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Las Vegas' arts scene shines brighter than the Strip's neon

Just two miles from the Strip, pulsating in all its neon splendor, a nationally known ensemble, the Waverly Consort, is singing Elizabethan madrigals and airs accompanied by musicians playing a period lute and recorders. Dressed in austere gowns with minimal jewelry, the women could have stepped out of a painting by Raphael, and there is not a tuxedo, microphone or glitter-encrusted set in sight.

To most of the area's 20-million annual visitors, culture in Las Vegas means entertainer Wayne Newton, the Siegfried & Roy magic show and the Liberace Museum, home of the world's largest rhinestone.

But "beyond the neon," as a city promotional package puts it, lies Las Vegas' best-kept secret _ a small but burgeoning arts scene. It represents a serious effort in a community desperate to shake off the inferiority complex that goes along with its Sin City image.

The catalyst for this development is the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a school with a swelling student population of 19,000 that is bent on proving that it is not just a shell for its Runnin' Rebels basketball team. Many of the biggest names in classical music _ from Itzhak Perlman to Leontyne Price _ have played Vegas as part of the university's Charles Vanda Master Series.

Las Vegas also boasts dozens of resident arts organizations, including the respected 19-year-old Nevada Dance Theatre, the Nevada Opera Theatre, a symphony orchestra and several chamber music ensembles. The university-based Sierra Wind Quartet was recently praised in the New York Times as a group that "discourages the usual image of Las Vegas as a purveyor of sin, bad taste and tough college basketball."

Even the Clark County Library system has its own chamber music orchestra.

At the same time, a small cadre of visual artists has sprouted amid the neon and chaparral to take advantage of the good light and cheap studio space. Some, such as painter and sculptor Michael Lee McCollum, who has lived in Las Vegas for two decades, say that they draw inspiration from the gaudiness of the Strip. "It still knocks me dead," said McCollum, interim dean of UNLV's year-old College of Fine and Performing Arts.

Others, like ceramic artist Deborah Masuoka, who opened a gallery with her husband last year, say that their surroundings have the opposite effect. Masuoka makes haunting clay rabbit heads, some of them 6 feet tall, that appear to have been carved out of desert rock. "I think I try to compensate for the glitz," she said.

Art critic Dave Hickey, who taught at UNLV last year and plans to return there next fall, is excited about the area's potential for developing a vibrant art scene. "It's a great improvisational culture," he said of Las Vegas. "There are no critics, no beautification board, no museum."

Hickey believes that this wide-open attitude could turn Las Vegas into another SoHo, despite the seeming incongruity of the environment. "The enemies of an art scene never have to do with vulgarity," he said. "They have to do with entrenched ideas about taste."

So eager are officials and community leaders to promote local artists that their works cover walls in libraries and other public buildings, including McCarran Airport, where travelers waiting for their baggage can choose between playing the slot machines or looking at paintings. Outside the airport is a striking, multicolored fiberglass sculpture of a vaquero astride a bucking horse by New Mexican artist Luis Jimenez.

As many Western cities experience hard times, Las Vegas is booming. The population of Clark County has doubled in the last decade to 741,000, and until the recession struck, the area was welcoming upward of 4,500 new residents a month, many of them either retirees or people drawn by the recent push to diversify the Las Vegas economy.

Low real estate prices and the absence of state income and corporate taxes have helped attract such companies as Citicorp, which recently moved its billing operation to Las Vegas.

"When CEOs come here, they ask, "What is the quality of life going to be for me and my family and my employees?"' said Roger Thomas, a board member of Nevada Alliance for the Arts, an arts advocacy group. "Good culture is part of their concern."

Increasingly, these executives are flocking to the Vanda Master series, which has a younger audience now than it did when it was launched in 1976, UNLV officials say. Recent attractions have included the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, the Sofia (Bulgaria) Philharmonic Orchestra and the chamber music group, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The stars of the Bolshoi Ballet and pianist Emanuel Ax will appear next season.

With 1,000 subscribers, the series has become something of a tradition.

Arts organizations say that the vast proportion of their audience consists of local residents, although they hope eventually to attract spouses of conventioneers, visitors taking a break from gambling or guests of one of the four new major hotels that do not have casinos. Still, Richard M. Romito, the energetic director of UNLV's performing arts center, estimates that the three stages on campus draw only about 0.5 percent of the tourist crowd.

"We don't kid ourselves that we are competition for the big tourist hotels," said Romito, who functions as UNLV's impresario.

Indeed, local arts promoters claim that many hotel and casino operators see high culture as a distraction, if not a threat. Last session, gaming interests helped block a bill in the Legislature that would have increased the room tax by 0.5 percent to boost financing of the arts, said John Smith, past president of the Nevada Alliance for the Arts.

Hotel managers, however, deny that they are worried about losing casino patrons to such activities as the symphony. "The arts programs provide a better living environment for the people who live here," said Tom Bruny, spokesman for Bally's Casino Resort. "We don't view them as any kind of threat at all."

Strong financial support for individual arts organizations has come from some hotel operators, including Stephen and Elaine Wynn, of the Mirage and the Golden Nugget. In a state that ranks 53rd out of the 50 states and six U.S. territories in subsidies of the arts, the need for private monies is especially critical. Currently the state spends only 31 cents per capita on direct arts financing (less than one-third of the national average), although Gov. Bob Miller has proposed to increase support by 26 percent.

A 7{-month strike by the Musicians Union ended last year with the hotels' winning unrestricted power to replace musicians with taped music. Soon after, an estimated 19 percent of the musicians left town and those who remained have mainly been forced into other occupations.