Heather Harmon is a Las Vegas native and the Deputy Director of the Nevada Museum of Art, Las Vegas. As a child, Harmon didn’t grow up with art. It wasn’t until her teenage years, when she was exposed to a group show of video art and artist Michael Heizer, that she began to develop a sense of patronage and support for art and artists.
Harmon began thinking about art seriously when she was working on her undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She studied under art critic Dave Hickey and explored the works in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. This is when she began to explore what was possible, art-wise, for the city of Las Vegas.
After working in New York for the past several years, Harmon returned home to Las Vegas to work on the project of a lifetime—becoming the face of the initiative to open up the Nevada Museum of Art, Las Vegas.
I spoke with Harmon about her plans to incorporate voices from the community into the $250 million dollar project and the shift in how Las Vegas views art and its locals.
Have you noticed a shift in the city’s attitude towards art and community in the last decade or so?
When I was growing up, when you wanted to go to a nice family dinner, you went to The Strip. It’s the antithesis of people thinking that we all live in hotels, but you know, right now it’s shifted in a way that it’s a more locals-oriented town. There’s more activities for locals. There’s more offerings for locals. There’s world-class restaurants that are not on The Strip. There’s off-The-Strip activities. We have the Golden Knights. We have the soon-to-be Raiders. We have the Aviators. That’s the biggest shift I’ve noticed since leaving and coming back, there’s been this offering like, “here locals, the city is also for you.”[Locals have] always been the workers. We’ve always been the infrastructure. We’ve always been the support for the city, and now it’s nice to see that that support is spilling over and rolling back to us. Now we’re supporting the city, and the city is supporting us, and it’s becoming a locals oriented place, and what that will really do will help us become a stronger city, so that when we face the next 2008 it won’t have the same economic effects on us.
Why do you think Las Vegas was missing an art institution like this for so long?
We’re a very young city, in our defense. We haven’t had the hundreds of years of growth that a city like New York or even a city like New Orleans has. Las Vegas, in terms of how old we are, is a baby in comparison. We’re coming into the natural maturation of the city. … The infrastructure was built fairly recently, and museums and institutions don’t happen overnight. There were many voices that were a really important part of this conversation that, without previous institutions, our efforts today wouldn’t be possible.
It wasn’t that the conversation [about art] wasn’t there. The conversation has been really active for a long time. It’s just that we needed to build it and have all of the right people involved. We have the help from the incredible Nevada Museum of Art. We have the support of the city. All of these things that were coexisting are now coming together in full force.
How do you plan on incorporating voices from the community?
We’re going to do it in two distinct ways. Through programming, so that means we’ll have multiple exhibitions happening at once, and that programming will cater to that really diverse audience, and it won’t just be about contemporary art, or historical art. It will be about the multitude of layers that you need to have to serve your community as a fine art museum. So that’ll mean mixing time periods, mixing ethnicities, mixing types of art, mixing media. For us to truly reflect our community in the museum, we’ll have multiple exhibitions and multiple layers of programming happening simultaneously.
Then we’ll have the really rigorous educational programming that we have in Reno down here. We’ll recalibrate that. It won’t be plug-and-play, and we won’t have the exact same thing that we do up there, but our director of education, Marisa Cooper, will come down and really help us form an educational program that’ll work for this audience. The demographics are really different. You have a large part of the population that’s Spanish speaking, and there’s a large African American population, and we have to be able to reflect all of those demographics in our programming, so maybe that means you have an activation that’s art and music, you have an exhibition that’s a tribute to all of the Native Americans that we have here and that we have deep in the history of Nevada. Really mining our history and deeply looking at the community and catering to what they want to see in terms of art is the way that we’ll do it.
What do you think art does for people, especially when they see themselves reflected in the work?
I think art is truly transformative. I think that we’re in a particular time of intensity: geopolitical intensity, emotional intensity, feelings of displacement, being connected to your phone 100 percent of the time. We’re living in an increasingly challenged world, and as those challenges are met, art is one way that we can communicate with each other. … Art can help us be kinder to one another. It can help us unlock a culture that may be scary or unfamiliar to us. It can help us wrap our heads around complex ideas and help us process and problem solve. It gives us all of these emotive skills that we need to arm ourselves with when dealing with the future and also dealing with our present. Learning about kindness, learning about acceptance, tolerance, a world that may be completely unfamiliar to you. Art helps us get through the complexity of life and helps us become better critical thinkers.
The Nevada Museum of Art’s architecture committee is in the process of conducting a search for an architect and hopes to select one by the end of 2019. The museum’s opening is still a few years away.