A painting worth a thousand words

Any fool could tell you this is a collector's item for the ages: Nine Cheers for the Silver State
For more background on the Comstock Foundation, see:

Mining corp donates to itself

I thought it was a joke.

At first glance, the painting, “Nine Cheers for the Silver State,” looked like a photo-shopped satire involving Nevada’s past and present governors and U.S. senators, merrily toasting each other in a gilded setting, with former First Lady and Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons resplendent in a period costume thrown in as a glamorous counterpoint.

Turns out the joke is on us.

Any Nevadan who follows state politics would instantly recognize Gov. Sandoval, Sen. Bryan, Gov. Miller, and Sens. Heller and Reid in the painting. Govs. Paul Laxalt and Bob List are also depicted along with Congressman Mark Amodei and former first lady Dema Guinn.

But who is that man sitting across the table from Gov. Sandoval, signing a document meant to commemorate Nevada Day, October 31, 1864? And who is standing next to Sen. Reid?

Last week, in a fascinating piece by Sandra Chereb published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, two mining company executives from Comstock Mining sheepishly admitted they were in the painting, but insisted it was at the painter’s request. The company is currently engaged in a pitched battle with residents in Silver City who feel their very homes and tourist livelihood are threatened by the renewed effort to find gold on the Comstock Lode.

The painting symbolizes everything that’s been wrong about mining from the beginning of statehood, when Nevada’s original constitution was rejected because the mining industry didn’t like it. You can easily picture the mining barons in a room just like the one in the painting, partying with Nevada’s fledgling political class, deciding how the constitution should be rewritten to treat their industry more favorably. Drinks all around, and let’s bring in those pretty ladies to celebrate!

One hundred fifty prints of the painting are being produced as part of the state’s sesquicentennial celebration. Proceeds will be donated to a non-profit organization created by Comstock Mining, the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture. The Foundation is dedicated to preserving buildings and resources in the very neighborhoods the company is currently engaged in disrupting.

The Foundation is a typical response by the mining industry to its critics. For decades, the mining companies have contributed charitable dollars to local communities to demonstrate their lofty civic-mindedness and to buy good will. It’s much better to toss some cash here and there, building a football field or supporting an artistic event, than to contribute that money to the state’s general fund in the form of taxes. Legislators might have other funding priorities. This way, the company gets to take a charitable deduction instead of paying taxes, and they get to decide how to spend the money. It’s a genius plan that might have been cooked up in a drawing room just like the one in the painting.

Ron James, Nevada’s former state historic preservation officer is also in the painting. He now works as the executive director of the new Foundation, and “scoffed at the criticism” of the painting by residents, saying he was “not impressed by the naysayers who aren’t doing anything at all that’s positive.”

But to many residents of the Comstock, the painting adds an incredible insult to the injury they’ve sustained in their long battle to protect their homes. While the Storey County Commission approved the expansion of Comstock Mining’s activities, the Comstock Residents Association members feel the painting depicts the “clubby” and exclusive atmosphere that has allowed mining companies to treat Nevada as a colony for 150 years.

Question 2 on your ballot next month will remove mining’s special tax protections in Nevada’s constitution, letting the Legislature determine the level and type of taxes the miners should pay for the privilege of taking our gold.

Vote yes, and let’s put the people back in the painting.