Marfa, Texas: An Unlikely Art Oasis In A Desert Town

Aug 2, 2012
Originally published on August 2, 2012 6:36 pm

This tiny town perched on the high plains of the Chihuahua desert is nothing less than an arts world station of the cross, like Art Basel in Miami, or Documenta in Germany. It's a blue-chip arts destination for the sort of glamorous scenesters who visit Amsterdam for the Rijksmuseum and the drugs.

"They speak about Marfa with the same kind of reverent tones generally reserved for the pilgrimage of the Virgin of Lourdes," notes Carolina Miranda, a writer who covers the art world.

It all started when the acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd left New York City in the 1970s for this dusty dot of a town. He wanted to escape the art scene he claimed to disdain. With the help of the DIA Foundation, Judd acquired an entire Army base, and before he died in 1994, he filled it with art, including light installations by Dan Flavin and Judd's own signature boxes. One hundred of them, made of silvery milled aluminum, are housed in two old brick artillery sheds. They sit in perfect quiet rows, glowing or seemingly translucent, depending on the light. (Click here to see 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum.)

Now, all 400 acres of the site are run by the Chinati Foundation. Docent Sterry Butcher advises visitors to be careful before heading toward the scrubby pasture where Judd scattered 15 giant concrete boxes, as empty and remote as the landscape.

"It's unlikely that you would see a snake or a skunk or a porcupine or some other varmint — but it's always possible," she warns.

Once, only dedicated Judd fans braved the varmints, not to mention the distance and the heat to see this world-class collection. That has changed.

"I'm not hugely knowledgeable," admits Jennifer Kitson, a 29-year-old graduate student visiting from New Mexico. She came for the art, but also, admittedly, the hype. Just in the past three years, The New York Times has run almost half a dozen features about Marfa — one solely on its handful of restaurants, including the inevitable food truck. Kitson and her boyfriend noticed Marfa's famous fake Prada store that sits on the highway outside town — and then?

"He turned on the radio," Kitson said dryly, "and he's like, 'Look! NPR! That's all you can get.' And it was like, amazing, but then it was also kind of creepy. Like, 'Oh, perfect, our NPR station.' And then you enter, and then we're like, 'Oh, look at this restaurant — they have vegan food!' "

Vegan food, straw bale houses and funky bars filled with artsy kids clinking Shiner Bocks with famous painters and film directors. Their pearl-buttoned shirts and cowboy boots can make the place feel like a Western-themed outpost of Brooklyn. And for a town of only about 2,000 people, you can amuse yourself nightly with screenings, readings and, of course, gallery shows, like the one for sculptor Campbell Bosworth. It's taking place a few blocks from Marfa's single stoplight in a slightly dilapidated white adobe church. He bought it with his wife 11 years ago in a situation he describes as ideal:

"You know, as an artist you always see cool buildings and go, 'Oh God, that'd make a great studio.' Yeah, but you can't afford it. Or you go through some small town and go, 'Oh, look at that old building; that'd be a great studio.' But then you go, 'Yeah, but we'd have to live in that town.' "

Marfa is the kind of place where people actually want to live. But the lack of a hospital weeds out retirees. And young families with kids are deterred by corporal punishment in the public school. So the artsy population is limited: to the wealthy with their part-time homes, temporary residents on prestigious fellowships from such places as the Lannan Foundation, and the truly hardcore.

"You just come out here and you feel like, I want to make something; I want to do something!" explains Bosworth.

But it can be tough, says poet Tim Johnson. "It's also a highly critical community, so people will let you know if it's second- or third-rate or whatever," he says.

So has anyone actually left because they couldn't take the criticism? Johnson doesn't miss a beat.

"Yeah," he says. "I think so."

Johnson runs Marfa's bookstore, with an unsurprising emphasis on art books, art theory and poetry journals. Yoga classes are held there in the morning. It's the only place that sells The New York Times. But even though the Marfa Book Co. makes the town more tourist-friendly, Johnson does not believe Judd would approve of Marfa's emergence as a chic art world destination.

"He thought that making an arts-based cultural tourism was necessarily carnivalesque, which was, for him, anathema to the experience of art," he explains. "He knew that people would come see it, but he did not want that to be a large part of the economy, because he thought, socially, that would have a negative impact."

Judd did dream about art helping Marfa's economy, but his ideas were somewhat more pragmatic, says Rob Weiner, who directs the Chinati Foundation.

"At one point, even bottling the local water, which is terrific water," he says. "And he had designed a kind of complex series of bottles that could be turned into bricks once the water was consumed."

