Christian Mayeur was on a photo scavenger hunt when he took his first trip to Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 2014. The French entrepreneur and art collector had been making visits to the American Southwest for over twenty years, initially drawn to the region for its ties to counter-culture movements and land art. He’d experienced Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field but never wandered through this village of about thirteen thousand on the road to Denver.
His son’s interest in American cinema was what finally brought Mayeur to Las Vegas. Known as America’s oldest film location, Las Vegas has hosted hundreds of film crews since the early twentieth century. Its streets have appeared in silent Westerns, box office hits such as Easy Rider and Red Dawn, and recent TV series, including Longmire and The Bridge. Camera in hand, Mayeur hunted down local spots where the Coen brothers shot the Oscar-winning movie No Country For Old Men.
“For example, the Plaza Hotel is the Eagle Pass Hotel in the movie,” Mayeur says. “Las Vegas is a city between the real and the fiction, which I really loved. A lot of people have seen Las Vegas in movies, but they don’t know it’s Las Vegas.” He returned to Santa Fe that evening but couldn’t resist another journey to Las Vegas the following day. That was the beginning of a chain of events that led Mayeur to renovate a historic building on the Plaza and create a commercial gallery and artist residency there.
Established in March 2016, Mayeur Projects is a few doors down from the Plaza Hotel in a storefront space with two exhibition rooms and a little office. Around the back is an apartment, which is an Airbnb rental when it’s not housing artists-in-residence. From these humble but historically rich headquarters, Mayeur and his partner, Anne Poux, are helping plant the seeds of a cultural revolution in Las Vegas.
“The idea is to put Mayeur Projects and Las Vegas on the map as an international hub of contemporary art,” Mayeur says. The city has seen other white cubes come and go, but none have declared such an ambitious and far-reaching charter at inception. Two and a half years and eleven exhibitions after the gallery’s grand opening, Mayeur and Poux have already made remarkable progress. With a growing contingent of allies and collaborators across the city, the gallery has tackled the complex work of forging meaningful links with major art centers across the United States and Europe. At the same time, they’ve eagerly engaged in a local conversation about the past, present, and future of Las Vegas.
Anne Poux is brutally honest about her first reaction to New Mexico. “For me, it was quite disturbing—uncomfortable—because it was so huge,” Poux says. She visited the state for the first time in 2016, and the cinematic vistas that Mayeur found irresistible were dizzying to her. “In France, or in Europe, you don’t have such emotions,” she says. “Everything was coming back, all the things I had read about the Western United States when I was a kid. When you’re looking at the landscape, all the stories are there.”
Poux grew up in Marseille, with a father who was an architect and several family members who were artists. Mayeur is from a village in Northern France and didn’t have much exposure to visual arts in his youth. “But I was an artist myself, always drawing and painting. For me, art was a way to escape from my environment,” Mayeur says. Poux and Mayeur have known each other for twenty-five years and have been together for five. She had a career in publishing, while he’s the founder of a creative consulting firm that paired artists with corporations, nonprofits, and city governments for seminars and workshops.
“[The company] was always a little bit hybrid. We worked with people who wanted to develop a disruptive vision,” Mayeur says. “We told our clients, ‘If you work with an artist, you don’t know what will happen; the artist doesn’t know; we don’t know. But something will happen.’” Mayeur’s plan to move the business overseas and set up a multifaceted headquarters seemed like the perfect way to embrace this philosophy. As Poux explored Las Vegas, she started to envision the transition as well. “I discovered it much more each time I came,” she says.
“When you arrive, it’s like an empty space,” Mayeur says. “Little by little, you discover all of these layers of history, what happened in the city.” The building they chose for the project represents several important chapters in this legacy. After Mayeur expressed interest in buying the structure, his real estate agent sent over a stack of documentation on its history. “It’s arguably the most historic building, not only here but possibly in the whole state,” says Roy Montibon, a local artist who regularly works as a contractor for Mayeur Projects. “This is where General Kearny stood on the roof and said, ‘This is now the United States of America, and if you don’t like it, we’ll kill you all. Welcome to America.’”
Montibon had his own less-intentional brush with the film industry when he arrived in Las Vegas about ten years ago. He and his partner, Julie Tumblety, who’s also an artist and works part time as the gallery manager of Mayeur Projects, moved here to escape rapid gentrification in downtown Los Angeles. “We’d lived in LA for about five and a half years, so we were used to walking by these big trailers that said Burbank Star Wagons,” says Montibon. “The day we arrived in Las Vegas, I went for coffee, and on the way there, I saw all of these trailers that said Burbank Star Wagons. I hadn’t slept for, like, two days, so my brain’s going, ‘Wait a minute, are we still in LA? What happened?’”
Early in their time here, Montibon and Tumblety bought and renovated three historic buildings in West Las Vegas. It was a grueling process, but it helped them find their way to the center of the local creative community. For a while, they ran a gallery in one of their buildings that hosted community art shows and events. “When you arrive in Las Vegas, and you’re in the arts field, Roy and Julie are the first people you meet,” Mayeur says. The two couples bumped into each other at the Plaza Hotel saloon on the same day that Mayeur closed on the building.
