The Best Little Art Colony in Texas
How Marfa, a town of barely 2,000 residents, became a tourist mecca
In 2007, Marfa, Texas, population 2,485, went dark. Unable to pay the town’s electricity bills, the newly elected mayor and city council voted to turn off Marfa’s streetlights—all of them. “Winters here are dark and harsh,” recalled Mayor Daniel P. Dunlap, who owns Marfa’s sole appliance and furniture store and is now in the last year of his fifth two-year term as mayor. “We went six months that winter without lights. Folks were mighty unhappy.” After raising utility rates and replacing power-guzzling bulbs with more efficient substitutes, Dunlap was able to restore the lighting in stages, light by light, street by street, starting with those lining the bus route of its only public school.
Today, Marfa lights up the sky. Last year, more than 38,000 tourists traveled from throughout the world to this remote cattle town in West Texas. This year, more than 45,000, mostly art lovers, are expected.
Marfa has become more than a place. It is a “destination,” an arts-world station of the cross, or, to mix religious metaphors, a mecca of minimalism. What Lourdes is to ailing Catholics, Marfa is to aficionados of conceptual sculpture and painting. Think Art Basel in Miami, or Documenta in Germany. The temperature here in June can be scorching, but Marfa, in any season, has become supercool. “London, Paris, Rome, Marfa,” boasts a popular T-shirt sold at Squeeze, a tiny deli in the heart of town that specializes in chocolates and fruit and vegetable drinks.
Marfa’s new status as the quirky cultural hub of West Texas has not solved all its problems—and has even created new ones. Mayor Dunlap estimates that despite its tourist-driven prosperity, Marfa remains far from wealthy. Over 50 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, he estimates; so do over 70 percent of children in its public school. Many of the streets in the town’s one square mile badly need paving or repaving. And Marfa, while weighing a proposal to restrict the height of new buildings, faces a shortage of affordable housing and a diminished tax base. Still, compared with its earlier financial woes and those of neighboring towns in Presidio and surrounding counties, Marfa is doing fine. Median household income now stands at $41,719, up from $24,712 in 2000.
The question that longtime Marfans increasingly ask is whether the influx of hipsters and art lovers will destroy their town’s simplicity and “live-and-let live” solitude, qualities that brought newcomers here in the first place. “It’s hard to get here,” said Tom Michael, the founder of Marfa’s NPR station. “And we like it that way.”
What will happen to Marfa if it becomes even more fashionable among cultural tourists, as seems inevitable? The town’s 150 hotel rooms and superb restaurants are overwhelmed on some weekends. Conversely, what will happen if Marfa becomes not exactly old hat, but less chic, a non-first-tier destination? Is arts-based cultural tourism a dependable economic mainstay? And what can and should be done, if anything, to further integrate the art crowd and local Marfans—two separate, unequal groups?
Perched on the high plains of the Chihuahua desert, 4,830 feet above sea level, and surrounded by the David Mountains to the north, the Chisos range to the southeast, and, to the southwest, the Chinati mountain chain, Marfa was founded in 1883 as a water stop and freight headquarters for the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway. According to the Handbook of Texas, the town was named by Hanna Maria Strobridge, the railroad chief’s wife, after the strong-willed Marfa in The Brothers Karamazov. Amateur etymologist Barry Popik says that the town was more likely named for Marfa Strogoff, a character in Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar. “How could a woman sitting on an unfinished railroad track in West Texas in 1882 be reading an English translation of a novel only 13 months following its publication in Russian?” asked a writer in Marfa’s prize-winning weekly, the Big Bend Sentinel.
The inspiration for its name may be contested, but there’s no dispute that Marfa would not be what it is today were it not for the cattle barons whose ranches now encircle the town and limit its physical growth. While only three or four ranches remain in operation and under their original ownership, the ranchers, whose names still resonate here—the Mitchells, the Brites, the Joneses—commissioned Marfa’s broad Main Street and lavish buildings. Among them is the three-story, nineteenth-century Presidio County Courthouse, a stucco Renaissance-revival jewel and the town’s architectural anchor. Marfa also boasts a grand theater and other buildings—including a now-closed cinema called the Palace—that embody the ranchers’ once-grand ambitions for the place.