That never happened, but arts tourism has soared. Weiner estimates the Chinati Foundation received 10- or 11,000 visitors last year, more than twice as many as eight years ago. But he seemed a little offended when asked how marketing has changed.

"We've never marketed!" he snapped.

No marketing plan?

"No. Well, no. No."

No marketing director?

"No."

Unlike other towns that try to reinvent themselves as arts destinations, it has happened organically in Marfa. No one is even keeping track of how much tourism has increased, including Kaki Aufdengarten-Scott, the town's one-woman Chamber of Commerce.

"Hi, can I get you guys something?" she calls out sweetly to a pair of young hikers looking for maps.

Aufdengarten-Scott grew up here. She wasn't lured to Marfa by the cool factor, or Judd's massive concrete blocks.

"I thought the blocks there along the highway were leftover debris from the military base," she confesses.

Aufdengarten-Scott comes from generations of ranchers. Some of them, she says, have struggled with Marfa's transformation, including her own parents.

"They sold their house to a couple of gentlemen from New York City," she says, adding that the transaction was a big deal for her dad. "Straight-laced guy. Cowboy. Republican. Christian. He eats red meat. He likes potatoes. I think it still really trips him out that two men would be sharing his master bedroom."

Aufdengarten-Scott hopes her work at the Chamber of Commerce will help reconcile old timers with the transplants sometimes called Chinazis, after the foundation. She says most newcomers are incredibly well-intentioned, but there's a give and take.

"Sometimes it feels like there's more taking," she says quietly. While the arts economy has created jobs, they tend to be dishwashing or landscaping gigs for local, mostly Latino and low-income Marfans. Out-of-towners — who are not oblivious to the impact they're having — tend to get higher income jobs with real mobility. Yet Marfans know the alternative would be worse.

"If they hadn't come," notes Aufdengarten-Scott, "this town would have dried up and blown away."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You are listening, on this public radio station, to the program that gives you a look at the whole of America. And this summer, MORNING EDITION is starting a series about small American towns with economies and identities that depend on the arts. Our first stop is Marfa, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAIN WHISTLE)

INSKEEP: The train that runs through this tiny town perched on the high plains of the Chihuahua Desert used to carry water to cattle ranchers. Ranching once supported Marfa's economy.

Now, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Marfa is primarily a world-class destination for art lovers.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: For the glamorous types who attend Art Basel in Miami or Documenta in Germany, or visit Amsterdam for the Rijks Museum and the drugs, Marfa is a similar station of the cross, says Carolina Miranda. She writes about the art world.

CAROLINA MIRANDA: They speak about Marfa with the same kind of reverent tones generally reserved for, like, the pilgrimage of the Virgin of Lourdes.

ULABY: The acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd left New York City in the 1970s for this dusty dot of a town. He wanted to escape the art scene he said he despised. He acquired an entire Army base, and before he died in 1994, he filled it with art, including light installations by his friend Dan Flavin and Judd's own signature boxes.

Two old brick artillery sheds house a hundred boxes made of silvery, milled aluminum. They sit in perfect quiet rows. They glow or depending on the light seem almost translucent. Now, all 400 acres of the site are run by the Chinati Foundation.

STERRY BUTCHER: It's a hot one today.

ULABY: Docent Sterry Butcher, warns visitors to be careful as they head towards the scrubby pasture where Judd scattered 15 huge boxes made of concrete, as empty and remote as the landscape.

BUTCHER: It's unlikely that you would see a snake, or a skunk, or a porcupine or some other varmint, but it's always possible.

ULABY: Once, only dedicated Judd fans braved the varmints, the distance, and the heat to see this collection. That's changed.

JEN KITSON: I'm not a huge - I'm not hugely knowledgeable.

ULABY: Jen Kitson came for the art but also maybe because of the hype. Just in the past three years, The New York Times has run almost half a dozen big features about Marfa, one solely on its restaurants, including the inevitable food truck. Driving here, Kitson and her boyfriend saw the fake Prada store that sits on the highway. And then...

KITSON: He turned on the radio and he's like look, NPR that's all you can get, NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

DAVID BRANCH, HOST:

You're tuned into the Honky-Tonk Happy Hour this and every Thursday evening. I'm your host David Branch and I'm going to play the B-side of this deal.

KITSON: And it was like amazing but then it was also kind of creepy like, oh perfect, our NPR station. And you enter. And then we're like ooh, look at this is this restaurant. And, oh they have vegan food.

