4.12 / Rewind

New Growth, Contemporary Art, and Its Discontents: Dispatches from the Frontier

By crystal am nelson March 26, 2013
United States Air Force aerostat ballon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo: farrider.us.
Marfa, a city whose allure in the art world extends far beyond those who have actually visited, stands alone, geographically and culturally. Located in the Chihuahuan Desert/Big Bend region of far western Texas, it is a six-hour drive from Austin and three hours from the nearest international airport, in El Paso. The town’s biggest employers are national law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Border Patrol, and more than twenty of the best paying jobs in Marfa are with the U.S. Air Force’s aerostat program, a surveillance initiative that utilizes a large, chubby zeppelin to survey the region and locate clandestine border-crossers and drug smugglers.1

With its grandiose size and comical bubble shape, the zeppelin, which is anchored in a field about fifty miles outside of the city center, resembles a Jeff Koons sculpture. The comparison is fitting given that, second to law enforcement, Marfa’s next source of income is its tourist-driven art scene. Unlike similar small towns whose arts populations consist primarily of crafters and plein-air painters, Marfa’s art scene is serious business, despite its remote location and scarce amenities. Much of what has been written about Marfa has cast its growing popularity as a destination within the global art market as something positive for residents who predate the boom, but as with any community in transition, things on the ground present a far more complex picture. 

The person responsible for putting Marfa on the art-world map was the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, who first came to Marfa in 1971 to escape the speculative marketeering of the New York art scene. In 1979, with the Dia Foundation’s support, he acquired a decommissioned military base in Marfa and spent the next twenty-three years until his death in 1994 converting the 340-acre property into a contemporary art museum of permanent, large-scale installations by him and his contemporaries, most notably Dan Flavin. The Chinati Foundation is the epicenter of Marfa’s art-tourism industry and responsible for attracting approximately ten thousand visitors per year—an impressive number considering that there are larger museums in bigger cities that attract fewer visitors annually. Certainly the image of the lone artist as pioneer, taming the Wild West through aesthetics, is a striking and romantic one, aligned with the aura and history of western Texas. However, Judd did not discover Marfa so much as Marfa called out to him, as it has to many others before him, including those in Hollywood.2

Today, a growing number of international residency programs—including a long-running one at the Chinati Foundation, at the exhibition venue Marfa Contemporary, and at Fieldwork Marfa, which is co-managed by Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ESBA) Nantes Métropole in France and Haute Ecole d'Art et de Design (HEAD) in Geneva, Switzerland (and where I am presently an artist-in-residence)—host programs that seasonally draw many coastal elites, as well as affluent Texans from Austin, Houston, and Dallas. In passing conversations with several tourists and part-time residents, I learned that what they love most about Marfa is the striking juxtaposition of its frontier-town feel and near-barren, desert surroundings against its sophisticated blue-chip art scene, which largely revolves around opening seasons in the spring and fall.

Marfa’s spring exhibition season was well underway on March 8, 2013, with the opening of Rashid Johnson’s Ballroom Marfa exhibition, New Growth, which was produced in response to the following question: “What would happen if Sun Ra, George Washington Carver, and Robert Smithson started a community in the desert?” Johnson’s hypothesis is far more interesting than the work on view: gratuitous amounts of shea butter sitting atop branded faux-Persian rugs and various other home furnishings covered in burnt wax and African black soap, most of which materials the artist has previously exhibited in various forms. The materials are rich historical and political signifiers, but they lose their iconographic power through Johnson’s contextualizing efforts (or lack thereof) for Ballroom Marfa’s audience. Shea butter and African black soap are not so much a means for black Americans to topically enhance one’s African-ness, as Johnson told the audience at his March 9 artist talk, much to my chagrin and much to the amusement of the largely white audience. Rather, using these African-sourced and -made—and usually black American–sold—products can be seen as a way for black Americans to assert autonomy in a market driven by the needs and desires of European Americans. I’m not suggesting Johnson needs to default to didacticism in his work, but his Marfa debut was a moment for him to specifically respond to the town as a unique socio-historical site.

"Welcome to Marfa" billboard. Photo: crystal am nelson.

This disconnection between the work and its surroundings is best exemplified by the newly commissioned Shea Butter Irrigation System (2013), for which Johnson has loaded the kind of industrial sprinkler used by ranchers with large blocks of shea butter. Johnson hopes the lubricant will melt and fertilize the sand beneath it, encouraging some new species of vegetation to grow. However, Shea Butter Irrigation System’s aspirations are more compelling than its realization, primarily because the giant sculpture is uninvitingly squeezed into Ballroom Marfa’s tiny walled-off courtyard. Its location in this fortified area prohibits passersby from watching the piece unfold over time. Johnson’s installation attempts to intervene in the agrarian economy on which many locals’ livelihoods are based, but it instead underscores the absence of cross-cultural conviviality between segments of the population in this close-quartered town.

