Marfa Invitational art fair loses nonprofit status as board members step down

The Marfa Invitational, an annual art fair that brings gallerists from around the world to exhibit in Marfa, had its nonprofit status revoked by the Internal Revenue Service. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA — The Marfa Invitational, an art fair established in 2019 by residents Michael Phelan and Melissa Bent, has recently lost its nonprofit status as well as a number of board members and advisors, according to recent reporting from Artnet news

According to public documents from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Marfa Invitational received its nonprofit, or tax-exempt, status in August 2020. It was revoked in May 2023 because the organization failed to file 990 forms — publicly available documents with detailed financial information — for three consecutive years, according to the IRS website. 

Phelan told Artnet news the failure to file the 990 forms was a mistake and that Marfa Invitational’s 501c3 nonprofit status would be reinstated in days. Phelan did not respond to The Big Bend Sentinel’s requests for comment. 

Reinstatement, according to the IRS, involves filing an application for exemption and paying a fee. A new determination letter will then be issued by the IRS if it is determined that an organization meets tax-exempt requirements. 

Artnet news also reported Marfa Invitational board members Alex Scull and Penny Aaron as well as board advisors Kathleen Loughlin and Debi Wisch have recently stepped down from the organization. 

“We are no longer associated or affiliated with the Marfa Invitational and are not certain whether a formal board structure for that organization is in place any longer,” Scull and Loughlin wrote in a joint statement to Artnet news.

Loughlin and Wisch declined to comment further on their decisions to cut ties with the organization when reached by The Big Bend Sentinel. 

Phelan told Artnet news board members who stepped back were never formally voted in. However, in an April 2023 email Phelan sent to The Big Bend Sentinel, Scull and Loughlin were listed as board leaders. 

This past May, the Marfa Invitational art fair brought galleries from around the world to Marfa including Nino Mier Gallery, Over the Influence, Half Gallery and more and presented well-known art critic Jerry Saltz as a speaker. Recent programming has also included a Cynthia Rowley fashion show which featured models on horseback as well as a ranch tour and cocktail soirée with San Antonio architecture firm Lake Flato. 

In recent years, local galleries and arts spaces have opened their own satellite shows in conjunction with the Marfa Invitational, contributing to a city-wide, varied arts showcase the first weekend in May for both visiting VIPs and locals. 

Phelan has spoken publicly about his desire to establish a permanent home for the Marfa Invitational — which, in the past, has utilized Saint George Hall — for year-round installations, performances and more. 

In recent years, the art fair has hosted outdoor sculpture installations on undeveloped acreage in Antelope Hills, which Phelan has referred to on social media as the Marfa Invitational sculpture park and grounds. Sleeping Figure, a sculpture depicting stacked train cars by artist Matt Johnson, is soon to be permanently installed on the site, according to Marfa Invitational’s website.

In October 2021, Phelan told Texas arts publication Glasstire that work on “two 10,000 square-foot Exhibition and Performance Pavilions” was “full steam ahead,” but supply chain issues caused by the pandemic were delaying the start of construction. In a response to The Big Bend Sentinel in May 2022, Phelan cited the same reason for continued delays, but said he hoped to receive building and construction materials by late summer or early fall of 2022. 

Phelan did not respond to requests for comment about the status of the permanent structures, but digital mockups which show six buildings and an outdoor pavilion situated in a desert landscape are posted on Marfa Invitational’s website.