Marfa has seen bursts of growth before. Its population grew from 3,553 in 1920 to some 5,000 in 1945, after the U.S. military built and expanded its presence at Fort D.A. Russell before World War II to house the Chemical Warfare Brigades, an army air field for advanced flight training, the U.S. Border Patrol, and a prisoner-of-war camp for captured German soldiers. Marfa’s fortunes and population declined sharply, though, when the military abandoned the base after the war. In the early 1970s, an unlikely town savior appeared. Donald C. Judd, a leader of the Minimal Art movement (a term that he despised), moved to Marfa and began buying up land—a 45,000-acre ranch overlooking the Rio Grande and the abandoned Fort Russell’s artillery sheds, barracks, gymnasium, hangars, and other buildings. Though the Missouri-born Judd had achieved success in New York City, he was struck by the stark beauty of West Texas when he drove as a young man en route to boot camp in California. Eager to escape New York’s fractious art scene and seeking large and cheap space for his installations, Judd moved here and began converting the hangars that had once held German prisoners into huge galleries for sculpture and art and renovating other structures for work, home, and storage.
Over time, Judd created the world’s largest contemporary permanent art installations—a series of giant concrete boxes on some 340 acres of the old army-base land, around which antelope, bobcats, and lizards now roam. Inside the largest hangar, he installed 100 boxes made of mill aluminum, a soft, untreated sheet metal with a highly reflective surface. While their exterior dimensions are identical—41 x 51 x 72 inches—each interior is uniquely divided. Depending on where you stand, the hour of the day, and whether the sky is cloudy or bright, the boxes seem dramatically different from one another. In some light, their interiors appear to vanish; in shade, or standing in another part of the shed, the monoliths appear impenetrable.
“Judd intended the art, the surrounding land, and the light to be inextricably linked,” said Jenny Moore, who moved to Marfa in 2013 from New York, where she had curated at the New Museum, to manage the Chinati Foundation’s 34 buildings of installation space, a full-time staff of 20 guards and docents who escort visitors—and an endowment of $13.4 million, which she hopes to grow to $50 million. “Art is not cheap,” Moore sighed, especially not in West Texas, where the region’s extreme weather makes maintenance expensive. Temperatures in June often top 95 degrees; in winter, ice, hail, and snow are common.
During his two decades in Marfa, Judd invited friends, fellow artists whose work he admired, to come create here. Each has left an indelible mark. Near Judd’s mystical, untitled boxes stand six buildings containing Dan Flavin’s eight-foot-long fluorescent lights in colored pairs of pink, green, yellow, and blue. Begun in the early 1980s, the work was not inaugurated until October 2000, four years after Flavin’s death. John Chamberlain, another collaborator, who died in New York in 2011, left Judd 22 sculptures in painted and chromium-plated steel—huge, mangled parts of old cars seemingly molded together—in what was once Marfa’s Wool and Mohair Building in the center of town. Carl Andre, known primarily for his sculpture, donated nearly 500 pages of poetry from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. In 1992, Icelandic artist Ingólfur Arnarsson joined Chinati as a resident artist, where he, too, left work as part of the museum’s permanent collection. Visitors wander among works by John Wesley and Ilya Kabakov, whose School No. 6 (1993), remodeled to resemble an abandoned Soviet schoolhouse, occupies an entire building. Richard Long, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, David Rabinowitch, and one of the few exceptions to Judd’s artistic all-boys’ club, New York artist Roni Horn, also have work here.
The scale of the work assembled is striking, one reason that the foundation was able to recruit Moore from her high-profile post in New York. In mid-July, she inaugurated the first new large-scale permanent installation since 2000—a 13,000-square-foot installation by Robert Irwin inside the former site of Fort Russell’s hospital. More than 1,500 people attended the opening, 14 years in the making. Irwin, now in his eighties and one of the nation’s most influential artists, designed some of America’s most unique indoor and outdoor spaces, among them the much-admired Getty Museum garden. To celebrate the artist and the occasion, Chinati hosted a weekend of lectures and a “conversation with the artist,” a full day of open viewing of the installation—free for Marfa residents—and a community barbecue dinner for some 800 people.
