From Dust to Dreams

The Story Behind The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

Groundbreaking celebrations, May 26, 2009


By Alecia Westmorland, Communications Manager, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

Nearly 20 years ago, a small band of community leaders convened at the Golden Nugget to discuss an issue troubling many across Southern Nevada: Las Vegas remained the only major city in North America without a world-class performing arts center.

“I had lived in other communities with vibrant arts scenes, and really felt the lack of that kind of facility here,” recalls Dr. Keith Boman, one of the 60 stakeholders at the table.

Little did these individuals know what would come of their discussion.

Defying critics’ doubts that Vegas could afford or sustain a preeminent performing arts center, the Southern Nevada community came together as never before to make it happen.

In an inspiring effort spanning 17 years, local visionaries collaborated with multiple tiers of government, charitable organizations, and individual supporters to plan, design, and construct The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Nevada’s first, and only, performing arts center of international caliber.

Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, and exceeding 2 million ticket buyers, the nonprofit Smith Center has surpassed all expectations.

“This took so much collaboration and cooperation, it could only have happened in Las Vegas,” says Boman, now vice chair on The Smith Center board.

The Core Team

The project began with a series of gatherings throughout the mid-1990s.

Civic leaders, including Steve and Elaine Wynn, Dr. Boman, Nancy Houssels, and Don Snyder envisioned a facility that would bring the arts of the world to Las Vegas and introduce Las Vegas artists to the world.

Organizing the Las Vegas Performing Arts Center Foundation, they began reaching out for the support they knew wouldn’t come overnight.

To help, they brought on consultant Myron Martin, whose pivotal role would lead to eventually taking the reins as Smith Center president and CEO.

“The Smith Center happened against all odds,” Martin says. “We raised $470 million dollars during the greatest economic downtown downturn in our state’s history.”

Unexpected Partnerships

This occurred through a rare combination of public-private support.

The city of Las Vegas played a predominant role. To the team’s surprise, the city council passed a memorandum in 2003 to provide not only land, but also infrastructure, parking, and environmental clean-up for the project.

Then-Mayor Oscar Goodman had been hoping to pursue a project like this for some time.

“It was always our goal to have the finest performing arts center imaginable,” Goodman says.

On top of this, the project team successfully lobbied the city, the state legislature, and Clark County to all collaborate on a car rental tax to help fund the center.

“We didn’t think our chances were very good,” Martin says. “But everyone, at every level, said yes to the 2 percent tax, which helped fund half of this project.”

Private donations proved crucial, as well – especially from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

This support also came as a surprise.

“The Reynolds Foundation Chairman, Fred Smith, said, ‘That’s a really great project, but that’s not what we do,’” Martin recalls from 2005. “We thought that was the end of that.”

Three months later, however, Smith approved a $50 million donation, securing the facility’s name as The Smith Center.

Fundraising advanced with the support of 57 community members, The Smith Center’s Founders, each donating $1 million or more.

The 2007 recession curbed contributions, however, potentially forestalling construction for years.

That is, until The Reynolds Foundation stepped up once more to donate another $100 million, ensuring the construction’s timely completion.

The foundation’s combined gifts total totaled one of the largest philanthropic donations in U.S. history.

“The Smith Center is The Reynolds Foundation’s legacy,” Martin says.

A Timeless Design

The Smith Center team faced another responsibility: designing the structure.

They approached this by embarking on a tour of renowned venues across North America and Europe, including Palais Garnier in Paris, the Musikverein in Vienna and La Scala in Milan.

The group picked leading designer David M. Schwarz to incorporate their findings into an art deco design.

“We wanted it to be a timeless, elegant building that looked like it had been here for some time,” Martin remembers. “I think we accomplished that.”

Transforming Downtown

Stakeholders were divided on where to build the center, Boman recalls.

While some advocated for the suburbs, the idea won to position it downtown eventually won out.

“It was meant to be a community resource,” Boman says. “For that to work, it had to be in the middle of downtown.”

So even if some might have felt doubts, during the construction began on the former Union Pacific railroad yard.

The Smith Center’s opening night on March 10, 2012, however, heralded a new era for downtown – and for Southern Nevada.

Hosted by Neil Patrick Harris and broadcasted nationwide by PBS, the opening night gala featured renowned artists such as Carole King, Willie Nelson and Jennifer Hudson.

“Opening night is something that I will always remember,” recalls Board Member Michael Yackira. “The amount of entertainment that was here, coupled with seeing this place in its glory for the first time, was incredibly memorable.”

Many celebrate The Smith Center as helping advance downtown’s revitalization, including Goodman.

“The Smith Center has contributed to Las Vegas becoming the world-class city that we want to be,” he says.

Five Years of Victories

Since opening its doors, The Smith Center has surpassed all of its initial goals.

These include presenting artists from across the nation and the world, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis.

It has brought numerous Tony winning Broadway shows, such as “Wicked,” and even launched two national Broadway tours, “Kinky Boots” and “Motown: The Musical.”

“The Smith Center has extended Broadway all the way to Las Vegas,” Martin says.

It has also produced all-new works.

This includes partnering with Teller and the American Repertory Theater on a reimagined “Tempest,” followed by producing its first original musical, “Idaho! The Comedy Musical.”

Pollstar Magazine even ranked The Smith Center as one of the top 10 theaters in the world.

The greatest accomplishment, Martin says, is providing a resource where people of all backgrounds share unforgettable experiences together.

“We said we would create a living room for Las Vegas, and that’s what we’ve done,” he says.

Expanding Arts Education

The Smith Center has made still more impact, through its Education and Outreach programs provided at no cost to participants.

“When I was in the fourth grade, I went on a field trip to Houston’s performing arts center, and that field trip changed my life,” Martin explains. “We knew we needed to give kids in this community the same opportunity to be inspired.”

Thanks to ongoing public support, The Smith Center has done so.

Its efforts include presenting educational matinees to 348,100 local students, and helping 25 Southern Nevada schools create sustainable theater programs through its “Disney Musicals in Schools” program.

Its “Southern Nevada Wolf Trap” program has trained more than 1,000 community educators on implementing arts-based teaching methods.

The Smith Center further created the Heart of Education Awards, honoring outstanding Clark County School District teachers, as well as the Nevada High School Musical Theater Awards showcasing talented young performers.

“Education is in our DNA,” Martin says.

A Lasting Presence

The Smith Center will remain part of Las Vegas’ cultural landscape for generations.

Its board and executives have many plans brewing, including exploring more new works, creating additional outreach programs, and presenting more top-tier artists from around the globe.

“Imagine if we could do all that we’ve done in five years, what the next 20 and the next 50 and the next 100 are going to bring,” Martin says.

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