Contemporary art Conservation USA

The economics of Marfa

Tourism revenue is needed, but are locals being priced out of the area?

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa, 2005

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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6 Jan 14
17:15 CET


The economics of Marfa being dependent on tourism and art is somewhat true. The reality is that tourists are faced with many challenges after they arrive in this somewhat isolated area. Restaurants are not able to staff properly as well as the hotels and resorts in the region. The local population does not provide the workforce necessary and if outside staff were recruited, there is no affordable housing available. Many tourists complain about the lack of restaurant choices, especially in Marfa. Because Marfa receives so much media attention, the expectation of tourists is high as they can only go by what is advertised. If Marfa was able to be more accommodating to tourists, then better economy might follow. As far as the housing market, prices remain high due to the number of buyers that come from other areas where higher real estate prices are the norm and the inflated Marfa prices do not seem unreasonable.

20 Nov 13
15:26 CET


Well articulated, Vilis. Marfa's economy has indeed become a tourism-based one, and the tourism is in most part due to the art and cultural elements. And I'd be willing to bet there are more art and culture focused foundations-per-capita in Marfa than any other community in the world.

16 Nov 13
16:50 CET


If Marfa did not have art, it would likely be a ghost town. The local pop fell from 2,200 to under 2,000 between 2000-10. This despite the boom in its art scene. The economics are problematic, but the same exist in most cities. Gentrification pushes up prices and we always ask, there do the indigenous people go? There is good and bad in progress. This is NOT really about local ranching families, but the Mex/Am population which makes up about 80% of the town. Many, but not all, will say that the growth of the tourist industry does provide more jobs than would otherwise exist. It is difficult to watch a $5+ Mil art project go up and not ask "couldn't that money be put to better use?" But the truth of the matter is that the $$ to fund these projects would not land in Marfa (for community arts programming, etc.). So, Marfa simply needs to continue to evolve. Friction between Marfa's communities is minimal. Articles such as these are superficial. Art is good for Marfa!

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