Smith Center Aims to Put Las Vegas on Culture Map Glitz Capital Finally Has Venue to Display the Performing Arts

By Nagourney, Adam | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Smith Center Aims to Put Las Vegas on Culture Map Glitz Capital Finally Has Venue to Display the Performing Arts


Nagourney, Adam, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


LAS VEGAS -- It rises 2 miles from the flash and hustle of the Strip: a swirl of Italian marble, Indiana limestone, Venetian marble and zebrawood, topped by a 16-story campanile with 47 bronze bells. There is an acoustically tuned stage designed for orchestras and Broadway shows, a warren of grand chambers with inlaid wood and sweeping desert views, and Art Deco touches meant to recall the last ambitious engineering feat in the Nevada desert -- the Hoover Dam.

When the Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened in Las Vegas in March, Jennifer Hudson was on the program and Neil Patrick Harris was the master of ceremonies. But it was Joshua Bell, the classical violinist, who drew the most applause from the homegrown audience, cheering what seemed a moment of arrival for a city whose cultural association is more likely to be Liberace than Liszt.

"That was the defining moment for me: Yup, they got it," said Elaine Wynn, the former wife of Steve Wynn and a director of Wynn Las Vegas, recalling the emotion that swept over her as the audience applauded. "For me to go see Yo-Yo Ma and the Brazilian guitarists in Las Vegas -- I mean 20 years ago, that was unheard of."

For more than 25 years, Las Vegas has laid claim to being the entertainment capital of the nation. But it has presented a very specific kind of entertainment -- elaborate, mass-market, big- ticket showstoppers like Cirque du Soleil, Elton John, Celine Dion and Siegfried & Roy. And it has been aimed at a very specific audience: tourists who come to the Strip, as opposed to the people who live here.

Las Vegas had the unwelcome distinction of being the largest city in the nation without a major performing arts center. In 2010, The Daily Beast named it the dumbest of the 55 largest cities in America.

The Smith Center, with its dazzlingly ostentatious architectural ambition -- very much in keeping with the nothing-is-too- extravagant spirit of Las Vegas -- has set out to change that. The center cost $470 million and took 33 months to build. A delegation of Las Vegas civic leaders toured concert halls around the world -- La Scala in Milan, the Opera House in Budapest, Carnegie Hall in New York City -- in search of inspiration as they conceived what was in effect their dream hall to be built on this 5-acre plot on a former brownfield.

"In many ways, we've been the tale of two cities: the entertainment capital of the world and the city where people live with their families," said Myron G. Martin, the president of the Smith Center. "I don't think anyone would dispute that Las Vegas did its best job at taking care of tourists."

"This is a community that has been on the list of the largest cities in North America without a major league sports team, an academic medical center and a world-class performing arts center," he said. …

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