Friday, Aug. 20, 2004 | 4:58 a.m.
August 21 - 22, 2004
Beneath her calculated words, warm voice and relaxed appearance, it seems there is a wild sense of humor steadily bubbling in Elizabeth Herridge.
Managing a museum with a notorious name that's in a casino in a city known for taking hits from outside art communities, she takes criticism well and she's very sincere. But at the same time, she seems capable of standing her ground, should you cross her unfairly.
In July the former New Yorker and Wellesley graduate (who majored in French, then later received her master's degree from Christie's Education in New York) celebrated her one-year anniversary as director of the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Sun: So here you are. You had spent much of your career working on Wall Street.
Elizabeth Herridge: That's right. When I came out of college in the early '80s, the only job I could get was on Wall Street. From there I just moved progressively up the ladder and had good opportunities. After 17 years I decided I've had enough. I had been wanting to do the master's degree program at Christie's in connoisseurship and the art and auction market and finally had the chance to.
Sun: What brought you to Las Vegas?
EH: My husband retired, also from Wall Street, and he built a house here and we decided we would just come here basically to escape taxation and enjoy the weather.
Sun: Did you have any expectations when you moved here?
EH: I was concerned that there would not be much opportunity for me here because I was moving away from one of the art capitals of the world -- New York. So it was with some trepidation, but you know, here we are. I have a lot to be grateful for. This is an incredible city. I really believe everything is possible here and anything can happen.
Sun: Before the Guggenheim Hermitage, you had volunteered at the Las Vegas Art Museum.
EH: I was part of a group of people who participated in something called Suitcase Gallery, which is a great outreach program for at-risk kids. Then I started to do a little work here at the Guggenheim, part time.
Sun: What are your plans for the museum?
EH: This museum was originally envisioned as a tourist attraction when it opened and I'd like to move away from that. Not that I'm ungrateful to the visitors to Las Vegas, because they've been very consistent with us. They really are the ones who pay our bills.
But we are a not-for-profit educational organization, and so I feel we have an obligation to the community ... to do more extensive outreach beyond a school program that we do now.
Sun: Local attendance is pretty low?
EH: We have about a quarter of a million people who visit us each year. Between 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 percent of the total attendance is by locals.
Sun: Does that surprise you?
Sun: Does it disappoint you?
Sun: Why the low turnouts?
EH: I can't tell you that I understand why. I think there's a kind of culture here that people say, "Well, you know I don't go to the Strip unless I work there or I've got people from out of town visiting."
I'm sure there are good reasons for all of these things, but to have a major art museum on your doorstep that is in partnership with another major world art museum ... maybe they're just not interested.
Sun: Do you think it's the nature of the city?
EH: It just draws people from so many places and interests, and I'm just not sure museums are at the top of their list. But I know that there are a lot of people in this town who want this to succeed and us to succeed, and they want the ballet to succeed and the philharmonic.
Sun: Do you get tired of the mantra that Las Vegas is not an art city?
EH: (Sigh.) Well, I don't like pessimists. I have to say that I am a realist though, and I understand that there's that component in the audience and it's my job to change their minds. I think it was fashionable, or perhaps acceptable would be more accurate, to say this previously. I don't really think this is the case anymore.
Sun: Las Vegas does seem vulnerable to attack by the outside art communities.
EH: I think it's because we're doing something very innovative here and very dynamic and it could go in a number of directions and still be very successful, and a lot of people who are more established or entrenched in their own art communities perhaps envy this kind of freedom and pioneering creativity that we're enjoying. We are not a city of established institutions in the way that perhaps some other cities are. We have a lot of choices and that makes it very exciting, but for some people very scary.
But I'm not scared ... All these naysayers I think are going to be eating their words.
Sun: You receive no money from New York.
EH: All the money that it costs to operate this place, and that's a seven-figure budget, I have to find here -- from admissions and what we make in our retail shop.
Sun: Do you tailor your exhibits to Las Vegas?
EH: Everything we do is specifically designed for Las Vegas and for this venue in particular.
This is a show about people enjoying themselves and having a good time. I think that's what people come to Las Vegas for, and so we are trying to depict through these four themes ways in which people have fun or ways in which one pursues pleasure, enjoyment, whatever.
Sun: Could this show also be seen elsewhere, such as the Art Institute of Chicago?
EH: In Chicago, with all due respect to my fellow Las Vegans, they are more sophisticated and perhaps more used to seeing very different types of art. We find that this audience is conservative in terms of their taste and that they want to see old masters and that they want to see art of a certain age.
If we try to do the things that are too contemporary, we find that people are more skeptical because they may or may not accept that this as art.
I don't let the audience dictate what I'm going to do, but we have to get people in the door so I don't think I could show ultra-contemporary art at this time, successfully.
Sun: "American Pop Icons" didn't do well?
EH: That was not well attended, though it was critically acclaimed and I thought it was a beautiful show. It was thought at the time it would be an ideal show for Las Vegas. But I don't think people are ready for that. If that show had been taken to our venue in Berlin, I think it would have done very well there.
We had to backtrack after that basically and say, "Well what is it people really want to see?" So we came up with this "Renoir to Rothko" which was ... visually very beautiful and had some really iconic paintings in it, like Picasso's "Woman with Yellow Hair." We had some really exceptional work and people seemed to understand this. They got it.