To finance and maintain the work, Moore launched a successful $5 million capital campaign. “A $25,000 gift here goes a long way compared to a $25 million donation to MOMA,” she said, referring to New York’s well-endowed modern-art shrine. “MOMA may be your true love,” she says. “But we want Marfa to be your crush.”
Moore considers Marfa unique. “There is no separation of life and art here,” she says. Still, raising money to perpetuate Donald Judd’s vision has not been easy. When the artist died of lymphoma in New York Hospital in 1994, Chinati had $250 in its bank account, she said. Chinati now manages the collection of his work and that of his fellow artists; but the Judd Foundation, run by his two children, Flavin Starbuck and Rainer Yingling, is responsible for “the Block,” Judd’s private residence, his extensive library, sprawling studios, and even the swimming pool that he designed and surrounded for privacy with a tall concrete wall. Like Chinati, the Judd Foundation waives admission fees for full-time residents of Presidio County and neighboring West Texas counties of Brewster and Jeff Davis.
Judd’s spirit still dominates Marfa. A quirky and contentious creator, he hosted an annual art party featuring Mexican food and his favorite musical instrument, bagpipes. But he was only episodically interested in Marfa as a community—unlike Jenny Moore. One of her priorities is making local Marfans feel part of the foundation family. In addition to offering free lectures and installation viewings for residents, she has worked closely with school superintendent Andrew Peters to increase student visits to the compound, recruit students as interns, and provide art training in the school that her own two children attend.
With its proximity to the border, Marfa has long had a strong Mexican-American heritage. The public school’s 352 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, are nearly 90 percent Hispanic. So are 60 percent of the school’s 30 teachers, says Peters, 55, a former reading teacher and father of three who gives sermons at one of the town’s many churches and came here four years ago from San Antonio in search of a challenge. He found one in Marfa, he tells me. Ten percent of his older students are their families’ chief breadwinners, he says. Many work, with their parents, at Village Farms, a tomato farm outside town, which, along with the border police, is one of the area’s largest employers. “There’s a huge disconnect between the kids in our school and what Marfa has become,” he says.
Peters’s innovations, plus help from the “Chinatis,” as locals call the resident art crowd, has improved public education here. Aid from Chinati enables summer-school classes and supplements the federally funded programs that provide breakfast to as many as 70 percent of the students and lunch to more than 80 percent. Since Peters’s arrival, reading levels and test scores have inched up. Teacher turnover is now under 25 percent, but still too high, he says, partly because teachers and border-patrol employees can’t afford Marfa’s soaring rents. Many of his students live in double-wide trailers just outside town, or in the small adobes and dilapidated wood-frame houses that haven’t yet been scooped up by artists and writers as second homes. While Marfa has come a long way since the 1970s, when the town was still segregated and Hispanics attended their own schools, remnants of that grinding poverty remain visible.
Peters maximizes his resources and is an expert at outreach. “I recruit everyone who comes to town to do something for the school,” he says. Actor Kevin Bacon, filming a pilot for Amazon in Marfa earlier this year, met with teachers; the screenwriter held a seminar with students. Visiting artists from Chinati and grantees of the Santa Fe–based Lannan Foundation, which brings some 24 writers here for four to six weeks of uninterrupted writing in houses that it has bought and renovated, volunteer to read stories to young students. The high school’s robotics team, coached by a talented local engineer whom Peters recently hired, raised its own money for the kits needed to participate in competitions last year, and has excelled. The school now has a board-certified welding program. Trained welders, Peters notes, can earn $25 an hour. High on his wish list are cooking classes to teach skills useful in Marfa’s growth industry, tourism.
