Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Scenes, created and defined by particular social settings offer a central activity that help to focus community interaction, a sense of purpose and of being in the right place. This dissertation is about the grassroots development of an art scene in the most unlikely of places – Las Vegas, a city sociologists have often described as having an isolating character with an outward focus on tourism, a weak civic culture and social fragmentation, resulting in an individually-focused and socially isolated population.
Using the multiple techniques of ethnographic research, this work comes out of: (1) conversations with early visionaries, (2) participant observation and (3) a wide assortment of secondary data, both local and national. My ethnographic account of the development of the Las Vegas art scene highlights the efforts of early visionaries, internal conflicts over its design and implementation (gallery walk or festive block party) of the monthly city-wide First Friday event and activities within the Arts District, the impact of a corporate revitalization of the Entertainment District in the old downtown area (Downtown Project), and the sudden purchase of the non-profit First Friday trademark by the managing conglomerate connected to the Downtown Project.
This study has four key findings. First, I found support for the idea that the Las Vegas art scene can be interpreted as a response to the isolating, and individualizing character of Las Vegas. With a monthly gathering of massive crowds within the 18 blocks of the Arts District, also called the “18b,” First Friday has become a type of temporary community focused upon an organized focal experience for a wide variety of artistic styles through authenticating cultural and aesthetic activities and experiences. Second, the burgeoning arts culture of Las Vegas has formed a loosely organized social world for participants to share meaning and interests and at times conflict, such as the polarization around a long standing internal conflict regarding the implementation of First Friday (arts walk vs. street festival). Third, the Las Vegas arts community is an important repository for social capital, especially if more social venues are developed where friends" and acquaintances can meet, talk and relax (Oldenberg 2001). At the same time, while third places, such as The Arts Factory or The Funk House will be necessary to maintaining the 18b, it is unclear if the Arts Distinct, in and of itself can ever become a ‘big third place” (Borer 2008) like that of the Entertainment District in old downtown. As long as resources are directed primarily to the Downtown Project and the downtown area is marketed as a “to be seen” tourist destination, the 18b will not rise to the level of a city-wide destination. Fourth, the promotion of Las Vegas as a center for the arts is premised on the idea that the commodification of art has the power to engage and transform [cities]. However any “meaning” construed from the consumption of art must depend upon the life history and/or experience of the consumer, and while art has a strong influence on those who create art and for some who see it, art also marks hierarchies and social distancing. Art (gallery, public street murals etc.) alone, however, cannot change the economic climate when those without social capital have to live at a basic survival level.
Art Scenes; Cultural Sociology; Ethnography
Goldberg, William, "The Birth of an Arts Scene" (2016). UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. 2673.