Anthony Bondi’s standalone archive of Las Vegas arts from 1990 to 2015 recalls the Underground and the Committee for Public Safety, and sheds a light on the city’s cultural amnesia.
LAS VEGAS, NV—Anthony Bondi stands on the porch of my studio space in a thick fleece trench coat smoking a cheap cigarette. His white beard and hair waft like puffs of smoke in tonight’s chilly brisk rain and scattered wind.
We’ve been talking for hours and he’s about to leave when he lays his theory on me about the current popularity of murals.
“People are used to consuming most of their visual information on a three-inch screen,” says Bondi. “A mural is the exact opposite of that.”
These types of insightful observations over the years have stoked my admiration for Bondi. Anthony (or “Tony”) is what podcaster Dan Carlin refers to as “a fan of history,” and what I tend to call a folk historian.
In the years I’ve known him, we have discussed the history of cultures ad nauseam—from the iconographic wars of the Byzantine Empire to media failings during World War I. Bondi, thanks to his valuation of history, has produced something notable: a singular catalog of articles on the history of Las Vegas art.
It may seem odd to refer to a database of media coverage on the arts as incredible, but if you are a practicing artist in Las Vegas, you know how sparse the documentation of the arts has been. We are a city that constantly erases its history. We hold nothing sacred, least of all the thing our civilization has come to call “art.”
Las Vegas Arts in Print Media, 1990-2015—an impressive collection that digitally lives online and physically resides at the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, where visitors can pore over print articles—includes stories, graphics, and fliers across a wide swath of genres, ranging from artists and galleries to creative businesses and independently produced radio stations. Blasts from the past include the late musician and deejay Doug Frye, Enigma Garden Café, and the Committee for Public Safety, a collective that fostered and supported hundreds of arts and culture events in the 1990s.
I sat down with Bondi, an artist himself, to talk about the archive and the history he lived in a cultural scene so often forgotten. In this conversation, you will see names and places that no longer exist, but if you dip into Bondi’s online archive, these venues and people will become familiar as the generators of culture in Las Vegas’ fledgling art scene.
“An active culture has been arranged around downtown and elsewhere for a long time,” says Bondi, who relays that Las Vegas has a sort of cultural amnesia. We have little accessible documentation of our art’s past and, as a result, little reference to our art’s future.
“If I know that I’m occupying a stream, then I’ve got a different attitude about my progress than if I think I’m the only one and the first,” Bondi adds. “In that context, the generations of artists who rise and fall might as well have been interchangeable. And that’s a terrible, terrible thing to have to say.”
This experience of erasure and repetition is Bondi’s source of frustration. He bore witness to the art scene’s inception in the late 1980s, and saw the coffee culture of the ‘90s collide with punk, which created a grimy DIY culture separate from previously failed attempts to validate art in the city.
Bondi saw a culture that was disconnected “from the never-ending efforts to get legitimate. ‘If only we had a birth certificate, then we would be real people or whatever.’ It was hopeless. It wasn’t ever going to be welcome. So we have the diploma, we have a certificate, we have the legitimacy and we would treasure it, and if somebody doesn’t match any standards, that’s the end of that conversation,” Bondi explains. “And so that created a silly elitist perspective that was intimidating to the next artist. We saw a different culture develop that wasn’t connected to those [and] to the previous efforts that had been made to develop stable institutions.”
He tells of a late ‘80s party at a long-dead venue that was the catalyst for the new art movement.
“I believe in 1989. At the Arts Factory, which was not… the Arts Factory at that time,” says Bondi about the arts complex that housed the Underground, which Bondi calls “the primary institution at the time for pop culture.” Bondi continues, “They decided that after ten years of the Underground thriving, it was a fair idea to have a tenth anniversary party located out at the university.”
“This was a room full of creative people, musicians, visual artists, whatever they may be. They wanted to know, ‘Do I want to be part of a community looking across the room?’ And suddenly it was vividly clear that this party was a heads up to this whole undefined community. Look around here, folks, what do you think about this downtown?”
From that party, the infant art scene went from crawling to running even if its fontanelle was a little soft. A coffee shop called Enigma Garden Café—opened by Julie Brewer, who’s a co-founder of First Friday Las Vegas—became the crucial and central gathering spot for the new guard of artists, poets, and weirdos.
“In ’92 or ’93, she opened it unknowing at all about who the local artists might be, who this thing was oriented toward. She only knew that she wanted to build a place that she would enjoy. [The artists] coalesced around some of the migration from the other community, the developers of the poetry community around Maryland Parkway, which wasn’t visually oriented, but sure was a cohesive new culture.”
Like many art scenes, it lasted a while before falling in on itself.
Bondi lives a sort of science fiction nightmare when it comes to Las Vegas arts, where he watches recurring loops of people, without local historical knowledge, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
“The general public perception about the Enigma closing was, ‘Look, our community cannot support a coffee shop in downtown Las Vegas, so should we try if they couldn’t succeed?’”
Bondi lives a sort of science fiction nightmare when it comes to Las Vegas arts, where he watches recurring loops of people, without local historical knowledge, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. He observed the same cycle in the early 2000s ten years after the Enigma went away.
“Jennifer Cornthwaite opened her art coffee shop, The Beat, downtown. I don’t know that Jennifer had any awareness that she was following somebody else’s footsteps. And after [a ten-year gap], how could you say there’s continuity? So if it wasn’t continuity, then it was the same? Let’s get born again. Let’s get born again. Let’s get born again over and over again.” In the end, the Beat would meet the same fate as Enigma Café, the Underground, and the Arts Factory, which today is a collection of substandard galleries and a trendy restaurant that serves “Mexican street corn.”
Still, there’s a lot of history that likely can’t be repeated, including different groups forming and producing once in a lifetime happenings.
“There was an overarching kind of group called the Committee for Public Safety, which had no dues and no nothing, but it was a group of people who said, ‘Hey, let’s all support ourselves and our mutual efforts.’ So if a poet wanted to do a reading somewhere, they could call the Committee for Public Safety. And oh, ‘Here’s your sound, here’s some video, maybe some visual elements associated with the performance,’ and so of course there’s mutual support. The Committee for Public Safety, over some span of years, presented 200 events.”
Without institutional support, Bondi has documented an art history that, though little regarded, now has deep historical ramifications. Las Vegas deserves its own cultural narrative and Bondi is here to provide a piece of it. Bondi, whose archive contains more than 700 articles, is open to receiving any historical records of the arts in Southern Nevada.
“I don’t know how big the thing would end up being if it becomes attractive to other people [who hold their own archives] to contribute through for the sake of a cohesive and comprehensive history of various cultural threads,” he says.
No matter the size, LasVegasarts.org has wonderful research and cultural value that sheds light on a missing piece of Las Vegas.