Tim Crowley, a Houston lawyer, former assistant district attorney, entrepreneur, and philanthropist who moved to Marfa in 1997, when it still resembled a ghost town, says that tourism has begun to replace the government as Marfa’s top employer. This spring, he opened the town’s first true luxury inn, the Hotel Saint George, a gray, four-story minimalist structure with 55 rooms named for an earlier rendition that burned down in the 1920s. With its spacious, functionally furnished bedrooms flooded with natural light, impeccably decorated with modern art—much of it donated by artists who have lived or worked here—omnipresent Wi-Fi, a superb restaurant, and complimentary morning espressos, lattes, and homemade muffins and pastries for guests, the Saint George has filled a void. Prior to its opening this spring, the only high-end hotel in town was the Hotel Paisano, the graceful, Spanish-style inn designed by El Paso architect Henry Trost in 1930, where Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor stayed while filming Giant some 50 years ago. Their photographs grace the lobby.
While some of Marfa’s recent arrivals grouse about the new hotel’s height and scale (the courthouse remains taller), Mayor Dunlap and other Marfa grandees praise Crowley’s investment, not to mention his purchase and restoration of its theater, site of the annual film festival, and his subsidies of many local performances. And his Saint George now employs 65 people, many of them graduates of the local high school.
Crowley says that despite Marfa’s Tex-Mex charm, its growth is limited by the lack of basic services. It still has no dry cleaner, for instance. And while the town has two health clinics, one private and the other public, the nearest hospital is almost an hour’s drive away. Neighboring Alpine, some 30 miles from Marfa, has three times the population and almost ten times the number of hotel rooms.
Crowley also owns the Marfa Book Company, a bookstore located in the hotel. Under the stewardship of poet Tim Johnson, the store has remained a virtual community center, sponsoring more than 70 readings a year and publishing at least two poetry or art books annually. “Marfa must continue to produce culture, or it will die,” says Johnson.
That seems unlikely any time soon. A second wave of artistic development began after Judd’s death, with the opening of Ballroom Marfa. A former garage, Ballroom was the inspiration of Fairfax Dorn and Virginia Lebermann, heirs to Texas ranching dynasties determined to open a gallery that would be what Lebermann calls “a living place,” showcasing not just art but music, film, and other creative endeavors. “This was an experiment in the middle of nowhere by two people who wanted to get away from the world,” says Dorn. “And now everyone in the world is coming to us.”
In 2005, another cultural landmark went up along Highway 90, some 36 miles from Marfa, near a dusty town named Valentine, population 120. “Prada Marfa,” designed by Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, is not a store at all but a one-room white stucco wall replica of the real Prada stores (and handbags) found in almost any major city. The “store” features three rows of only right-footed Prada shoes and another row of handbags. The installation went viral in 2012 after Beyoncé posted a photo of herself on Tumblr jumping in front of it.
With such iconic installations have come artisans. Cobra Rock Boot Company owners and designers Colt Miller and Logan Caldbeck moved to Marfa in 2011 and began making Cuban-heeled boots, wallets, and other leather goods in their tiny workshop. Dallas-born Ginger Griffice came here from New York in 2004 and founded Marfa Brand Soap, next door to Cobra. The smell of her pungent-scented products made of lemongrass, rosemary, sage, or Lapsang souchong tea can linger for blocks. Also booming is Marfa’s restaurant scene. Talented chefs are blending local Tex-Mex ingredients with new culinary techniques at restaurants like Capri, Stellina, Jett’s Grill, and Planet Marfa. “In most towns, eating is just a necessity,” said Dorn. “In Marfa, culinary is art.”
Mayor Dunlap knows that Marfa needs to promote the arts as an engine of economic growth. Marfa has distinct advantages, he says. There is virtually no serious crime, for instance. Crime rates were so low, and the town’s $4 million annual budget so squeezed, that he decided to disband Marfa’s police department four years ago. The county sheriff and his deputies now police the town, effectively.
Despite its attraction to young creators, Marfa’s population is aging. While 2,400 people lived here a decade ago, its permanent population is now under 2,000. And like much of Texas, Marfa is increasingly Hispanic.
