This article is part of our February 2020 “Small Towns, Big Money” package. Read more here.
There is little about Tim Crowley that doesn’t provoke a strong reaction. At 65, he is a tall, forceful, and fastidiously dressed man, even when he’s in jeans, cowboy boots, and a T-shirt. He brushes his silver hair carefully away from his high, unlined forehead, and he has a thin upper lip that can flatten into an expression of deep distaste when necessary. He flashes extremely white teeth and emits a deep—occasionally mirthless—belly laugh. Overall, Crowley has the cultivated manner and authoritative ease of an eighteenth-century British lord, which suits someone who is a successful trial lawyer, a global entrepreneur, and the biggest man in a small West Texas town of around 1,700 people.
That the town, Marfa, happens to be the unlikeliest of global art capitals and hipster hangouts is due in large part to the persistence and generosity of, well, Tim Crowley. Since arriving in the nineties he has been buying promising if decrepit buildings and turning them into showpieces. “When I first moved here there was one hill you could get cell service on,” he tells me, a bit nostalgically. Crowley turned an old feed store into the Crowley Theater, which hosts, free of charge, everything from local kids in cowboy costumes riding stick horses to the tune of “Texas, Our Texas” to live performances by John Waters or Sissy Spacek. “I couldn’t do this in Houston,” Crowley says.
All this good work has made Crowley something of an unofficial spokesperson for Marfa, which, let’s face it, does require some explaining. It is an indisputably poor town in the middle of the desert that, thanks to a few twists of fate, has received breathless tributes from the likes of the New York Times,Vanity Fair, Vogue, Dwell, NPR, and 60 Minutes. To the outside world, Marfa was once so esoteric as to be almost incomprehensible. Now Europeans buy T-shirts by the dozens depicting the town’s iconic water tower. Marfa has grown famous, and yet, as Crowley sees it, no one here lives in a bubble of wealth or privilege. “Some of my best friends are welders,” he says.
He hunches forward, as if he is imparting a secret. “There’ve been a lot of bad articles that got it wrong. Marfa: The New Santa Fe. The white versus the brown. The cultural conflicts. People have gone with the stereotypes,” he says somewhat wearily. But here’s the truth, according to Crowley: “What distinguishes Marfa is the quality. The historical standard set by Donald Judd”—the famous minimalist who in the seventies abandoned fame and fortune in Manhattan for the solitude of Marfa. “We have real artists. We don’t have the kind of galleries you see in Fredericksburg.”
Crowley and I are having breakfast in the spare if stylish dining room of the Hotel Saint George, which Crowley opened in 2016. We might as well be in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, what with the obligatory dark-wood-and-exposed-brick decor. The most Texan touch comes from the servers, who are mainly young and Latino and who repeatedly fill his water glass, asking over and over and over if he needs more of . . . anything. He is oblivious in the way of people accustomed to being fussed over. (“I think we’re the largest employers of Marfa High School kids,” Crowley says, noting that the locals he employs are often “surprised to learn there are different types of wine than white and red.” Still, they’re a steady source of labor, as few have the opportunity to leave home. “They aren’t going anywhere.”)
Intentionally or not, the blocky, fervently modern Saint George evokes Judd’s minimalism. The artist created his most powerful works in Marfa, many of which are famously on display in a venue at the edge of town. Dozens upon dozens of big boxes—giant concrete ones outdoors, refrigerator-size aluminum ones indoors—the same, only different, depending on the light of day and time of year, stand in formation on the grounds of an old military installation, attracting thousands of visitors a year. This work survives thanks to the support of the Chinati Foundation. Crowley, naturally, served on the Chinati board from 2001 to 2008 and as its president for four years.
Crowley’s influence also extends to the Marfa Book Company, located inside the Saint George. He owns it with a partner, a poet named Tim Johnson. Along with myriad art books and art supplies, it features the kind of event programming (run by Johnson) that would be the envy of Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. Ben Lerner, darling of critics and author of the lavishly praised The Topeka School, gave a reading here, as did the Zimbabwean-born novelist Noviolet Bulawayo, whose novel We Need New Names was a literary sensation.
The farmers’ market every Saturday parks itself rent-free on Crowley’s land next door to the Saint George. For a few hours a day, any adult in town can swim free of charge in the hotel’s sprawling pool. (Kids get the privilege on Tuesdays only.) Crowley happily paid for new carpet in the Catholic church. He has also served, unpaid, as an assistant county attorney.
“Do you know how lucky a town of this size is to have this rebirth?” Crowley asks me, his voice low, taking me into his confidence. “It’s every small town’s dream that you could have this. I just don’t know how much more you could want.”
Well, if you ask quietly—very quietly—around Marfa, some folks will tell you exactly what more they want. They want their town back from Tim Crowley. They won’t tell you this in public or on the record, because they are afraid of Crowley. He is a rich, big-city litigator in a small town full of residents who were once unfamiliar with the type. “He will make your life miserable” is a refrain among those who either have had firsthand experience with his ire or have gone to great lengths to avoid it.
