completed last May.
This month, Governor Steve Sisolak included a $5 million “special appropriation” request in support of the museum’s statewide expansion in his 2019-21 budget.
Now, Nevada Museum of Art’s goals are fundraising, assessing what the Las Vegas community wants in a museum and selecting an architect.
“A lot of work has been done setting up a solid foundation to hire Heather,” says O’Neill, now chairwoman of the Las Vegas museum committee. “Las Vegas is the largest city in the country without an art museum. It’s a major resource we’re lacking.”
The immediate goal is to raise $12 million by the first of October in a 2-1 match with the city of Las Vegas, which includes the site at Symphony Park.
“That’s our next major milestone,” Harmon says. “We’re hoping to find one single donor who sees the importance and contributes that.”