Neon sign collector Will Durham mimics the “Van Ess Auto (Welcome Sign)” at the NMA.
Neon sign collector Will Durham mimics the “Van Ess Auto (Welcome Sign)” at the NMA.

When Will Durham was growing up in Reno, he had trouble sleeping. He hated to be the last person awake, and to help himself fall asleep, he would look toward downtown and see the glow emanating from the neon signs there, and he would take comfort in knowing that not too far away, there was a bustle of people still wide awake.

Years later, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as many of Reno’s iconic casinos—like the Harolds Club and the Mapes—and other businesses, were torn down, Durham began collecting the businesses’ neon signs.

“All of a sudden, there was this urgency—like, ‘If I don’t do this, then it’s not going to be preserved,” says Durham.

Originally, Durham collected the signs for the purposes of historical preservation. The signs were mementoes of Reno’s mid-century heyday as a gambling destination. But he was also drawn toward the signs for their appealing designs and expert craftsmanship.

“The more I looked at the stuff, it occurred to me that it was artistically significant as well [as historically significant], as examples of 20th century design,” he says.

He began conceiving of his collection as a potential gallery exhibition. This eventually led him to connect with the Nevada Museum of Art, and Durham and museum employees did an extensive restoration project of the signs for an exhibition currently at the NMA titled The Light Circus: Art of Nevada Neon. The show features neon signs from Nevada casinos, like Reno’s Harolds Club, the Mapes and the Nevada Club, and Las Vegas’ Sahara, as well as signs from other iconic Reno businesses like Parker’s Western Wear, and the relatively recently closed, but no less legendary, coffee shop Deux Gros Nez. Many of the signs will spark the memories of longtime Nevadans.

“A great thing about this show is that it inspires so many stories and personal recollections,” says Ann Wolfe, the NMA’s curator of exhibitions and collections.

The show also employs a museum’s inherent power to elevate the perceived quality of an object just by placing it in a gallery setting. Though these signs are aesthetically appealing—with their crisp lines of neon tubes, bright colors and bold shapes—they’re not traditional gallery artworks.

“Does the fact that they were made for commercial purposes detract from their value as art objects?” asks Durham. “I personally don’t think so.”

He points out that part of the appeal is the neon itself, a mysterious material, a gas that glows when electrified, and a material not used commercially as often as it was half a century ago. The Truckee Meadows used to be lined with shops doing neon signs; few remain.

“It’s a dying art,” says Durham.

One drawback of the elevation of artworks formerly relegated to the ghetto of commercial objects is that the vast majority of the signs remain uncredited. The artists who crafted them remain anonymous, though the works themselves represent an important period in the history of Reno and Nevada.

An art show of neon signs is a uniquely Nevadan venture.

“I don’t know of another museum ever mounting an exhibition like this,” says Wolfe. “But of course there’s not another state with this kind of legacy of neon.”

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