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The phrase "art in Las Vegas" typically brings to mind velvet Elvises and the classic Impressionist paintings at the Bellagio. But that's changing. Walk through Las Vegas' gritty new arts district on a Friday, and you'll be forced to change your opinions of America's neon capital. It's authentic, not ersatz; grass-roots, not corporate; walkable, not sprawling; and while some of it is still pretty kitschy (hey, this is Vegas), some of it is even edgy.

The big night in the arts district is the first Friday of every month, when a street party takes over Casino Center Blvd. between Imperial and Charleston between 6 and 10 PM. Local bands sprout up on every corner, townhouses turn into small art galleries, tents sell unwieldy and disturbingly delicious bags of kettle corn for $5, and the entire population of the local arts high school mills around critiquing each other's paintings and sobbing into illicit beers. Spray-painted murals depict the "new arts scene" as a nubile showgirl, waiting to show her high-kicks to folks from all over the world.

The incubators for this up-and-coming scene are in three buildings converted to complexes of artists' studios. The biggest and best is the two-level Arts Factory (101-109 E. Charleston Blvd.; tel. 702/676-1111; www.theartsfactory.com), with more than a dozen gallery/studios. You're sure to find a few of them open any Wed-Fri between 12 and 4 PM. More artists hole up at the former Holsum Bread Factory, four blocks west on Charleston towards I-15, and at Commerce Street Studios at the corner of Utah and Commerce five blocks south.

The art varies from downright awful to pretty good; it's generally figurative, and when we were there we saw a lot of portraits or caricatures of celebrities. (Perhaps that's the Las Vegas influence -- even the artists are starstruck.) There's only one guarantee: all the artists are local, and they range from the very young, such as the Chagall-influenced Jennifer Main, to KD Matheson, who has been exhibiting locally for more than 20 years.

The Arts Factory's own heart is the Contemporary Arts Center (tel. 702/382-3886; www.cac-lasvegas.org), a nonprofit collective founded way back in 1989. When we stopped by they were displaying "Human Inhumanity," an ambitious if heavy-handed anti-war political installation piece.

One block west on Main Street, two galleries fly the flag for uncompromising, New York-style contemporary art. Step into the whitewashed Godt-Cleary Projects (1217 S. Main Street; tel. 702/452-2200; www.godtcleary.com) and you'll believe you're in Manhattan, where Las Vegas native Michele Quinn went to learn the trade before bringing her erudite tastes home to the desert where she grew up. Dust Gallery (1221 S. Main Street; tel. 702/880-3878; www.dustgallery.com) focuses more on the top echelon of local artists, though they throw a few New Yorkers into the mix.

"We're pretty much a New York gallery," says Quinn, whose recent shows included a set of etchings by minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. "I never thought I was going to come back [to Vegas], ever, but Vegas has been this amazingly fast-paced, growing city. In the last five years, it has finally evolved, picked up the pace, and become a more urban environment than suburban."

If you're going to go, go soon. CAC vice president Brian Alvarez said he's watched the Arts District come up from urban blight to artists' haven, but he's worried it won't survive the influx of high-end condos being built in the area. He's seen what's happened to New York's SoHo and Williamsburg, districts that once teemed with studios but are now inhabited by European shipping heirs and twenty-something transplants with jobs on the fringes of the "media industry."

Developers want to flatten several blocks of the district for upscale towers, Funkhouser said. Quinn, however, sees opportunity in projects like the H.U.E. Lofts at Art Central (http://www.huelofts.com) -- they may bring locals who actually buy art to the scene.

Where To Shop

There's a bit of shopping in the district, too. Colorado Ave. between Main and 4th Streets holds two blocks of shops selling either antiques or junk, worn-out kiddie rides and 50-year-old boxes of nylons. The anchor of that strip is the Funk House (1228 S. Casino Center Blvd.; tel. 702/678-6278; www.thefunkhouselasvegas.com), run by Cindy Funkhouser (really!), local landlord, pack rat and founder of First Friday.

"First Friday has brought people together," Funkhouser says. "It created a cohesiveness [in the arts scene] where before, there were various factions."

If you want more mainstream products, the district is a 5-minute ride on the CAT #108 bus ($1.25, leaving every 20 minutes all day from Main & Charleston) from the Las Vegas Premium Outlets (www.frommers.com/destinations/lasvegas/S32110.html), a rather run-of-the-mill outdoor outlet mall where you can pick up some Nikes or Dolce & Gabbana. (We wouldn't walk this relatively short distance, as it's really seedy.)

