Tuesday, July 19, 2005 | 8:18 a.m.
Libby Lumpkin is in her office at the Las Vegas Art Museum, discussing upcoming appointments as she turns to look at a calender.
"Today is, hmmm, what is the date?" Lumpkin says under her breath.
"Today's the oh, today's my birthday."
The most Lumpkin musters after this mild surprise is a playful laugh, joking in her southern accent, "There better be a card in mail."
She then added, "I did the same thing last year."
Birthday cake? Maybe. Maybe not. Lumpkin has no room on her plate. More important to the art critic, historian, author and lecturer on this day is that she get some writing done.
Her projects stretch from Los Angeles to New York to Washington D.C., Her mind is in constant motion, possibly blocking that neurological connection that would normally tell one that it was their 54th birthday.
The inaugural and former curator for Steve Wynn's art collection at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, and former professor at UNLV, keeps busy.
Not only is she starting a design institute at the International Institute of Modern Letters at UNLV, she is serving as director of the Las Vegas Art Museum,writing essays for exhibit catalogues, curating a Washington D.C., show and sporadically lecturing across the country.
A typical day, she says, has her waking at 6 a.m., working until midnight, taking no naps and downing "lots of Diet Coke."
"I have other bad habits," Lumpkin added with a smile, "but I'm not going to tell you what they are."
Her return to Las Vegas, with author husband Dave Hickey recipient of the 2001 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" after their tumultuous departure from UNLV two years ago, has colleagues in the field cheering.
The home Lumpkin and Hickey just bought still filled with boxes and no art on the walls is the first home either of them have owned. They've kept no secret about their love of Las Vegas. They plan to stay awhile.
"What interests us is the non-hierarchal social structure of the town," Lumpkin said. "In theory, you can change your social status with the pull of a lever. Blue blood doesn't matter as much as the green of money."
Coming from a tiny Texas town constructed by a societal pyramid where those at the top have been there for generations, Lumpkin said Las Vegas is fascinating.
"You can join the country club and be a member sitting next to LaToya Jackson with her snake," Lumpkin said. "We love that."
And, she said, "These are the kinds of intellectual issues I'd like to bring in people to think about. Anytime there is discourse education and awareness brought to the right level the better we are.
"As this town grows, it becomes more apparent that something serious is going on and there's not enough writing depth in this town."
While dichotomies abound in Las Vegas' social and cultural structure, they're similarly present in Lumpkin's life.
She lectures regularly at Harvard and Yale, yet isn't too big to speak to the museum guild in Texarkana, Tex., when her mother asks.
Her position at Glenn Schaeffer's modern letters program is a paying job, yet her role at Las Vegas Art Museum is that of a volunteer.
"I may be crazy to take it on," Lumpkin said, referring to adding LVAM to her busy schedule. "But I felt that with the potential of this museum to contribute in a profound way that well, they could do more."
So far, the slender blonde with a broad smile, who looks more former beauty queen than overworked scholar, has barely spent more than five minutes in her office at the Las Vegas Art Museum. But she has fearless ambitions about the direction she plans to take the museum exhibits. "We want to do the kinds of shows that the most respected institutions of contemporary art will be showing," Lumpkin said. "And as such, we will be attracting an audience that is out there wanting to find serious art.
"It's just a golden opportunity to advance the notion locally that Las Vegas can become and is becoming a center for contemporary art. The closing of the Guggenheim (large museum) left those with interest in contemporary art disappointed. But there's no reason we cannot be a market, a center for contemporary art."
At the moment, Lumpkin's plans for the LVAM include bringing in more of the contemporary art that is showing in New York City galleries, and use her connections to draw the work of notable artists. Her first official show will be a Southern California minimalist exhibition in January.
It's no surprise that Michele Quinn, director of the downtown contemporary art gallery, Godt-Cleary Projects, supports Lumpkin's new position at LVAM.
"Libby's global outreach is exactly what we need," Quinn said. "It's raising the bar of what Las Vegas can be culturally. We can't afford to see ourselves as a regional community anymore. We're an international city.
"We can't wait to see the show she's going to put together. The museum is such a great space and always had potential. I hope it will draw more attention to that space and maybe garner more community involvement.
"Libby certainly has the expertise, knowledge and intelligence to do that."
Though her official exhibit schedule begins in January, Lumpkin is filling a hole in this year's schedule with an exhibit of works by Michael Reafsnyder, a California artist in his thirties whose playful and richly chaotic abstract works are so dense they almost seem edible.
In January Lumpkin will be showing an exhibit of Southern California minimalist art. A Roy Lichtenstein show is in the works, but the show was planned prior to Lumpkin's arrival. A showing of Sharon Ellis works is planned for later this year.
Community involvement is essential for funding, which has always played a part in what the museum can show. A new foundation and a recent Nevada Arts Council grant, which the museum has to match 2-to-1, prepares the museum for a future endowment campaign.
"Getting the endowment started, that's the hardest part," Lumpkin said. "You can't organize a sculpture show and then realize you can't pay for shipping."
But the museum has a sketchy and somewhat troubled history. Some say certain donors are reluctant to give to the museum.
