Life in the Tiny Texas Town of Marfa Before the Pandemic Was Hard Enough. Here’s What It’s Like Now

Bars and restaurants have closed, and people are scrambling to figure out ways to get by.

City Hall in Marfa, Texas, which has been hit especially hard by shutdowns across the US. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images.
City Hall in Marfa, Texas, which has been hit especially hard by shutdowns across the US. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images.

It’s tough to make a living in Marfa; as the saying goes in this Texas town, where I’ve lived on and off since 2015, most people wear several hats. Someone may give tours at the Chinati or Judd foundations during the day and serve drinks at the Lost Horse Saloon at night.

But during the pandemic, neither has been an option. As is the case with museums across the country, the Judd Foundation has suspended its guided visits program and Chinati has laid off its docents. As for the saloon, it plans to reopen under new management in September.

The numbers are stark. In this town of only 2,000 inhabitants, a lull in tourism has forced Chinati to downsize 21 part-time docents and exhibition assistants (some of whom live in the nearby town of Fort Davis and Alpine). Add to that the four part-time visitor services staff and one full-time installation custodian who have also been let go, plus the eight part-time guides out of work at the Judd Foundation, and the figures really start to pile up.

To their credit, the Judd Foundation paid its guides through June, and Chinati offered severance pay. Yet former Chinati docent Shea Carley still needed to pick up remote odd jobs, like creating graphic designs for local businesses, or processing and scanning film on demand. But, as Carley noted, this is hardly a source of income: she estimates that she’s lost between $150 and $200 per week since she was let go.

A cactus casts a shadow in the early morning sun against the wall of a building in Marfa. Photo by Epics/Getty Images.

A cactus casts a shadow in the early morning sun against the wall of a building in Marfa. Photo by Epics/Getty Images.

The pandemic was relatively slow to reach Marfa, which is a three-hour drive from the nearest commercial airport or major city. When Texas’s shelter-in-place orders went into effect on April 2, the city still didn’t have its first case of COVID-19. Still, on March 12, as a precautionary measure, Chinati announced its closure and the Judd Foundation followed suit the next day by suspending its guided-visits program.

Recent reports have shown record layoffs and furloughs at museums around the US in response to the ever-lingering coronavirus pandemic, and frontline art workers—visitors services associates, museum guards, and docents, whose jobs rely on museums and galleries staying open—have been especially vulnerable. 

In big cities, these art workers might be able to find alternative employment. But job losses hit small towns like Marfa the hardest. Although the Chinati Foundation now offers visitors self-guided tours, that does little to help the guides left without work. And it’s not just the museum or its workers that are hurt by the pandemic. According to the Chinati Foundation, 49,000 people visited the institution in 2019. Those visitors also directly affect the livelihoods of locals who run businesses that rely heavily on tourist dollars.

In total, according to the city of Marfa’s visitor center director, Minerva Lopez, before the pandemic, 19 restaurants were open. But as of August 26, that number was down to 13. Alongside the Lost Horse Saloon, Stellina, Food Shark, and Aster are among the restaurants that have closed, albeit hopefully only temporarily. And Buck Johnston, owner of the Wrong Marfa gallery and shop, was forced to figure out how to run her business online until she could safely reopen.

The Food Shark food truck, a Marfa institution, shuttered in recent weeks. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images.

The Food Shark food truck, a Marfa institution, shuttered in recent weeks. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images.

Peering Into Deserted Buildings

Even though Chinati’s major attractions are closed, I was able to visit some museum buildings in late July. As I walked along Highland Avenue, a building full of John Chamberlain works loomed large on my left. I walked up to the quarter-framed windows Judd installed on its sides and looked in at the largest collection of permanently installed sculptures by Chamberlain anywhere in the world.

While I could not circle the works (the building was closed), I could still get a sense of scale, color, facture, and mass. Elsewhere, Robert Irwin’s untitled (dawn to dusk) (2016), located near the southwest edge of town, is the newest addition to Chinati’s collection, and encapsulates the entirety of a building and its courtyard. It remains largely accessible, with outdoor benches offering quiet moments of reflection beneath the mesquite trees.

These buildings make me wonder if there is not a way to adapt to the pandemic by offering outdoor guided tours of the museum’s buildings and artworks. With the coronavirus still making its march across the US, it would be difficult and perhaps reckless to run the museum as usual. And Marfa does have some unique disadvantages: the nearest intensive-care unit is nearly 170 miles away. The Texas legislature has not made things any easier. By framing the problem as a choice between the economy and our health, Republicans such as Lt. Governor Dan Patrick have sowed division among Texas communities.

Works by Donald Judd on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images).

Works by Donald Judd on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images).

But there is some incentive to reopen at least partially. According to Jenny Moore, the Chinati Foundation’s director, the institution anticipates a 47 percent loss of annual revenue this year.

And either way, the tourists seem finally to be returning. Public records show that money seems to be coming back to Marfa’s largest hotel, the Saint George: while its revenue in May was down 66 percent from the same time last year, in July it made only 5 percent less than in July 2019.

So maybe there could be an opportunity for docents to come back to work, too.

A revised tour of the open-air parts of the collection could be designed with special attention to safety, and with an emphasis on the buildings and landscapes of Marfa that surround the art.

Docents could “zoom” into visitors’ cell phones and have live conversations about Judd’s civic concerns and the landscape that drew him to this city. An open-air tour might also give the museum an opportunity to fulfill part of its master plan by more fully integrating Chinati’s buildings and artworks in other parts of Marfa—like the Locker Plant and Ice Plant downtown—into the program.

Buck Johnston, owner of the Wrong Marfa gallery and shop, ran her business online until she could safely re-open. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images.

Buck Johnston, owner of the Wrong Marfa gallery and shop, ran her business online until she could safely reopen. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images.

One thing about Marfa that has always appealed to me, and which hasn’t seemed to change, is the sense of community that ties the town together.

While restaurants around the country remain shuttered or only partially open, Marfa’s artistic community has banded together to try to save theirs by producing and selling solidarity bonds. Local artists contributed a design for the bond, which customers could buy and redeem at local restaurants once they reopened. The money spent on the bonds went directly toward a business’s immediate overhead costs. The initiative, organized by Marfa Steps Up, a volunteer group of community members, sold over 2,700 bonds and raised more than $85,000.

The example serves as a lovely illustration of the fact that art workers are both employees and neighbors, those we depend on at the office, wave to at the grocery store, or sit next to at the bar. 

In these hard times, cash-strapped museums have been forced to make tough decisions, but maybe, with some creative thinking and the continued influx of tourist dollars, safe and novel programming can revive ailing institutions and the people they depend on.

Max Tolleson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently working on his dissertation, “The Museum After Minimalism: Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, 1979–Present.” He relocated to Marfa this year.


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