Marfa Invitational regains nonprofit status, installs ‘Sleeping Figure’ sculpture

Sleeping Figure, a permanent gift from artist Matt Johnson, was installed this month on the Marfa Invitational’s sculpture park grounds. The massive art piece is constructed out of 12 decommissioned shipping containers. Johnson said in his experience, most audiences are receptive to the work, with a minority thinking it’s “just a pile of junk.” “But I think that’s the case with most art,” Johnson said. “It comes with the territory of being an artist and making things.” Photo by Maisie Crow.

MARFA — After several months of tumult, including the loss of nonprofit status and allegations of financial mismanagement, the Marfa Invitational has regained its nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service and erected a monumental installation, Sleeping Figure, on its sculpture park grounds.

The 150-foot-long, 40-foot-tall sculpture made up of 12 decommissioned steel shipping containers is a permanent gift from Los Angeles-based artist Matt Johnson and resembles a basic human form in repose against the backdrop of Marfa’s grasslands and passing freight trains. Its prominent placement on the outskirts of Marfa comes at a turbulent time for the Invitational. The IRS had revoked Marfa Invitational’s charity 501(c)(3) status in May after it failed to file tax returns for three years in a row.

Following the initial news of the nonprofit status loss this fall were the resignations of multiple Marfa Invitational board members and the filing of a charitable trust complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office by Board Advisor Kathleen Irvin Loughlin. In the complaint, Loughlin alleged director Michael Phelan spent the majority of $150,000 she donated for the construction of a permanent building on the sculpture park grounds on personal and travel expenses. Phelan has denied the allegations and has since returned $25,000 to Loughlin. 

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on whether an investigation into the Marfa Invitational was taking place. Loughlin told The Big Bend Sentinel she did not have any updates on the matter. 

The organization announced on social media in December it had recently regained its nonprofit status. According to a letter addressed to Phelan from the IRS dated November 30, 2023, the organization’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status was reinstated effective May 15, 2023.

“Having demonstrated that all legal and financial records are up to date, filed, and in compliance, Marfa Invitational would like to extend its thanks and gratitude to its top-tier legal and financial teams. Including West Texas legend Liz Rogers,” Phelan wrote in a statement to Glasstire earlier this month. Phelan declined to comment further on the reinstatement when reached by The Big Bend Sentinel. 

The January installation of Johnson’s Sleeping Figure is the first of two large-scale sculptures to be installed on the Invitational’s sculpture park grounds this year, Phelan said in a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel. The second large-scale sculpture, gifted by artist Ryan Schneider, and additional “outdoor works” are set to “debut” spring 2024.

Sleeping Figure was commissioned by Desert X, an arts organization that presents site-specific installations in desert environs in Southern California and Saudi Arabia and cost $200,000. The work was on view in Palm Springs in 2023 before being permanently gifted to the Marfa Invitational. It’s an honor to have this piece put on permanent display in Marfa, and I am very excited that its life gets to continue and live on,” Johnson told The Big Bend Sentinel. 

Johnson said Sleeping Figure has been complimented by its proximity to functioning train tracks both in Palm Springs and Marfa. “I like the idea of the sculpture being sited near an active freight line because one gets the feeling that the containers were plucked from the passing train by a giant kid playing with blocks,” he said. 

Johnson often utilizes everyday objects and industrial materials in his artwork, forming baguettes or cinder blocks into human figures. He said Sleeping Figure’s steel shipping containers relate to the human body because both are means of consumption. 

“The containers are ultimately vessels of commerce and consumer consumption,” Johnson said. “We are the consumers and our bodies are also vessels of consumption, so there’s a distinct relationship that can be drawn between the material of the sculpture and its figurative form.”

Sleeping Figure started out as a small-scale mock-up before being input into 3D modeling software to generate blueprints for a structural engineer, Johnson said. Assembling the sculpture involves forklifts positioning the parts and welders affixing containers into place. 

Abbey Branch, Marfa Invitational board member and founder of the Alpine Historic Association, said Sleeping Figure represents both the history of Alpine and Marfa as railroad stops as well as the artistic communities that exist in each town today. 

“It’s a celebration of our railroad roots, transformed into an artistic landmark, inviting us to appreciate our journey from simple railroad stops to communities rich in history and artistic expression,” said Branch. 

In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel Phelan thanked Johnson as well as the Desert X team for facilitating Sleeping Figure’s installation in its “final resting place” on the Marfa Invitational grounds. Dates for the 2024 Marfa Invitational art fair, which typically occurs in May, have yet to be announced. Phelan did not respond to a request for comment on whether the event will take place this year.

Loughlin and Board Member Alex Scull previously told The Big Bend Sentinel they were concerned that the sculptures on Marfa Invitational’s grounds “will not be properly maintained by the nonprofit entity.” 

Johnson said he believes the work is in good hands, and he appreciated the fact that the Marfa Invitational persevered to get the work installed. He said the gift’s stipulations include the sculpture being returned to him if the Marfa Invitational ceases to exist or if they decide they no longer want to house Sleeping Figure, but otherwise people can “expect to see it there forever.”