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The Judd Effect

Illustration by Michael A. Hill for Texas Architect; PHOTO COURTESY FORD, POWELL & CARSON

b y J . B r a n t l e y H i g h t o w e r , AIA

When she was young, Valda Livingston learned to accept that no one had ever heard of her hometown. There was no particular reason anyone should have heard of Marfa since it was located in the proverbial middle of nowhere between San Antonio and El Paso. That is why she was suspicious years later when a man from New York told her he was “going to put Marfa on the map of the art world.” Livingston was working as a realtor in Marfa in the late 1970s when Donald Judd made that claim and began buying up properties all over town. She was thankful for the business even if she was unsure of Judd’s ability to succeed in elevating Marfa’s cultural status. Today, Marfa has attained a level of cultural status unimaginable when Judd first walked into Livingston’s office. The standard story is that Marfa was a dying community on the edge of the frontier when a maverick artist arrived and saved the town from disappearing into the Chihuahuan Desert. It is a compelling story, but one that is not entirely true. Judd and the Chinati Foundation he founded certainly did establish Marfa as a pilgrimage destination for diehard minimalist art fans, but when Judd died in 1994 Marfa was in many ways only subtly different than before he arrived. However, in the more than 10 that have passed since his death, Marfa has been transformed. No longer a small town with an art community at its periphery, it has become a small town that is an art community. With the possible exception of the Marfa Mystery Lights, the Chinati Foundation was the only show in town in the years immediately after Judd’s death. But the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the steady emergence of cultural and culinary institutions outside of Judd’s compounds. A bookstore opened in 1999 as restaurants began appearing in the empty buildings on the town’s main street, Highland Avenue. In 2003, Ballroom Marfa was established as a non-profit space for contemporary music, art, and film. A theater group was formed, and in May of this year the first annual Marfa Film Fest was held. In addition to these institutions, Marfa has developed possibly the highest gallery-to-resident ratio in the country with around 20 art galleries in addition to the Chinati and Judd Foundation spaces. Some irony can be found in the fact that such a vibrant gallery culture exists in a place to which Judd retreated specifically to avoid the New York gallery scene he found so obnoxious. The tipping point seems to have occurred around 1999 when Marfa became generally acknowledged as “hip,” with multiple articles appearing in the art, travel, and even real estate sections of the New York Times and

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Texas Architect July/Aug 2008: Regional Response  
Texas Architect July/Aug 2008: Regional Response  

Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other...