Las Vegas Sun

November 17, 2018

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Columnist Scott Dickensheets: Smallworks, big dreams

"IT'S A BIT boingy right now," Kathleen Nathan says, looking down at the artwork of Manuela Filiaci as it lays curling on the floor of the Smallworks Gallery.

"Boingy" may be the sole word that not only precisely describes the springiness of Filiaci's just-unrolled scrolls -- bright, lyrical abstracts -- -- but also the atmosphere in the Smallworks Gallery.

Smallworks is a clutch of sunlit, white-walled chambers upstairs at the Arts Factory on Charleston Boulevard; locate the ground-floor tattoo parlor and go straight up. The boingy mood stems in part from the thrill of a new venture (the gallery opened in November), but also from the sense that this venture is new -- or newish, anyway -- in another sense.

Smallworks is a commercial art gallery that's going about it all wrong, which is what makes it seem right. No trendy Southwestern art! No framed prints by Neiman/Dali/(celebrity artist's name here)! No frame shop! It has the we'll-hang-what-we-like vibe of a nonprofit gallery. And some of the art is actually the work of talented locals.

It seemed to me, as I watched Nathan and Stanford repaint their walls, that this is probably the future of the arts in the coming post-grant era. Sooner or later, congressional philistines will manage to scuttle the National Endowment for the Arts. With it, I'm certain, will go a lot of other granting sources. It will then be essential to yoke quality art to business savvy without weakening either. Smallworks is a smallstep in that direction.

So, how's it going? "We did real well (with the last show)," says co-owner Jim Stanford. Sold nine pieces! "We almost broke even!" OK, so the future isn't now. But they're trying.

Stanford and Nathan have long been mainstays in the Contemporary Arts Collective. "We were always sitting around commiserating ... 'They should make a real art gallery,"' says Nathan. "Well, who's 'they'? We thought we'd be they."

"We already know what it takes to run a nonprofit organization," Stanford says. "The next step is this. We have a lot to learn, but we've already learned a lot." The main lesson: It's no longer simply about art for art's sake. "We're actually into selling objects," Stanford says.

So, as they make their way through the no-galleries land between the determined eclecticism of a nonprofit agency and the sales imperatives of a for-profit shop, here are a few words of warning: Winged Horse Gallery; Mark Masuoka Gallery; Culture Dog Gallery. Noble failures all, impressive skeletons on the same path Smallworks is traveling. Their absence illustrates the peril of cultural commerce in a town that rarely expresses its admiration for the arts by actually buying the arts.

They have certain hurdles to clear: Can they cultivate a paying clientele for local artists? After all, collectors want bankable names.

Then there's the location. It's downtown, and downtown is just so ... downtowny: a little gritty, a little bum-littered, a lot out of the way. Strip mall Las Vegans are loath to go anywhere they can't park by the door.

"You always have doubts," Stanford says. "That's one of the motivating factors, isn't it?" Well, that and a good boingy feeling.