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Glamour and gentrification go hand-in-hand in artsy ranch town Marfa

It's sometimes weird, often wonderful, definitely off the beaten path. Marfa, Texas, is a tiny rural town in the middle of dusty ranchlands, as well as an internationally renowned creative mecca. In the last few decades, as artists and nonprofits moved in, drawing tourists and upscale development, Marfa has become the model of the arts as economic engine in rural America. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    And now we take a look at how art and culture has brought new wealth and new challenges to a tiny town in West Texas.

    Jeffrey Brown has this report.

    It's part of our series American Creators.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Welcome to Marfa, Texas, dusty ranchlands surrounding a tiny rural town near the Mexican border, and an internationally renowned art mecca. It's sometimes weird, often wonderful, definitely far off the beaten path, some three hours from the nearest major airport.

  • Jenny Moore:

    You can get from New York to Paris, seated and eating dinner, faster than you can get from New York to Marfa. So, you got to make the commitment to come here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jenny Moore is director of the Chinati Foundation, a sprawling museum created from an old Army fort on 340 acres.

  • Jenny Moore:

    You have time here. You're aware of the passage of time by the sun arcing across the sky. You don't get that in a lot of places. And I think people who are open to that experience settle into it, and they find the inspiration of that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Chinati, and the whole Marfa phenomenon, grew with the arrival here in the 1970s of artist Donald Judd, a leading figure in what became known as minimalism, art stripped down to basic forms.

    Judd wanted out of what he saw as the stifling New York art scene, as he explained in an 1983 "NewsHour" interview.

  • Donald Judd:

    For many years, I have been looking for empty land that had not been damaged or destroyed, and didn't have too many people. And I finally realized that there was a large space in West Texas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That space and the landscape itself would become the inspiration and home to large works by Judd and other noted artists, including Robert Irwin and Dan Flavin.

  • Jenny Moore:

    Look at what humans can do. They can come to an environment like this, which people assume is sort of harsh, and look at the incredible beauty and potential here, and manifest it in a way that you can always come back to and think about what the art means, what the experience means, what it means to have land and space and time.

    I think that's what's so significant about it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Judd also bought up once-grand buildings in downtown Marfa, vestiges of an earlier boom era for the town, when ranching and agriculture thrived.

    These, too, became work, exhibition and living spaces, all part of a vision that artists could create their own world.

  • Judd’s daughter, Rainer:

  • Rainer Judd:

    He felt very strongly that the idea of seeing one artist's single work makes it hard to comprehend what an artist is working on or thinking about, that you actually need to see art in multiples, in — a great number of works in one space.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rainer and her brother Flavin now head the Judd Foundation, which oversees their father's work and legacy, and is now renovating the original spaces for public visits.

  • Rainer Judd:

    His idea was that, when you want to know about art of that time, of his time, that you can actually come to Marfa, and see his work in a situation that he wanted it seen.

    Judd Foundation was born out of a sense of being empowered as an artist, that I can do this, I can have spaces, and I can put my art up.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Donald Judd died in 1994. His vision grew into something he might not recognize, a new Marfa. As artists and nonprofits moved in, tourists came from all over the globe, hip restaurants, galleries, and hotels opened.

    Fashion and travel magazines featured it. Celebrities posted Instagrams. And Marfa became the very model of the arts as economic engine in rural America.

    In new Marfa, even the mayor, Ann Marie Nafziger, is an artist.

  • Ann Marie Nafziger:

    The economic impact of tourism on Marfa is enormous. And the outgrowth of that, having a large creative culture here, has also changed the community and some of the ways that some of the, say, activities that are available.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And the movies came back. Marfa had once been best known as the setting for the 1956 film "Giant." In 2007, the Oscar-winning "No Country For Old Men" was filmed here.

    And Chip Love, a local rancher and head of Marfa's one bank, had a bit part.

  • Chip Love:

    What I learned about the whole experience is, acting is best left to the professionals.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Love, whose family has had a ranch here for generations, remembers when Judd first came to town. Despite some initial skepticism from so-called old Marfa, he says, for the most part, the changes have been good.

  • Chip Love:

    My Texas pride, I can't ever admit to needing to be saved, but I shudder to think what it might be like if Judd hadn't come along. It certainly enhanced the cultural lifestyle here, and all the things that go along with the cultural life, the restaurants, the music events. I mean, it's made living here richer than it has been in the past.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But while life may be richer, it's also far more expensive, and Marfa's art-led growth has brought unintended consequences.

    Housing prices have skyrocketed, as demand from wealthy newcomers has soared. In a town where the median income sits around $40,000, it's caused major problems.

  • Sandro Canovas:

    When people talk about gentrification, you're thinking usually of an urban setting. Now we're seeing it in the middle of rural Texas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Sandro Canovas has worked in West Texas for more than a decade, building and repairing homes made of adobe, historically owned by Marfa's majority-Hispanic population.

    As adobes gained popularity with outsiders, the county raised property taxes on the homes, a move Canovas says hits the wrong people.

  • Sandro Canovas:

    It's displacing Mexican and Mexican-American families. The loss is not only that these people leave. It's also the cultural loss of the place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The effects are felt elsewhere as well. Oscar Aguero is superintendent of the Marfa Independent School District, with around 340 students, more than 90 percent Hispanic.

  • Oscar Aguero:

    I have several teachers that live, you know, 30 miles down the road in Alpine, where it's a little more affordable. I did have one teacher living in Presidio driving the hour drive.

    So, for us, the housing of teachers has been a problem.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Moreover, with Marfa real estate prices so high, the school district is now classified by the state as being wealthy.

  • Oscar Aguero:

    We're paying nearly about a half-a-million dollars back to the state that's coming out of our local funds that I could be using for our students.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, I mean, because you don't have a rich population.

  • Oscar Aguero:

    No, we don't. You know, 76 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged, so, which means that they fall under the free and reduced lunches. So, you know, half-a-million dollars to give them for educations could go a long way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Still, Aguero says, his schools also benefit from the art boom here. A partnership with the Chinati Foundation brings artists into the classrooms.

    His own daughter, in fact, now wants to be an artist.

  • Oscar Aguero:

    For the younger generation, you know, they're getting to grow up with this culture that is world-known and is amazing, and they're able to see things and hear things that you wouldn't see in a small rural town.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the residents here, an unusual mix and a delicate balance of what art can do for and to a small town.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Marfa, Texas.

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