Small Town No Hospital.

As foundations close, Marfa's reliant art market crumbles during COVID

Small Town No Hospital.

Image Courtesy of the Writer

There’s a bluntness to the opening sentence of Marfa’s tourism website — “Quite simply, art in Marfa is what put this town of 1,800 on the map” — that feels refreshingly honest for the genre. The Hotel Paisano, Marfa’s de facto tourist digs, would like you to believe the town’s celebrity is owed to the 1956 film Giant, starring James Dean as the wildcatter Jett Rink, for whom the hotel bar is named. The Paisano’s ground floor has dedicated several store fronts to Giant memorabilia and a considerable portion of its wall space to signed portraits of the cast and blown-up photos of co-stars Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor on set, sweltering under the West Texas sun. Most everyone else in town attributes Marfa’s tourism draw to a different mononym: Judd. Donald Judd’s signature Helvetica Neue Bold font pervades the town’s restaurant menus, gallery signage, and advertisements.

Donald Judd became a full-time Marfan in 1976 and, with the help of the Dia Art Foundation, set about transforming the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell military base and surrounding ranch land into a sprawling, 32,000-acre home for the Specific Objects that now attract tens of thousands of tourists each year. The property was known collectively as Ayala de Chinati during his lifetime, “ayala” being a Basque word denoting where hills, in this case the Chinati Mountains, meet pasture. Judd’s Objects, along with works by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, and other artists, now occupy three sites around town.

These locations range from repurposed mohair warehouses to former airplane hangars and their surrounding pastureland. After Judd’s passing in 1994, care of Ayala de Chinati fell equally to the Chinati and Judd Foundations, the latter of which maintains an office in downtown Marfa. The Judd office is the only building in town that rivals the Hotel Paisano in grandeur, glaringly white except for its brick-red “JUDD,” painted in his font, above the front door, which was locked when we arrived. I peered through the tall storefront windows, imagining a row of receptionists sitting up straight on his signature spartan plywood chairs, facing matching plywood desks, the chair backs’ height matched perfectly to the tabletops.

I have no idea what the Chinati Foundation’s chairs and desks look like, nor, for that matter, what anything kept indoors at Chinati — which holds the vast majority of Judd, Flavin, and Chamberlain’s work — looks like. The foundations, along with Ballroom Marfa, another non-profit in town, founded with help from NYC’s Art Production Fund, were closed to the public due to a particularly alarming uptick in COVID-19 cases during the latter half of June.

A month earlier, there were eighteen cases in the area. A one percent infection rate is not great, but only very slightly above the (albeit dubiously accurate) nationally reported average. Two weeks before my visit, there were one hundred and forty cases. That represents a sevenfold increase over fourteen days, or a fifty percent increase per day, had the disease followed a linear trend. Instead, fifty-one of those cases came in a single day.

Marfans’ stakes are markedly higher than that of the average Texan or American. They can be summarized by the signs wallpapering storefronts in town, “SMALL TOWN. NO HOSPITAL.” This is not a unique predicament among Far West Texans. If you live in Presidio or Brewster Counties, the nearest available hospital is the Big Bend Regional Medical Center (BBRMC), which, as reported by Abbie Perrault in the July 4th issue of the Big Bend Sentinel, had already been forced to transfer patients to the Medical Center Health System (MCHS) in Odessa one hundred and fifty miles away.

Unfortunately, MCHS stopped accepting transfer patients from BBRMC following the death of an Alpine man in his seventies, the area’s first COVID-related death. While the residents of Alpine, Valentine and Presidio, Marfa’s closest neighbors, have taken similar precautions to Marfans in recent weeks, their livelihoods are not nearly as tied to tourism and its accompanying health risks as the businessowners, gallerists, and restaurateurs of Marfa.

In Judd’s shadow, an art scene has grown around Marfa, mostly consisting of smaller galleries that do not benefit from the support of influential museums and foundations such as the Brant and Dia Art Foundations, Guggenheim Museum, or the Menil Collection. The same cannot be said of the Judd, Chinati, or Ayn Foundations, the latter of which benefits from all of the above. Ayn also had a trio of Andy Warhol’s Last Supper works up during my visit that could be viewed almost completely if one sat on the sidewalk and laid back slightly, peering under the vinyl and “CLOSED” signs that cover the frontage.

A short walk down the street sat the RULE Gallery, which has locations in both Denver and Marfa and was showing the final weekend of Diego Rodriguez-Warner’s solo show, Then, Again. This was my introduction to Rodriguez-Warner’s engaging collages on canvas and wood. RULE Marfa utilizes a converted house in downtown Marfa rather ingeniously, presenting the rooms on either side of the front door as a contemporary gallery space, replete with white walls and track lighting. The pair of rear gallery spaces are staged as a sitting room leading to a bedroom. Here the light is a bit softer and the artwork is hung around paired-down furniture and shelving. Two books on Judd and an alarm clock perch beside the bed. No chargers or empty cups. Unobtrusive affectations like a mousehole in the floorboards, replete with a stuffed woolen mouse, accentuate the space.

