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October 17, 2018

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Government:

Cultural Affairs Department going into ‘foster care’

Las Vegas Natural History Museum 20th Anniversary

The animatronic T-Rex dinosaur shakes his head during the 20th anniversary celebration at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum Saturday, July 16, 2011. Launch slideshow »
Dale Erquiaga

Dale Erquiaga

Shifting entities

• The Division of Museums and History will move under the Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, which was previously the Department of Tourism. That will become a cabinet-level agency for the first time.

• The Nevada Arts Council, which hands out grants through its board, will also be under Tourism and Cultural affairs.

• The Nevada State Library and Archives will go under the Department of Administration

• The Nevada State Historic Preservation Office will go under the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

The state’s Cultural Affairs Department dies Oct. 1 after an 18-year run — the latest victim of budget cuts.

To preserve the functions of the agency — state museums, grants for artists, historic preservation and archived information — state officials said they had to cut off the head.

The elimination of the department will save about $1.1 million over the next two years, and $1.3 million every two years after that, according to the budget office. Most of that is in personnel costs.

The divisions will still function, but as part of other departments.

“We’re sending them to a place to be cared for, without further harm,” said Dale Erquiaga, senior adviser to Gov. Brian Sandoval and a former Cultural Affairs director under Gov. Kenny Guinn.

He said the moves are temporary, until the state comes up with a permanent plan and hopefully has more money. “The way I look at it, these divisions are in foster care,” he said.

A year ago, the agency’s proposal to meet a 10 percent budget cut target would have closed four of the seven state museums indefinitely.

Today, the facilities all remain open, though only four days a week. And a new museum of Nevada history, from prehistoric through the mob days, is scheduled to open in Las Vegas on Nevada Day, Oct. 28.

The $51.5 million Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, was commissioned during boom times, and will open with the help of the Las Vegas Valley Water District at the Springs Preserve.

The plan to close the department was made by Sandoval’s administration and passed by the Legislature this year.

During the past four years of budget cuts, the agency saw some of the steepest cuts. Workers in the department were cut from 40-hour workweeks to 32 hours. The state restricted library and museum hours.

The woolly mammoths that once roamed Nevada’s great basin have a tough time competing against education, public safety and health care for the poor and elderly.

“We have finite dollars,” Erquiaga said. “We have to make those decisions, and education, health and human services and public safety will always come first.”

Even advocates for the department understand its dissolution.

“What people are trying to do is save what we’ve got left,” said Guy Rocha, a former state archivist who retired in 2009.

Mike Hillerby, a former chief of staff to Guinn and director of the department, said, “I have to acknowledge a little personal sadness. It was nice to have a cabinet-level agency looking after various parts of culture in one place.”

But, he said, he doesn’t expect average citizens to see major changes in services. “All government has to do more and more with less and less,” he said. “These are challenges of our time that every agency faces.”

The Museums, Libraries and Art Department was created in 1993 during a reorganization of state government by then-Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat.

Rocha said it was anticipated that bringing the four sections under one umbrella agency would result in cost savings, and bring “synergies” — museums working with archives working with historic preservation, etc.

But what started out as a bare-bones top gradually grew, and at a rate faster than the divisions that performed the “cultural functions” the administrators oversaw.

Rocha, who worked for the state for 28 years, said that despite some earnest efforts, the four divisions never coalesced around the Cultural Affairs banner.

“Ultimately, people will welcome the breakup,” Rocha said. “Whether these are the best locations for the agencies, the verdict is still out. Let’s see.”

And some appeared ready to debate where they best fit within state government. Secretary of State Ross Miller made a bid in 2009 to have Cultural Affairs brought under his office; the Legislature rejected the proposal.

Erquiaga said officials want to develop a plan for culture and history around the state sesquicentennial in 2014. By then, Erquiaga said, he hopes the state will have more money. He called the closure “unfortunate,” but said, “out of adversity comes creativity.”

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