Of the twenty-one works on view, I was most drawn to another new commission, Samuel in Space (2013), a five-minute film Johnson produced in Marfa’s desert landscape that depicts a black man gamboling through prairie grass at dusk. Wide shots of the spinning and twirling title character alternate with close-ups of him staring into the sun. His playfulness and joyful movements suggest that this is his first time not only in the desert but also outdoors and in the sunshine. During his artist talk, Johnson noted that, as a young boy growing up in Chicago, he did not fantasize escaping to many places. Traveling abroad seemed out of his reach and journeying to the southern United States did not seem like a viable option, either.3 Although Chicago’s pollution obscured the stars, Johnson became fixated on celestial space and its planetary and theoretical relatives, leading to his fascination and direct engagement with speculative fiction of black subjectivity and radical imagination. Although Samuel in Space loses ground cinematographically, and its concept is more intriguing than its execution, Johnson plays liberally and successfully with various conceptions of space and their relationship to his escape fantasies, in which physical, psychological, and social freedoms are implicated. 

While Ballroom Marfa’s co-founder noted the significance of New Growth as the venue’s first solo exhibition at the nonprofit space in its ten years of operation and of snaring a blue-chip artist for this milestone, I found its import lay in the opening reception and the catered dinner that followed.4 I had only been in Marfa for one week, and I had no expectations for the art scene other than for it to be a unique and eclectic social milieu. To be certain, Marfa’s cultural landscape is distinctive, largely because of its storied history as a border town and early railroad water-stop layered with its current status as a sophisticated arts destination for visitors from bigger cultural capitals both near and far, but my observations of New Growth’s opening-night events revealed sociocultural complexities in the town that belie its designation as an “oasis.”5,6

Back when a cross-country railroad seemed like miraculous feat, Marfa was the place where many of the economically displaced found a way to make a living. The incorporated town was initially founded as a water stop for the railroad, whose workers included Chinese and Japanese immigrants. With the railroad came ranchers. Of course, given that Texas was once Mexico, there were many Mexican families already in the town when a railroad magnate’s wife reportedly christened the town Marfa, after reading the name in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. After litigious efforts to reduce the Asian influence and population in the country, Marfa became a largely Mexican American and Anglo American frontier where people lived in relative peace until the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata revolted against Mexico’s feudal conditions. From 1914 to 1920, the revolution’s escalating violence drove thousands of Mexicans across the border from Ojinaga, Chihuahua, to Presidio, Texas, and then to Marfa, where many stayed to take advantage of the agricultural work as well as the federal aid offered by then-president Woodrow Wilson’s administration.7 By the 1930s, western Texas suffered an economic downward spiral due to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and Marfa was one of the many communities that experienced great difficulty in recovering.8

Marfa’s recent art boom has been a double-edged sword for those who trace their roots in the town back several generations. Like in many other gentrified communities, the income to cost-of-living ratio is shockingly low, and the art scene offers few well-paying jobs for which long-term residents are qualified to work. So on one hand, the arrival of high art and culture has increased property values and brought with it five-star businesses that are beyond the pay grade of many native Marfans. For example, the high-concept boutique Tienda M, located on North Highland Street, the city’s main shopping district, sells a limited selection of handmade apparel and home furnishings with price tags upwards of $800. When I asked the shop’s clerk who her customers are, she admitted that most are visitors during the Chinati Foundation’s annual fall open house; the shop generates nearly its entire annual revenue during that one weekend. Yet, on the other hand, the tourism brings much-needed revenue, even if it’s largely seasonal. As Robert Halpern, Big Bend Sentinel’s editor-in-chief, noted while we observed the afternoon traffic on Highland Avenue, the main thoroughfare: when parking is a problem, Marfa is doing well; when finding parking is easy, then folks need to worry.

This observation is supported by a quick review of the city’s economic data. Marfa’s per-capita household income is less than $18,733 and 26 percent of the city’s households have an income below $15,000. The unemployment rate is 4 points higher than the national rate while the job growth rate is almost –3 percent.9 Based on these numbers, it isn’t surprising that, when asked, several full-time residents admitted that they must work at least two jobs to remain in the city. Evidence of the art boom’s economic pressure on long-time residents also can be found in the real-estate brochures for the Big Bend area. While one can still buy empty lots for as little as $10,000, many more properties sell upwards of $500,000, and a handful is listed for over $1 million.10 From this data, one can readily extrapolate the new target demographic for the new creative economy that has put Marfa on the art-world map.