Mayeur and Poux’s move from France to New Mexico is still very much in process. They spend the majority of the year in Europe but fly to Las Vegas for nearly every Mayeur Projects opening. On a recent trip, they were carrying precious cargo. “To be frank, we took small pieces, small works, in the suitcase,” Mayeur says. Their moment as international art mules was a literal representation of the gallery’s mission. The concept is to bridge Las Vegas with the larger art world—particularly creative centers in France.
“In France, there are a lot of people like me,” says Christian. “They’ve seen the Southwest; they’re interested in the American counterculture. New Mexico is a little bit specific, though. People know that it exists, but when we tell them about Las Vegas, they say, ‘Wow, what is this?’”
After its opening in spring of 2016, Mayeur Projects dove headlong into its primary undertaking. They engaged French artist Virginie Mossé to be the first member of the gallery’s stable and brought French photographer Frank Perrin to Las Vegas for a three-week residency. French art critic Paul Ardenne was another resident, along with Los Angeles artist Zoe Crosher. Last summer, Mossé and Perrin appeared in a group show with well-known New Mexico artists Paula Castillo and Jill O’Bryan.
“When you arrive, it’s like an empty space,” Mayeur says. “Little by little, you discover all of these layers of history, what happened in the city.”
More recently, O’Bryan and her husband, Charles Ross, teamed up for a show in the space. “As a fan of land art, I didn’t imagine twenty years ago that I would have Charles Ross one day in our gallery,” says Mayeur. Ross is currently working on a land-art piece not far from Las Vegas called Star Axis, which Mayeur first visited in 2000. It’s nearing completion after more than 40 years of construction, with an official debut tentatively set for 2022.
In addition to pairing established artists from here and elsewhere, Mayeur Projects has shown local, emerging artists in exhibitions like Outrageous, a group display of political art they hosted after the 2016 presidential election. “I think it has really raised the level of sophistication here,” says Tumblety. “The art that they show, a lot of it is quite conceptual. It takes some thoughtfulness and time and conversation to understand what’s going on.”
Selling conceptual art is a tough way to make a living in a small town, especially one that’s better known for its history than its contemporary culture. “Apart from these values, we are also a commercial gallery,” says Poux. “We have to make something sustainable. We are on both sides.”
Montibon unlocks Mayeur Projects on a Sunday (at present, the gallery is only open Friday, Saturday, and by appointment) and paces the larger of the two exhibition spaces. A show by the artist duo Michael and Sharon Demcsak fills the walls, anchored by a gridded installation of abstract paintings that they created side-by-side.
It’s hard to imagine a well-heeled collector swinging through Las Vegas to scoop up this massive installation, though the Demcsaks are open to selling the paintings individually if necessary. Kick-starting an art market demands a lot of flexibility and still more patience. “It’s very risky,” says Tumblety. “Even in a really solid art market—you have to have some staying power. I don’t know exactly how many years it takes to get settled in. We’re in an outpost, where you don’t have the crowds coming through.”
Except at the gallery’s openings, which have been steadily picking up steam. As everyone at Mayeur Projects often points out, Las Vegas is “dead center” on the route from Denver to the tiny art mecca of Marfa, Texas. Collectors from art cities across the West have started showing up at receptions. The Demcsaks pulled a two-hundred-person crowd that hailed from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Montibon has been working with Mayeur, Poux, and the University of New Mexico’s Land Arts of the American West program to design “art expeditions” that would guide European collectors through Las Vegas and to land artworks across the Southwest.
At the moment, the Mayeur Projects residency program is perhaps the clearest manifestation of the gallery’s connective ethos. “The contract we have with the artists is to work with some dimension of the Las Vegas community,” says Mayeur. “It may be the people, the history, the cinema, the landscape. They can choose what they want.” The current resident, Colombian painter Alejandra Hernández has been weaving text about her experiences in Las Vegas into her compositions.
Mayeur and Poux have also struck up a collaboration with New Mexico Highlands University that provides studio space and resources from the school in exchange for engagement with the NMHU community. After a short bout of culture shock, Hernández started building connections and producing a new body of work. It will debut at the gallery on September 14 in a show titled Maybe I am a lost soul, but I like this place.
“It’s really a new page of her work,” says Mayeur. “She came with some ideas of what she would do, but when the artists arrive in Las Vegas it often changes their mind and they do something new.” Poux adds, “It’s like a birth for us. At the end, when we show Alejandra’s works, that is a complete experience for her, for us.”
So far, Mayeur Projects has been self-funding its residency program, but an upcoming resident will arrive with a very important source of funding. French new-media artist Arnaud Dezoteux received a grant from the Institut Français, a public institution that funds outreach projects related to French culture, for a residency in the United States. “Until now, many artists ask for residencies in New York City or LA,” says Mayeur. “He decided to apply for Las Vegas, New Mexico. Now the Institut Français knows we exist. We are on the map now.”
Mayeur Projects lingers in the murky overlap of fact and fantasy: between the Wild West mythology of Las Vegas, its current reality, and the city it aspires to be. Mayeur believes that art has the power to help people traverse the gaps. “Like art, human life—real, rich human life—is made of a mix of reality and fiction,” he says. “Experiencing art is a way to be human.