"She is inheriting a difficult situation because there have been conflicts of interests in the past in their exhibition policy involving board members and staff," Bill Fox, author and member of Nevada's Writers Hall of Fame, said of Lumpkin.
Fox discusses some of the problems the museum has had in his book about Las Vegas, "In the Desert of Desire," to be released in September.
"Anyone who has been involved in professional or accredited art museums around the country would look askance at them," Fox said.
Fox said he has no clue whether they'll allow her to take the museum where she wants, but added, "Libby is a consummate professional functioning at the highest level."
Born in what she calls a "mean little southern town" that was known for antebellum cotton before soybeans, the former cheerleader was a gregarious teen from Texarkana, Tex., who sent herself to Rome during her junior year of college at the University of Texas in Houston.
There, Lumpkin studied with Greek and Roman scholar Giovanni Bacatti. After college, she worked in commercial art for 10 years, drew lawnmowers for Sears, illustrations for armed forces catalogs and sewing machines for K-Mart. She got bored with that and went back to school, hoping to someday work in a museum.
She received her doctorate from the University of New Mexico, where she met Hickey. The two landed in Las Vegas in 1990 when they saw that the city was about to transform culturally.
"Dave basically has a finger in the wind and can see when something is about to happen," Lumpkin said. "He went from New York to Nashville when everything was happening in Nashville. He's a pretty smart guy."
But of moving to Las Vegas, Lumpkin said, "I thought, 'Oh my god,' I just got a Ph.D. in art history. What are you thinking?' "
The two are credited by those in the art community for drawing students to UNLV who are today's hot emerging artists.
"A lot of artists moved here just to study under him," Quinn said, referring to Hickey. "It was something the art world was recognizing. I just don't think Las Vegas knew it. L.A.'s art scene is thriving because of all the graduate programs in art."
But Lumpkin and Hickey left -- some would say were driven out -- and headed for Southern California, where Lumpkin served as a director of a museum studies program at California State University, Long Beach.
"It was a big loss to the university," said Elizabeth Herridge, managing director at Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, referring to the couple's departure from UNLV.
"I'm really delighted that they're both back. I felt their absence. They have a kind of energy ... they really know how to make things happen.
"When I was in graduate school they were held up to be icons. I read his books and heard about her work with Steve Wynn. The people who were teaching me were extremely impressed with these people."
Regarding the Las Vegas Art Museum, Herridge said, "I do hope she will be able to accomplish what she wants to, that the board will support her, that there will be funding and she will not be constrained in any way."
Karen Barrett, managing director of the museum who is now in charge of fundraising, sees Lumpkin's arrival as an opportunity.
"She has the best possible connections in the world," Barrett said. "The board totally supports her and the direction she is taking."
In line with what Lumpkin proposes, Barrett added, "Once you get the upgrade in product, the funding will go forward."
And local collector Patrick Duffy, who is now on LVAM's board of directors, said that the "erratic tenures" the museum has endured have been "righted" by Barrett and board president Gerald Facciani.
"As a collector, I see a new need to bring this museum to the next level," Duffy said via e-mail. "This with curatorial, directional acumen. Together with Libby, Karen and Jerry the museum is now poised to prudently move to that level.
"Libby invariably captures the vision now needed in our museum and in time, Las Vegas will see a metamorphosis of shows that will speak to many different subjects and audiences while still maintaining a unity. I mean, after all, there are 1.8 million people we owe this to."
Along with the upcoming contemporary art exhibits, Lumpkin wants to bring in design shows that will feature costume design, works on paper and architectural design.
That and the minimalist exhibits will likely contrast recent exhibits at the museum that featured works by Sante Fe, N.M., artist Phyllis Sloane, late sculptor Frederick Hart, neo-classical painter Walter Girotto and works of LVAM's honorary chair and former director, Joseph Palermo.
"I've already gotten a phone call from someone who said I was a snob and that the show is not going to work," Lumpkin said. "I'm not worried at all because I know what I'm doing."
James Mann, the museum's curator-at-large, known for his focus on art after post-modernism, said he welcomes Lumpkin's arrival.
"There is in the making, a complex of convergent ideas," Mann said. "She has her strengths. I have mine. They should be mutually supporting.
"I think it can be a very exciting and intellectual ferment. Different viewpoints on contemporary endeavors can become engaging. It's sort of like, may the best art win."
Over at UNLV the situation might seem awkward for Lumpkin, who left after being told that she didn't have collegiality and Hickey was transferred to the English department, or as he says, "I was sort of invited out of the art department."
Hickey, whose article on Disney World appears in August's Vanity Fair, plans to again teach classes in UNLV's English department and "write books." He is still, however, adjusting to his new home.
"I'm living in a house in the suburbs," Hickey said. "I haven't really adapted to that."
But, he said, "I'm happy to back. It's a nice town. And the guy who moved to L.A. before us got the last parking space."
On returning to UNLV, Lumpkin said, "I'll be in the college of liberal arts this time and I foresee no problems."
"I feel like someone just handed me the keys of a Ferrari and said, 'Here, see how fast it would go.' It's been my dream for a long time to establish a design institution in Las Vegas because design is so important to the culture of Las Vegas."
Of Las Vegas, she said, "We're sticking around even if I have to park cars."