In pre-pandemic format, Chinati Weekend and its crowd returned to Marfa

Photo by Alex Marks. El Paso bagpiper Mahrla Manning marches through the Arena at Chinati Foundation during the Saturday night community dinner. “I didn’t even realize how loud it was in the Arena, but when I stopped, you could hear the reverberation in the room. That was pretty neat,” Manning said of the experience.

MARFA — The Chinati Foundation celebrated its biggest event of the year this weekend, marking the 34th edition of Chinati Weekend in Marfa. Turnout and spirits were high as visitors and locals alike tread the familiar ground of Fort DA Russell, seeing new special exhibitions and revamped permanent installations and hearing a range of musical stylings throughout the weekend, all in the name and legacy of Donald Judd.

After the previous year’s online-only event, the foundation wasn’t sure what to expect for 2021. As the Marfa area received high rates of vaccinations and largely kept its case count down, the foundation opted to return to its old form this October, inviting people back on property and reviving the community-centric, free dinner on Saturday.

Exhibitions, open studios, shops and restaurants were bustling during Made in Marfa on Friday, and multiple local watering holes reopened their doors to welcome the influx of both guests in town and the locals who came out to enjoy the many special events.

As the gates of Chinati swung open, the foundation saw the return of longtime art enthusiasts who have made the same pilgrimage for Chinati Weekend for decades, a fleet of locals emerging after the previous year’s shutdowns, as well as an extra swell of a new art set of collectors and tech fans brought into Marfa by the cryptocurrency-tied Art Blocks Gallery that opened over the weekend.

After a year apart, Chinati Foundation Director Jenny Moore said attendees seemed grateful to gather together again. “It both felt normal, and it felt really joyful, and all of us needed that after such a difficult time.”

In planning for the event, which is the foundation’s biggest fundraiser of the year, Moore had expected a good crowd of people to attend, despite the break in in-person programming last year. 

On Saturday morning, attendees turned out in droves to see a special performance by David Dove and a cadre of musicians as they performed within the six buildings that make up Dan Flavin’s untitled (Marfa project), 1996.

Viewers escaped the hot morning sun by ducking into each of the Flavin buildings, the first hosting complete silence, while the other five had a musician tucked into one side of the U-shaped former barracks, the sound reverberating and passing through the fluorescent artwork. 

“To see people engaging with the Flavins for that duration of time was really special,” Moore said. “It was really great seeing people going back through time and again. You were having a different experience through it musically, but as you were being engaged acoustically, it made you re-engage the work over and over again.”

Moore said that instead of bringing in the usual dozens of volunteers from out of town, the foundation opted this year to hire local teachers, who made excellent docents due to their skills at managing groups.

Sandra Hinojos, the foundation’s office manager who has been with the organization for 28 years, said that over the years, one of the biggest changes at Chinati Weekend has been the growth of the crowds. “I feel like more people are involved and want to be a part of it. It’s art enthusiasts, locals seem to be participating a little bit more, and they’re enjoying and looking forward to coming out to the community dinner,” Hinojos said.

The change is good, she believes. “It got people out, especially after COVID,” she said. “It was good to actually interact with people and be a part of something,” and she enjoyed seeing the growing crowd at the Arena for Saturday night’s dinner, noting the great atmosphere the music brought this year.

As the sun retreated Saturday evening, hundreds of folks gathered at the Arena for a meal fit for a cowboy, and plenty of entertainment and drinks to accompany it. The iconic wood and glass pivoting doors were open as music flowed out into additional outdoor seating, where the community was able to finally gather after the previous year’s all-virtual affair.

Presidio’s own Mariachi Santa Cruz serenaded the crowd throughout the meal. As the crowd settled in and the sun dipped low at the horizon, El Paso-based bagpiper Mahrla Manning began a procession from off in the distance. The musician has played bagpipes for 38 years, and played her first show in Marfa back in the mid 1980s. On Saturday, she pulled out a piobaireachd to perform, one of Judd’s favorite types of bagpipe music.

Playing Struan Robertson’s salute, she marched through the grounds around the Arena and then indoors. While she’d performed for Chinati Weekend last year virtually, Manning said, “For me, it’s better playing in front of a crowd, just because your adrenaline kicks in and you have more energy, so it’s more fun. You connect with people.”

“The count at the Saturday night dinner was 780,” Moore said. “It was definitely one of our most well attended Chinati Weekends.”

On Sunday morning as the scheduled events wound down, Moore surveyed the vast expanse of the Chinati Foundation property Judd had purchased decades back on the south side of Marfa. She remarked, “Sunday morning at sunrise, I saw more people down at the concrete works than I’ve ever seen in my time.”