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September 1, 2014

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Dave Hickey and Libby Lumpkin say goodbye

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Jacob Kepler

Art critic Dave Hickey, left, developed talented art students at UNLV. His wife, historian Libby Lumpkin, brought national attention to the Las Vegas Art Museum as its executive director by landing important contemporary exhibits from major collectors and museums. Both are departing this summer for positions at the University of New Mexico.

They were adored, fawned over, hated, respected, energizing and revered. They brought hope, insulted the city and loved the city. They were negative, positive, cherished and polarizing.

And now they are leaving. Love or hate them, there is no arguing that Dave Hickey, famous art critic and genius-grant recipient, and Libby Lumpkin, art historian and curator, will go down in Las Vegas history.

There was Hickey's controversial stint in UNLV's art department, where he nurtured talented artists and aggravated colleagues.

There was Lumpkin's role in the first fine-art gallery on the Strip — Steve Wynn's collection at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art — which helped expand the perception of what could be a tourist attraction.

There was her leadership of the Las Vegas Art Museum, bringing it national attention with important contemporary exhibits — suddenly, major collectors and museums were sharing their work with Las Vegas.

As internationally recognized art-world figures, the couple's residing in Las Vegas alerted the intellectual community from here to Europe that something was happening in the desert other than 24-hour fun and fine dining.

Now they're off to New Mexico; Lumpkin has been made a tenured professor at the University of New Mexico. Hickey will teach art there.

A piecemeal crating and shipping of their art collection and books begins, followed by a garage sale, and the couple will hit the road back to the state where they met, when she was Hickey's teaching assistant.

Any parting words? "I love Las Vegas. I love our house," Hickey says. "But in 20 years you don't have any friends. You don't have any support from the school. I guess I ought to admit that I've screwed up. This is the first time I left a work situation not better than when I came. I haven't been able to make a dent in this pedagogical community ... Carol Harter's running creative writing. Mark Burns is running art." (Burns, who lampooned Hickey in a recent book, declined to comment; Harter couldn't be reached by press time, and UNLV wouldn't comment.)

Says Lumpkin, "I'm not looking forward to leaving. I have a lot of friends here and have had the opportunity to work with some of the most interesting people."

Hickey, author of Air Guitar and The Invisible Dragon, and a contributor to Vanity Fair and Harper's, first came to UNLV as a visiting professor, then was hired by then-president Robert Maxson, who Hickey says wanted him to "shake up the art department."

"In two and a half years, Bob's gone, Carol Harter doesn't want to shake up anything. The university steps back. I went from a good guy to a bad guy overnight."

In 2001, Hickey received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a "genius grant." Eventually, he and Lumpkin, author of Deep Design, left for Long Beach, California. Two years later, in 2005, they returned. Hickey was hired into UNLV's English department, and Lumpkin took over as Las Vegas Art Museum's executive director. The museum took a nosedive with the economy, closing in 2009. Lumpkin recently worked as curator for the The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health (she'll continue as a consultant).

Hickey says he has no plans to write about living here. Why? "I was wrong about things. I thought you could build on something here. I thought it was a little less-covert city. I didn't understand what being a Mormon meant, what Opus Dei meant. They sort of exercise a lot of negative power here. Improving the intellectual reach of graduates has been my task. I have done that, but they have nearly all left town. There's no intellectual critical mass here."

Still, he says, "I'll miss it. We had fun here. Not many 70-year-olds pick up their whole life and move. Albuquerque is just closer to my friends. That's kind of a big thing when you get to be an old guy."

— Originally published in Las Vegas Weekly

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