Predominantly, Marfa’s non-profit organizations can afford to shutter their public spaces, while many of the smaller for-profit galleries need to remain open by appointment (or simply with doors open and masks on) to stay viable. When the source of one’s funding is not tethered to foot traffic, however, one can better afford to stay closed to the public in a pandemic.

The Judd Foundation’s budget in a given year is decided in the preceding year by its benefactors who take into account the Foundation’s upcoming program. This spring, New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened the largest retrospective of Judd’s work since his death the month before MoMA, along with the rest of New York City, had to close down. Several galleries planned concurrent exhibitions of Judd’s work to the show at MoMA that were delayed or canceled as well. Galleries and museums can promote the Judd Foundation’s financial interests while the Foundation itself remains closed, through private sales and the associated clout of a retrospective, respectively. As such, the Judd Foundation’s threshold for closing can be lower than that of, say, RULE. Apart from their physical locations on a full city block in downtown Marfa and Soho’s Greene Street, Judd is visible through exhibitions at museums and galleries in major cities. RULE, on the other hand, has locations in a small house off downtown Marfa’s main drag and Denver, CO, both of which rely heavily on foot traffic as a source of business.

To use Instagram followers as a readily accessible metric of visibility, RULE has 8,804 followers at the time of writing, the Judd Foundation has 101,000, MoMA has 5.1 million, and the world’s two largest contemporary galleries have 1.9 million combined. By extension of its associations, 6.8 million people are exposed to Donald Judd’s work, 772 times RULE’s online audience, without admitting a single visitor (assuming everyone who follows Judd also follows Gagosian, David Zwirner, and MoMA).

The relationship between the Judd Foundation and RULE Gallery is closest to symbiosis, like a tiger shark allowing remoras to clean its teeth in exchange for protection, particularly when one considers that the town supports about a dozen galleries like RULE — despite Judd being Marfa’s main draw. The same can be said of Marfa’s restaurants, most of which remained open during my visit. The distinction between “open” and closed restaurants at the time was complicated by the Hotels Paisano and St. George deciding to only serve hotel guests. While doing nothing to deter tourism, this encourages tourists to spend more money within the hotel instead of circulating it through local businesses and restaurants.

Just around the corner from the Hotel Paisano, at the Water Stop, watermelon umbrella drinks and some of the best roast chicken I’ve ever eaten were being served up by a staff doing their best to keep a safe distance from the tourists, like me, while still serving the local devotees. Nearby Marfa Burrito remained tantalizingly out of my grasp for the first four mornings in town. Owner Ramona Tejada, whose home is adjacent to the restaurant on the same property, had either sold out that day or decided not to open out of concern for her staff, made up of two women who help her serve entirely handmade burritos out of her home’s kitchen each day until they sell out. I didn’t get the chance to ask on my fifth early-morning foray, when it was so busy that half the menu had sold out and only a small mound of masa remained next to the tortilla station, where a woman methodically rolled out each chewy, flaky tortilla by hand before frying them on the griddle.

While restaurants in town make the majority of their money on hungry tourists, they also provide essential services to the foundations’ employees in town, many of whom were still coming into work at Chinati and Ballroom’s offices and all of whom will have few better alternatives than gas station tacos should places like Marfa Burrito and the Water Stop close down.

The symbiosis between galleries like RULE and the foundations is a bit more complicated. Without Judd, there would almost certainly not be enough foot traffic to justify an outpost for RULE in Marfa, the town no more than a small West Texas stop-off where a movie about ranchers-turned-oilmen was once set. This relationship works sustainably because, for the vast majority of those in Marfa and the rest of the world, Judd is an artist to be viewed at museums and foundations, not owned. In a healthy Marfan economy, foot traffic drawn to see Judd end up collecting artists represented by the galleries in town, like Diego Rodriguez-Warner, whose work ranges from $1,000 to $15,000.

For galleries whose only location is in Marfa, the above is even more prescient. These are the art sales that actually circulate money through the Marfan economy, paying landlords and buying breakfast burritos. In essence, we are left with a system in which even when the foundations choose to close (and understandably so, given the heightened stakes in Marfa) the tenuously supported surrounding ecosystem of businesses have to stay open if they want to stay afloat. As the foundations remain closed until further notice, what are Marfans to do until Giant gets a reboot?

Tim Hood

is an art correspondent for Soft Punk, living in New York City.

All contributions from Tim Hood

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