The economics of Marfa
Tourism revenue is needed, but are locals being priced out of the area?
By Francesca Mari. Focus, Issue 251, November 2013
Published online: 14 November 2013
A legal row over two art installations in Marfa, Texas, has reopened an old argument about the economics of the art in the town. While some say the community benefits from the tourism revenue that the works of art attract, others argue that local ranching families are being priced out of Marfa.
The town, which has a population of 2,000, has a fraught relationship with art. Its cultural destiny was set when the artist Donald Judd moved there in 1971 and began to invest in permanent art projects using his earnings and around $4m from the Dia Art Foundation. By the time the Chinati Foundation—an art museum founded by Judd—opened to the public in 1986, the artist was one of the town’s biggest employers.
Prices have shot up since then. A two-acre compound in downtown Marfa that sold for $30,000 in 1998 might sell for more than $500,000 today. The average value of an owner-occupied housing unit was $82,500 in 2011—almost double the 2000 average of $47,300. Unemployment stands at 9.2%, while the median household income is only $35,000—significantly lower than the rest of Texas, where the average is $50,920, according to the US Census Bureau. There is no major industry in Marfa. The US Border Patrol is one of the town’s largest employers.
Because of this, “tourism dollars are a big deal for us”, says the town’s mayor, Dan Dunlap. Art is Marfa’s main draw. It is a point of pride for the Chinati Foundation that people make pilgrimages to see the works on show. Rob Weiner, the foundation’s associate director, estimates that visitors to the institution have doubled since 2004, and that around 11,000 people came in 2012. That number is only a portion of Marfa’s cultural tourists, who come for film festivals, concerts and other exhibitions. Tourists boost the local economy by patronising the town’s restaurants, shops and hotels (which have a 7% tax that goes to the town).
While Marfa remains an active centre for artists such as Jeff Elrod and Christopher Wool, who live in the town part-time, there is not a significant commercial scene. “The workforce is small so it’s hard to staff galleries full-time, and there wouldn’t be much point, as visitors aren’t there all the time,” says the archaeologist and historian Melissa Keane. Artists sell work through their international galleries, and collectors do not go to Marfa to buy. The town has little money to contribute to the arts. The lawyer Tim Crowley is a major patron, but otherwise, “there are not a lot of family foundations. There’s zero corporate support,” says the local development consultant J.D. DiFabbio.
Local cultural bodies are growing and seeking donations from further afield. The biggest and most expensive project to be produced by the local non-profit organisation Ballroom Marfa is the Drive-In. Aimed at a local audience, it is meant to be a populist platform for events such as local and international film screenings and music performances, and is due to be built in the coming years (the cost is estimated to be less than $10m). Much of the fundraising will take place outside Marfa, so the organisation is drumming up interest by teaming up with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Public Concern Foundation in New York this month to stage the “Marfa Dialogues”, a series of panel discussions, performances and exhibitions about climate change.
Local support comes in the form of land. The county is a partner in the Drive-In and donated a 99-year lease for eight acres in Vizcaino Park at a rate of $1 a year. Conceived in 2006, the project coalesced as a partnership with Presidio County in 2011, the same year it won a $250,000 “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ballroom matched the sum in March.
Local people will construct the site, and many in the regional arts scene see it as an example of the role non-profits play in “growing a kind of community here that will stay and contribute, and create businesses”, says Ballroom’s deputy director, Melissa McDonnell Luján.
Advertising or art?
The Texas department of transport has classified two works as illegal outdoor advertising signs: Prada Marfa, 2005, by Elmgreen & Dragset, and Playboy Marfa, 2013, designed by the artist Richard Phillips with Playboy’s creative director of special projects, Neville Wakefield. Both bear trademarked logos and sit by a highway in the West Texan desert that is protected from advertising. Prada did not commission Prada Marfa, but Miuccia Prada did give permission for the use of its brand. The work was produced by Ballroom Marfa and the Art Production Fund. Playboy leased 6,000 sq. ft of land from local people for $20,000 a year for Playboy Marfa. The work has no other direct link to the town. Many in the community have rallied behind Prada Marfa. Although the transport department maintains that the work is illegal, it has not issued a removal order—but Playboy Marfa has received a second removal order and is due to be taken down by 23 December.
The writer is an associate editor at Texas Monthly
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