Rashid Johnson. Shea Butter Irrigation System, 2013; street view; central pivot irrigation unit, shea butter, black soap, wax; 90x10x14'. Photo: crystal am nelson.

All of this is not to ignore the efforts that organizations such as Chinati and Ballroom and even Fieldwork make to reach out to those who fall outside of Marfa’s art economy. For example, Chinati runs youth arts-education programs and offers several open-house events and regular free programing for area residents. Ballroom Marfa also provides youth arts education and a full roster of diverse cultural events; their openings and related events are always free and open to the public. However, I found many of their lectures geared more toward those already participating in the global art conversation rather than to multigenerational ranchers or to recent Hispanic immigrants who migrate to Marfa for the agricultural opportunities and for whom English might be a second language.

As I stood in line at the catered semi-vegan buffet for New Growth’s opening reception and observed the crowd, which could be almost indistinguishable from those I’ve seen at openings in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, or Miami, I thought about my background in nonprofit arts marketing and outreach.11 It is notoriously difficult for organizations of any size to reach every constituent, especially those who historically have been denied from or lacked access to cultural resources either due to financial hardship or the cultivated sense—as a result of denied access—that such resources are irrelevant to their daily lives. There are no easy answers to address the disparities between those who want to and can regularly access cultural capital and those who can’t or see no reason to do so. However, the larger issues of relevancy and obligation require deeper examination, especially in light of the increasing pace of gentrification in urban and rural communities, where the original population is displaced and will never gain the long-term benefits of their neighborhood’s revitalization.12 In the numerous conversations I’ve had with people both inside and just on the periphery of Marfa’s art scene, similar questions came up, with regard to the noticeable absence at the New Growth’s opening receptions of local Marfans who are not already in the art world: Do “non-scene” locals have any interest in contemporary art? Would they look at Rashid Johnson’s Shea Butter Irrigation System and think that he’s the one who just doesn’t get it? Are organizations like Ballroom Marfa obligated to reach out to those who may not find their programming relevant to daily life or to give back to the community beyond the tourist income they generate? And is all of this okay? 

Over the course of the three weeks that I have been in Marfa, I have gained the impression that residents are reconciled to this disconnection between the art-scene regulars and the public at large. Each group has their chosen, though far from exclusive, haunts. Those in the scene have the Ballroom Marfa events, the Marfa Book Company (which doubles as a gallery and event space), and the various incarnations of the Food Shark epicurean enterprise, among others. Multigenerational Marfans and long-term residents outside of the scene—including employees of the U.S. Border Patrol and members of the area’s other law enforcement and government agencies—have Mando’s Restaurant and Bar, Padres Marfa (a restaurant and bar that occasionally hosts film screenings and live music), the Lost Horse Saloon (which has billiards and regularly offers live music), and the Marfa Public Library (which offers a weekly Tuesday-night video screening from its large DVD and VHS collection).

Rashid Johnson's New Growth opening reception dinner at the Capri event space at the Thunderbird Inn, Friday, March 8, 2013. Photo: crystal am nelson.

On occasion, there are events that have the right components to bring together the town’s seemingly divergent populations. For example, Spring Break Drive-In, a car rally launched on March 16, had something for everyone. Attendees were invited to bring their (mostly vintage) cars or other vehicles for an outdoor exhibit at El Cosmico, a concept hotel that, in the business’s words, “is part vintage trailer, safari tent and teepee hotel and campground, part creative lab, greenhouse and amphitheater—a community space that fosters and agitates artistic and intellectual exchange.”13 This event coincided with the grand re-opening, inside El Cosmico’s main building, of Reading Room Marfa, a fantastic alternative library project by Caitlin Murray, the girlfriend of Marfa Book Company’s curator/manager Tim Johnson.14 The confluence of these two events is a perfect example of how Marfans—whether native, long-term, or seasonal—make common ground in spite of it often seeming that none can be found, at least to an outsider such as myself who is perhaps quicker to cast a critical eye. Revitalization initiatives spawned by the contemporary art market not only construct and reconstruct space but can also reinforce longstanding class and educational divides even as they provide programmed opportunities to bridge them. Both outcomes are present in Marfa, although its potential to make good on the latter sets it apart as an art capital, one that I have already begun to miss even though there’s still time before I leave.



