Marfa makes out better in the pages of Smithsonian magazine than it did in the New York Review of Books

As the TM Daily Post reported last week, author Larry McMurtry called the West Texas cultural oasis “as bleak a place as you’ll find in America” in his recent NYRoB review of a biography about Elizabeth Taylor.

Taylor, of course, filmed Giant in Marfa, and as a result, McMurtry griped, “the town still thinks it’s important, a delusion not lessened by the Coen brothers’ dark fable No Country for Old Men.” 

The Smithsonian‘s take? It’s one of the “20 Best Small Towns in America.” The magazine’s May 2012 story sought to highlight places with a population of less than 25,000 people that had “one quality above others: culture.”

Marfa finished eighth on the magazine’s list, beating out the likes of Oxford, Mississippi; Ashland, Oregon; and Princeton, New Jersey. 

“[B]ig cities and grand institutions per se don’t produce creative works; individuals do,” the magazine asserted, and that certainly applies to many Marfans, from artist Donald Judd and hotelier Liz Lambert to musician and food truck owner Adam Bork.

“With mock couture, edgy movies and ironic motels, it’s no cow town,” proclaimed the headline over Marfa’s entry—though we reckon there is nothing ironic about Lambert’s El Cosmico (pictured above), just a truly sincere playfulness.

Smithsonian‘s Susan Spano then writes:

It’s just a flyspeck in the flat, hot, dusty cattle country of southwest Texas—closer to Chihuahua than Manhattan. But it’s cooking, thanks to an influx of creative types from way downtown: filmmakers like the Coen brothers, who shot No Country for Old Men in Marfa (pop. 1,900), indie rock bands and others who have brought such outré installations as Prada Marfa, a faux couture shop in the middle of nowhere by the artists Elmgreen and Dragset. Cultural camp followers arrived on their heels to open galleries, bookstores, gourmet food trucks and lodgings (in a historic Pueblo-Deco hotel and vintage trailer park called El Cosmico). It may have all started when people first noticed the Marfa Mystery Lights, an optical phenomenon popularly attributed to UFOs and celebrated with parades, battling bands and exhibitions every Labor Day weekend. Or in the early ’70s when New York artist Donald Judd landed in Marfa to plant his massive minimalist sculptures on a decommissioned military camp outside town, the core of the collection now at the Donald Judd and Chinati foundations. These days—move over Austin—an Our Town grant from the NEA is helping Marfa’s not-for-profit Ballroom Foundation create the Drive-In, an open-air art space designed by the cutting-edge New York architectural firm MOS.

Among the places ahead of Marfa on the list were Red Bank, New Jersey; Taos, New Mexico; and Durango, Colorado.

No other Texas towns were on the list. Not even Archer City.