The Neon Enthusiast: Meet Danielle Kelly

The outgoing executive director of the Neon Museum on playing in the dirt and a memorable visit from Conan O’Brien

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

What made you decide it was time to move on from the Neon Museum?

My husband [David Sanchez Burr] was offered a tenure-track teaching position in Las Vegas, New Mexico. It’s not just about him; it was a family decision. He’s been very supportive of me while I’ve been terrifically career-focused here. This is a great opportunity for him, and the museum is in a great place. I’m ready to try new things.

You’re leaving on a high note. Not that long ago, this was just a storage yard for old casino signs.

Nothing but beautiful things are happening here. And we’ve grown so much without losing the personal attention. We want a quality experience for everyone who visits the museum—a personal and intimate experience with the collection. Every person involved with this organization, from the board to the staff to the volunteers and everyone in-between, has a sincere love for what we’re doing. That was the case when I started here [in 2008], and I know it to be the case as I leave.

Before running Neon Museum, you taught art at UNLV and wrote art criticism. Has running the museum changed your artistic perspective?

I’ve loved neon signs for a long time, ever since I lived in Portland. Portland offers such a specific experience of signs; it’s very film noir. But having taught at UNLV and having been a part of this cultural community, I saw in this collection of signs a wonderful opportunity to show people how valuable Las Vegas’ native culture is. Special things happened in this city that didn’t happen anywhere else.

It’s been life-changing to have been able to spend so much time with the signs. The curation of the Neon Boneyard changed my molecular makeup. It’s been so meaningful.

Was there ever a moment in your time here where you thought it could all fall apart?

A bunch of times. This organization is The Little Engine That Could. Right before I joined, the recession hit. And I thought, “Not only is no one going to come to Las Vegas, but no one’s going to spend money.” But it just continued to grow. You just chug along, and it works out. As big as we’ve always dreamed, our implementation of plans has always been very conservative in order to protect the organization.

What are your best memories of working here?

Saving the Moulin Rouge sign. Meeting Wayne Newton, who was just so charming and elegant; I blushed the whole time I was with him. Conan O’Brien came to the museum once; that was a pretty big deal for us. He’s so funny, and extremely tall. He called us up and said, “I don’t know about Vegas, but I’ve heard that I’ve got to see you guys.” And I’ll remember the time when the Stardust letters got put back together. That was a “pinch me” kind of thing. Prior to that, they’d been all folded up, so you couldn’t see them all.

When I was a kid, I played in the dirt every single day. Every day I’d build a new city in our backyard. My whole life has been preparing to do this—to be out in the dirt, moving giant signs all over.

Who’s going to succeed you as executive director?

I’m serving as interim director while the museum conducts a national search for my replacement. But this organization attracts amazing people. And I have no doubt that, in the hands of this team and whoever comes in to work with them, it’ll only continue to thrive.

Do you feel like you’re leaving behind any unfinished business?

Oh, a million things! Right now I’m just making sure that all the things we’ve put in motion or thought about putting in motion are moving before I go. For example, we just sent out the Desert Rose sign to get painted. We didn’t raise all the money we wanted to do that, but we have faith that the community will continue to support that project and help us to offset our costs. And I want to make sure that the Las Vegas Club signs are OK. The property recently changed ownership, and it’s in purgatory right now. That baseball player [sign] needs to live here (laughs). We can’t lose that guy.

And, of course, I worry about the Blue Angel. [I’ve had] many nights of no sleep, worrying about that sign. This is actually a very stressful job. Until we have signs in our possession, we don’t rest. Tiny obstructions can build up, and the next thing you know, a sign is just gone and you don’t know where it is.

Soon you’ll be gone, and we’ll miss you. You’ve lived here since 2001. What will you miss most about this town?

The resilience of its people. There really is a pioneer spirit here. There’s a sense that you could do anything … anything! You could be anything you want to be here. And I’ll miss the signs, of course.

But you’ll come back to visit.

Yes, of course I will! What they say is true: You always find your way back here. Las Vegas gets under your skin, because there’s no place like it. It’s incomparable.

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