Marfa, Texas: An Unlikely Art Oasis In A Desert Town In the 1970s, minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to a dusty town in West Texas, where he created giant works of art that bask beneath vast desert skies. In the years since, Marfa has emerged as a mecca for art tourism.
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Marfa, Texas: An Unlikely Art Oasis In A Desert Town

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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.



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.


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?


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.


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


And I'm Renee Montagne.


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