The Union Pacific freight trains that roar through the center of town several times a day and at night don’t stop here, barring accidents or trouble on the track. Nor does Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which takes passengers along the train’s southern route from Los Angeles to New Orleans (it stops in Alpine). Neither Dunlap nor Crowley sees much hope of persuading money-losing Amtrak to add Marfa to its list of “must-see” locations.
While Marfa’s airport can accommodate small private jets—an airport roster for May showed at least a flight every day carrying passengers from throughout the U.S. and far-flung Tokyo, London, and Canada—the airport has no taxis or rental-car company. Some residents have rented out their cars for as much as $300 a day, and at least one entrepreneurial Marfan tried running a taxi service from his private van. It didn’t last.
The mayor hopes to attract more convention and other business to Marfa’s hotels during the week, when most rooms sit empty. In July, the city council approved $24,000 for the Wyatt Group, an Austin-based marketing firm, to devise a strategy for attracting more visitors. He thinks that Marfa will continue to benefit from the tourism generated by Big Bend National Park, an hour’s drive away, and tourists who want to see Marfa Lights, the strange, unexplained orbs of light that have been spotted here since at least the 1880s. The town has built a viewing station about ten miles from Alpine, where locals and artists are fond of sunset picnics and nighttime stargazing.
Cultural tourism, however, is becoming increasingly competitive. Many alternative, self-styled “destination” sites have the advantage of being in or near major cities that provide far greater access and more amenities. According to a 2013 report by Mandala Research, some 130 million American adults spent about $171 billion that year on cultural tourism. Such tourists, says travel-industry expert Cheryl Hargrove, “travel more, stay longer, and spend more than domestic leisure tourists.”
Some places with seemingly little to offer compared with Marfa have had enormous success rebranding themselves as cultural destinations. For instance, Corning, in south central New York (11,000 residents), now attracts more than 500,000 tourists a year, showcasing the town’s heritage in glassblowing. In the Midwest, Indianapolis has created an eight-mile “cultural trail” called the Glick Peace Walk that features urban bike and pedestrian paths, sculpture, and performance art in an adjoining cultural district. According to Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc., the $63 million project, which opened in 2013, has generated some $864.5 million in revenue and created more than 11,000 jobs.
Art tourism, a subset of cultural tourism, is also growing, says Hargrove. In 2011, Walmart heiress Alice Walton opened Crystal Bridges, a free American modern-art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. A gift to the town where Walmart first opened its five-and-dime stores, Crystal Bridges, designed by Moshe Safdie, has drawn thousands to its 120-acre museum set amid dogwood trees, sculpture gardens, and springs. Less well known is James Turrell’s Roden Crater, an unprecedented large-scale artwork within a volcanic cinder cone in the Painted Desert of northern Arizona. The installation is being called the culmination of his research into human visual and psychological perception. But Turrell’s foundation has set entry prohibitively high for most people—more than $6,000.
“Destination sites, like any form of economic development, require desire and planning,” says Hargrove, whose book on cultural-heritage tourism is being published next year by Rowman & Littlefield. “How can you attract more visitors for a distinctive experience, off the beaten track, without changing the character of the place?”
Many Marfans seem conflicted about their town’s tourism potential. Like Judd himself, they welcome serious artists but appear suspicious of efforts to encourage tourists in large numbers. Some even oppose expanding the number and size of hotels to accommodate guests.
“People must ask themselves: What are they trying to achieve through tourism? Increase visitation? Or revenues?” Hargrove says. “Marfa seems a perfect balance of art and nature. Can you really increase access without compromising its authenticity and integrity?”
Being overwhelmed is a legitimate concern—but so is disappearing, after interest in a place wanes. Marfa could go either way. Hargrove argues that the solution lies in good planning, but Marfa’s frontier spirit and the artists themselves seem disinclined. They take pride in what Tim Johnson calls “Marfa’s organic creative growth.”
“Tourism may be transforming Marfa,” says Hargrove, “but the community must decide how tourism fits into its overall vision. If they don’t, the best plan is futile.”
Top Photo: The Chinati Foundation’s Museum and Sculpture Garden (Rudy Gutierrez/The El Paso Times/AP Photo)
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