Where To Eat and Drink

After First Friday, the local crowd retires to the Art Bar (1511 S Main St.; tel. 702/437-2787), an award-winning dive, run with verve by Elvis impersonator Jesse Garon (and no, that isn't the name his momma gave him.) Garon covers his bar's walls with an ever-changing exhibition of local art, and has set aside one nook near the pool table for an Elvis shrine. The overall atmosphere is busy and much friendlier than you'd get at a tourist-oriented bar on the Strip. On one Friday night, we chatted up a mural painter while sucking down $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon beers and the occasional Shot of Burning Love, a Jell-O-based concoction. Thursdays are open easel nights, with Garon setting up space for passers-by to indulge their artistic proclivities; on Fridays and Saturdays, local bands and DJs pump out peppy pop tunes on the very small stage.

Other bars attracting the artsy crowd include the flashy Ice House Lounge (650 S. Main Street; tel. 702/315-2570) and the stubbornly divey Dino's (1516 Las Vegas Blvd. S; tel. 702/382-3894)

You won't starve in the arts district, and in fact, you may eat better for less than you would on the Strip. The classiest restaurant around is Tinoco's Bistro (103 E. Charleston Blvd.; tel. 702/464-5008; www.ypwebsites.com/sites/tinocosbistro/1), in the arts factory building itself, a cozy Italian place with low ceilings where pastas and large salads run $9-16 for lunch and classic Italian dishes like chicken Parmagiano will set you back $14-24 at dinner.

Much of the food in the area has a more Latin flavor, though. Casa Don Juan (1202 S. Main Street; tel. 702/384-8070) serves up enchilada platters for $10, or huge overstuffed tacos filled with carne asada and gauacamole for $5. Tucked into a Howard Johnson's on the Strip, the heavily-advertised Florida Caf¿ Cuban (1401 Las Vegas Blvd. S; tel. 702/385-3013; www.floridacafecuban.com) attracts a mostly Spanish-speaking clientele with its $11.95 ropa vieja and $7.75 juicy Cuban sandwiches; one big sandwich is good enough for two lighter appetites. If you spent too much time at the Art Bar, a hot, cheesy, footlong Cuban sandwich makes a fantastic hangover food.

Where To Stay

There are a bunch of motels along the Strip near the arts district, but nowhere we like. If you want to stay nearby, try one of the Fremont Street joints like the Frommers-recommended Fitzgeralds (www.frommers.com/destinations/lasvegas/H25004.html). They're a seedy 10-block walk or a quick ride on the CAT #108 bus from the arts district ($1.25, leaving every 20 minutes all day from Fremont & Main Streets).

Art lovers on the Strip should stay at THEHotel at Mandalay Bay (www.frommers.com/destinations/lasvegas/H49992.html), the city's only hotel with a significant collection of contemporary art. If you catch the place on a weekday, you can nab a 750-square-foot suite for $149/night -- though that's still one of the most expensive rooms in Vegas.

The less well-heeled should at least tour the lobby, where late-20th-century art hits you from unexpected angles. Turn a corner towards the front desk, and pow, you're confronted by a giant Arturo Herrera drip painting. Slide towards the corner of one of the hotel bars to start a conversation with a Rauschenberg print. The transitional hallway between THEHotel and the much more conventional Mandalay Bay is lined with gigantic Valerie Belin photos of women festooned in jewels -- an ironic, art world commentary on the overriding Vegas aesthetic. High-end art is limited to the lobby, though -- while the rooms have prints on the walls, flat-screen TVs in the bathrooms, and a hip grayscale aesthetic, the art in the rooms isn't really notable. For a guide to art at THEHotel, see www.godtcleary.com/thehotelindex.htm.

Getting There

The Las Vegas arts district is just north of the Stratosphere Hotel, between the Strip and downtown.

To get there, take a taxi to the corner of Charleston and Casino Center (about an $8 ride from the Sahara), take the public Deuce bus ($2, leaving every 7-15 minutes all day) from anywhere on the Strip to the Howard Johnson at 1401 Las Vegas Blvd. S. and walk west across the grassy median, or take the public CAT #108 bus ($1.25, leaving every 20 minutes all day) from either the Sahara monorail station or the corner of Main & Fremont downtown to Main & Charleston.

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