Local art is experienced from new perspectives during global pandemic

MARFA — If Marfa is a fabric, art institutions are woven into it, Judd Foundation Board President Rainer Judd said at a recent city workshop. The digital meeting was called to discuss the eventual reopening of hotels, motels and short-term rentals to the tourists that bolster the local economy. And in Marfa, a great share of visitors come for the art.

With the coronavirus changing the way physical spaces operate – from now through the foreseeable future – The Big Bend Sentinel spoke with three Marfa art institutions about their closures, adjustments and still-distant reopenings.

“We’ve been really redirecting ship, which is interesting,” began Sarah Melendez, programs director at Ballroom Marfa. The institution was exhibiting Longilonge by Solange Pessoa in March when concerns of coronavirus caused businesses to close their doors to the public. Though the exhibition had a vibrant, shoulder-to-shoulder opening in November, its late May closing shows just how much has changed this year.

Ballroom will host a free digital screening of Landscape Film: Roberto Burle Marx directed by João Vargas Penna on May 16 at 8 p.m., utilizing the Ballroom Marfa Film channel on streaming website Vimeo, a complementary event to Longilonge before it closes on May 24.

Melendez explained, “Our major efforts right away, when COVID happened and the gallery closed, was launching a new website. We canceled everything through August, quite a few programs, and we were able to refocus. It was all hands on deck.”

The institution is “rehoning in on our mission of commissioning new work with artists,” Melendez said, focusing on larger, integrative commissions. And with physical art being so tied to in-person visits, Ballroom is lucky to have a deep history working with musicians; in one project, the organization is commissioning DJ composers and producers to come together to create a sound library. With 20 composers from Mexico and 20 from Texas, it’s a cross-border collaboration that Ballroom will have mixed into an album, and eventually host a live performance, “hopefully in 2021,” Melendez said.

Ballroom is “thinking of ways to engage our audience that’s not in Marfa, rather than drawing them to Marfa,” Melendez said. Though Texas museums are officially allowed to reopen, according to the governor, “We have no plans to open up,” said the programs director.

Jenny Moore, director of Chinati Foundation, said, “As a public institution, to be closed to the public is difficult but necessary.” First and foremost for the safety of staff and community, and then of everyone else, she said.

Their education department has pivoted to new online programming that regularly engages participants through its Instagram account @chinatiedu, and has put together art material packages for prekindergarten through sixth grade students in need of supplies, available for pickup today, Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon outside the school auditorium.

In an eventual reopening, the foundation is reimagining visits to Chinati’s 340 acres, perhaps occurring outdoors first and offering a different perspective on the architecture and outdoor works found on site.

Like Ballroom, Chinati has just launched a new website that makes information and imagery more accessible. These institutions, along with Judd Foundation, are adding resources, online conversations, video and other content to continue to connect with patrons from afar.

“We have developed partnership events with organizations, including MoMA, to make content available to a global audience and free of charge,” Rainer Judd said. Their now-postponed or canceled community programming has always been free of charge, but the foundation is expecting a sizable hit to their bottom line due to loss of guided tours at both their Marfa and New York locations. But with all the pivots toward the internet, the foundation is also looking to connect with people in other ways that are not digital. Judd Foundation is also taking time to focus on “planning for building projects here in Marfa, exhibitions, publications and the future of our programs,” according to Judd.

For these three institutions, a return to normal is distant. “Although tourism in the area, such as parks, the observatory and other local wonders like Marfa Lights existed prior to Judd, we do feel a responsibility to lead in regard to those who come to Marfa for Judd,” Judd said. “It is important to us to follow local health official guidelines to protect our community which, as you know, does not have the medical resources to handle a spike in the COVID-19 cases arising from an increase of visitors to the area.”

The local institutions are in communication about reopening, though none have firm plans, together or separately. “I think the reason we do what we do is we recognize that art is a fundamental part of our lives,” Moore said. “Especially in times of hardship, people turn to art for solace.” A global pandemic just may force local art to be experienced from new perspectives.

Moore said, “The spirit of flexibility, creativity, generosity and openness – maybe not literally – is going to be the way forward.”