ULABY: Vegan food, straw bale houses, funky bars filled with artsy kids clinking Shiner Bock with famous painters and film directors. Their pearl-buttoned shirts and cowboy boots make it feel like a Western-themed outpost of Brooklyn. And for a town of only about 2,000 people, you can amuse yourself endlessly with screenings, readings and, of course, gallery shows.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No rush. Grab a beer.

ULABY: This opening for sculptor Campbell Boswell is taking place in the studio space he bought with his wife 11 years ago. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The sculptor's last name is Bosworth.] It's a slightly dilapidated white wooden church a few blocks from Marfa's single stoplight.

CAMPBELL BOSWORTH: You know, as an artist you always see cool buildings and go oh God, that'd make a great studio. Yeah, but you can't afford, you know. Or you go through some small town and you go oh, look at that old building. That'd be a great studio. But then you go yeah, but we'd have to live in that town.

ULABY: People want to live in Marfa. But there's no hospital - that weeds out retirees. And corporal punishment in the public schools deters families with kids. So the artsy population is limited to the wealthy with part-time homes here, temporary residents on fancy fellowships, and the truly hardcore, like Boswell.

BOSWORTH: You just come out here and you feel like I want to make something. I want to do something.

ULABY: This hardcore community is defined by the intensity of its artistic aspirations and exacting standards for art, says poet Tim Johnson.

TIM JOHNSON: It's tough, you know. It's also a highly critical community, so people will let you know if its second or third rate, or whatever.

ULABY: Have people left because they couldn't take the criticism?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASHIER)

ULABY: Johnson runs Marfa's bookstore, heavy on art theory and poetry journals, with yoga classes in the morning. He thinks Donald Judd would wince at Marfa's emergence as a chic art's world destination.

JOHNSON: He thought that making an arts-based tourism was necessarily carnivalesque, which was for him, anathema to the experience of art. He knew that people would come see it but he did not want that to be a large part of the economy, because he thought, socially, that would have a negative impact.

ULABY: Judd did have dreams about art helping Marfa's economy, says Rob Weiner. He directs the Chinati Foundation.

ROB WEINER: At one point even bottling the local water, which is terrific water, and he had designed a kind of complex series of bottles that could be turned into bricks once the water was consumed.

ULABY: That never happened, but Weiner is delighted by the flood of the new visitors, 11,000 last year. More twice the attendance eight years ago, he says. But he seemed a little offended when I wondered how his marketing has changed.

WEINER: We've never marketed.

ULABY: You don't have a marketing plan?

WEINER: No? Well, no. No, we don't have a marketing plan.

ULABY: Do you have a marketing director?

WEINER: No.

ULABY: Unlike other towns that have tried to reinvent themselves as arts destinations, it's happened organically here. No one is even keeping track of how much tourism has increased.

Kaki Aufdengarten-Scott is Marfa's Chamber of Commerce.

KAKI AUFDENGARTEN-SCOTT: Hi, can I get you guys something? Do something for you?

ULABY: Aufdengarten-Scott is helping out a couple of tourists from California. She wasn't lured to Marfa by the cool factor, or Judd's massive concrete blocks. She grew up here.

AUFDENGARTEN-SCOTT: I thought that the blocks there along the highway were like leftover debris from the military base.

ULABY: Aufdengarten-Scott comes from generations of ranchers. Some, she says, have struggled with Marfa's transformation.

AUFDENGARTEN-SCOTT: My parents, they sold their house to a couple of gentlemen from New York City.

ULABY: That was a big deal for Aufdengarten-Scott's dad.

AUFDENGARTEN-SCOTT: Straight-laced guy, cowboy, Republican, Christian. He eats red meat. He likes potatoes. I think it still really trips him out that two men would be sharing his master bedroom.

ULABY: One of the things Aufdengarten-Scott hopes to do at the Chamber of Commerce is reconcile old timers with the transplants they sometimes call Chinazis, after the foundation. She says most of those newcomers are incredibly well-intentioned, but...

AUFDENGARTEN-SCOTT: There's a kind of give and take all the time, but sometimes it feels like there's more taking.

ULABY: Aufdengarten says sure, the arts economy has created jobs - dishwashing or landscaping for native Marfans, mostly low-income and Latino. Higher income gigs with real mobility tend to go to out-of-towners who are not oblivious to the impact they're having. Yet Marfans know the alternative would be worse.

AUFDENGARTEN-SCOTT: If they hadn't come in, this town would have dried up and blown away.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.