New director of cultural affairs surprised by Las Vegas art scene

Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Las Vegans.

At least she didn’t have to adjust to triple-digit temperatures.

When Ally Haynes-Hamblen arrived in Las Vegas in January to become the director of the city of Las Vegas’ Office of Cultural Affairs, she came from Phoenix-adjacent Scottsdale, Arizona — one of the few places that’s usually hotter than Las Vegas during the searing summer season.

But Haynes-Hamblen’s move from one desert city to another required a different kind of acclimation: from the private to the public sector. In Scottsdale, she was director of the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts; before that, she was general manager and associate producer for New York-based Entertainment Events, the company behind such touring comedies as “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” and “Late Nite Catechism.”

The chance to “work for a city,” especially one “with a compelling vision for art as a catalyst” for economic development and “bringing communities together,” inspired the Denver native, 43, to become a Las Vegan.

We caught up with Haynes-Hamblen in her City Hall office, where she reflected on her new hometown and the chance to be “in the front seat” when it comes to Southern Nevada’s cultural drive.

Review-Journal: In your first months here, what have you observed and learned about Las Vegas?

Haynes-Hamblen: What I’ve found is that there’s a bustling, I almost want to say thriving, arts community that operates pretty much under the radar. … Las Vegas is a worldwide brand — and when people hear “Las Vegas,” they think the Strip. It’s really difficult to compete for attention. As someone who’s been in the arts field for decades, it was a pleasant surprise to find so much happening. But, as a lifelong arts professional, I shouldn’t have been unaware.

What was your reaction to your first Las Vegas summer?

I’m just going to say that it was fortunate I moved here from Arizona, so I was prepared for the blistering heat. But there were a few weeks when Las Vegas might have been a little warmer than Phoenix. One thing I can say: I have really grown to love the fact that Mount Charleston is so close. To escape the heat in Phoenix, it’s two hours in the car to Flagstaff.

What other comparisons have you made between Phoenix and Las Vegas?

Land-wise, Las Vegas is a smaller area, which I’ve really enjoyed. It’s made it easier to learn the town quickly. But there are a lot of parallels. I was there 13 years and when I first got there, there was a bustling art community just on the verge. Now, there’s a blossoming visual arts community and an alternative music (scene). There are a lot of indicators that Las Vegas is about to just blossom.

What do you tell people who consider arts and culture a “frill” undeserving of public support?

Las Vegas has a unique case to present to naysayers, because the arts is one of the key elements that’s helped revitalize Las Vegas, particularly in the downtown corridor. … The Smith Center, the Neon Museum and the Mob Museum — they infused a lot of economic activity with construction jobs … because we were building cultural assets that now employ hundreds of people in the downtown core. … To me, that presents the best case for making a public investment in the arts.

How did you get interested in the arts?

My grandmother was a painter and sculptor. My parents were singers. My grandfather was an actor and my aunts were all performers. It’s kind of in my blood. … I grew up around it and I was always interested in it, either as a performer, then moving backstage. That was my entree into stage management; I have a proclivity for taking charge, from stage management to company management to production management to the type of career I have now.

Do you think the “cultural desert” cliche is true of Las Vegas?

A lot of people that I’ve met say “there’s no culture in Las Vegas.” I almost relish that, because I give them my card and I say, “There’s a lot going on; let me tell you about it.” We are geographically isolated, but I can’t subscribe to the idea of a cultural desert (with) the creativity that’s happening here.

■ What’s the ringtone on your phone?

A traditional telephone ring. I miss the old-fashioned phone.

■ Favorite indulgence?

A very expensive one: a full day at a spa. Especially here in Las Vegas.

■ Favorite vacation destination?

My husband and I love to travel and we have our bucket-list places. We just spent three weeks in Australia and New Zealand. But probably our favorite is the south of France; we seriously considered moving there.

■ Favorite movie?

I sort of have a variety of favorite movies for different reasons. But “Contact,” with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. I lived in Philadelphia when it came out (in 1997) and I saw it with some friends. In the space of a week, I probably saw it seven times. Now, when I reach out (to them), there’s always a “Contact” reference.

■ Daily ritual?

It centers around coffee. A few years ago, we threw out all the automatic coffee makers and switched over to a French press. Now, every morning, it’s kind of like a ritual.

■ Favorite motto?

It’s one that I’ve had ever since college. Something my friends (said) that got me through a rough patch. It’s one of those mantras that I repeat and have used on many road trips: “I am divinely guided and directed, guarded and protected.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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