  1. From a conversation with Marfa city administrator Jim Mustard. More information on the aerostat program and its economic implications for Marfa can be found at the website Big Bend Now, http://bigbendnow.com/2013/01/aerostat-days-may-be-numbered/, and http://bigbendnow.com/2013/02/petition-seeks-to-keep-aerostat-aloft/.
  2. Working back from recent history, in 2007 the Coen Brothers filmed their critically acclaimed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men (Knopf, 2005) in Marfa, and in the same year, Paul Thomas Anderson filmed There Will Be Blood, his Oscar-worthy adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! (Albert & Charles Boni, 1927). Fifty years earlier, the studio Warner Brothers set their star-studded cowboy epic, Giant, at the Ryan Ranch in Marfa, bringing James Dean, Dennis Hopper, and Elizabeth Taylor to the isolated border town for two months.
  3. Johnson explicitly points to the Deep South’s history of Jim Crow as one of the reasons he did not consider it an option for escape. I would add that, growing up in what he claims was an Afrocentric household, he may have been warned away from the South by stories of Emmett Till, another young black boy from Chicago who, in the summer of 1953, while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, was lynched for not following the sociocultural codes of conduct that governed interracial encounters between black males of all ages and white women. The Emmett Till story left an indelible mark on black Chicagoans and black families across the country for decades following Till’s murder and the acquittal of his confessed killers.
  4. During her introduction to Johnson’s presentation on March 9, 2013, Ballroom Marfa’s co-founder, Fairfax Dorn, made a public announcement about this.
  5. Various sources told me that many of those who visit Marfa during the high seasons of spring and fall, or who live in Marfa part-time but who own homes in the city, come from either New York or San Francisco. I personally encountered a highly successful web-based entrepreneur from Austin who was seeking a third home, for his daughter and her boyfriend. He and his wife already owned a second home in Marfa.
  6. Neda Ulaby, “Marfa Texas: An Unlikely Art Oasis in a Desert Town,” National Public Radio, August 2, 2012, accessed on March 9, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2012/08/02/156980469/marfa-texas-an-unlikely-art-oasis-in-a-desert-town.
  7. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson opened the borders to the refugees and ordered the border patrol and the military to escort them to safety, despite the presumed safety of internment camps. During the winter of 1914 alone, the U.S. government spent nearly $45,000 to transport, house, secure, and feed the Mexican refugees, which would equal just over $1 million today. There are some reports that during this time, the U.S. government also invited Mexicans to relocate to Texas, where they were given tracts of land to farm.
  8. For more information on the Dust Bowl and its impact on farming and ranching communities in western Texas, see the Texas State Historical Association website, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ydd01.
  9. Sperling’s Best Places, “Economy in Marfa, Texas,” accessed March 18, 2013, http://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/texas/marfa.
  10. Big Bend Real Estate Guide, March 2013.
  11. I possess about a decade of experience working for arts and educational nonprofit organizations on the East and West Coasts. Each organization I have worked for has faced the same issue of cultivating historically underserved groups, whether they are people of color, immigrants, the undereducated, or the working poor of all ethnic backgrounds, including whites. Overwhelmingly, the common conclusion is that what is broadly called “the arts”—and its antecedents such as community building, activism, and even education—are not universally valued or considered relevant by everyone to their daily lives. While there are many arguments for the universal value of these things, the fact remains that if one was never taught to value art or is struggling to make ends meet, art, culture, activism, and personal edification seem like luxuries one cannot afford even if they are freely available. Also, it is important to note that hosting free or low-cost events is not the same as concerted community outreach strategies that target specific groups who have different cultural values than those represented by a specific institution or the contemporary art scene. The related issue of cultural paternalism (that is, the implicated idea that art-world denizens and the highly educated know what is best for “the masses” and must initiate them to the cultural sphere) is also important here, but is beyond the scope of this article to address.
  12. Some of the most notable communities that have undergone this process include Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn; Hell’s Kitchen, the East Village, Alphabet City, and Harlem in Manhattan; the South Bronx and Co-Op City in the Bronx; the Mission, Fillmore/Western Addition, and the Dogpatch in San Francisco; and Echo Park and Silver Lake in Los Angeles. For more information on the relationship between contemporary art and gentrification, see Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (MIT Press, 1996) by the urban studies theorist and art historian Rosalyn Deutsche.
  13. From the El Cosmico website, accessed on March 19, 2013, http://elcosmico.com/index.php.
  14. Learn more about Reading Room Marfa at http://readingroommarfa.com/index.php/calendar/.

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