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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?
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."
Correction: August 2, 2012 12:00 am — In an earlier Web version of this story, as well as the audio, we incorrectly identified sculptor Campbell Bosworth as Campbell Boswell.