How much of Crowley’s power stems from perception and how much from reality is debatable, but currently, tensions between him and his adopted hometown seem to be approaching a breaking point. Any therapist will tell you that dependence breeds resentment, as does the control that so often accompanies patronage. The current Exhibit A in Marfa is a battle over plans for a Coachella-like music festival on a private ranch outside town. On a micro level it’s a local squabble between some very rich folks and the less rich but righteous creative class they have supported for decades. But on a macro level this is a pitched battle for the soul of Marfa—whether it will be able to resist full-on commercialization of its renown or whether it will grow into something more mundane, more remunerative.
Smack in the middle, girded for battle, is Tim Crowley. “A lot of what’s happening right now involves people trying to pick fights based upon various interpretations of class warfare,” he explains. And he’s right about that. The irony is that it’s his carefully crafted version of Marfa that is now threatened by the very forces he helped create.
If there is a stranger, more conflicted place in all of Texas than Marfa, it has yet to make itself known. Just sixty miles from the Mexican border town of Ojinaga and three hours by car from El Paso or Midland, Marfa’s isolated location in the high Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas is, for a certain type of person, entrancing. The sky by day is limitless, at night a feast of stars. The sun’s movement across the land makes for a parade of shadows and hues unlike in any other place on the planet. The Chisos Mountains form a majestic blue boundary off in the distance. It’s country as inhospitable as it is spectacular, for eons a place that attracted folks as irascible as the porcupines that nestle in the rocks around these parts. “You can’t get your nails done here,” Crowley proudly claims. “There are no dry cleaners here. You get used to buying what you need at the Dollar General.”
Well, at least that used to be true. Cruise around Marfa today and you will find not only salons but world-class art on display by Judd and his pals John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, and Robert Irwin—among others. Old buildings restored in a way that only impeccable taste and lots of money allow. A restaurant that serves nilgai, a large Asian antelope imported by Texas ranchers for hunting and prepared, in this instance, with “wild mushrooms, wine, venison kidneys, paprika and grilled bread.” A wellness studio offering “an anchoring, sacred space.” Tiny, expertly curated shops like Communitie that sell felted cashmere stoles in stunning earth tones for $395 and updated cowboy bandannas made of Japanese selvage cotton for $95. The headquarters of the newspaper, the Big Bend Sentinel, includes a gift shop that sells covetable if pricey straw backpacks from Mexico, as well as a coffee shop and bar that doubles as a spacious, sunlit event venue.
The people responsible for and also torn about this part of Marfa may not be particularly prosperous, but they are well educated and worldly. They are transplants who love not just the beauty and the isolation of the place but the freedom to create without the hypercompetitiveness of the big cities most of them have abandoned. Here they find a relatively status-free safe space where they can work on something intellectually or artistically challenging and also be part of a community. They join the volunteer fire department or teach art at the local elementary. They can be connected to the outside world via the internet but also play horseshoes with the few surviving blue-haired heiresses to some of Texas’s oldest ranches. Solitude and intimacy in equal parts.
This crowd lives alongside the Marfa that is 70 percent Latino and struggles to make do with ineffectual local government, a substandard school system, a dearth of adequate health care, and soaring housing prices. Marfa’s annual per capita income is $19,064. Almost 20 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Finally, there is the Marfa of the super-rich, including young, flashy descendants of ranch families who also have homes in Manhattan or Los Angeles or both. In recent years they’ve been joined in Marfa by CEOs and lawyer types who have bought impressive spreads outside town. They fly in on private aircraft to the town’s tiny municipal airport. Like Crowley, they are the kinds of people who see Marfa as a canvas for their own needs and ambitions, whether they be social, artistic, commercial, or some combination of the three. They are people well accustomed to getting their way.
Crowley is proud of his many good works in Marfa, but he is most proud of the Crowley Theater, with its Alamo-like roofline and a facade from which layers of paint—white, gray, yellow—have been left to fade proudly in the sun. “I built all this,” Crowley says, stepping out of the glare of the day into the dim light inside.
The theater’s interior reflects that perfect Marfa combo of high and low: state-of-the-art tech with $4 wooden seats from eBay that look like they came out of a high school auditorium circa 1935. There is, also, a grand piano that Crowley selected with help from one of the directors of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, in Manhattan. “I hate doing fund-raising, so I pay for most of it myself,” Crowley says.
Doing things himself has been a hallmark of Crowley’s life from his earliest days. He grew up in Los Angeles, the oldest of ten kids in a Catholic family.The Crowleys moved to Houston when Tim was fourteen, and he left home at eighteen, eager to live by his own rules. He majored in theater tech at Texas Tech but later found the law to be satisfying, too, and far more financially rewarding. By the time Crowley was thirty he was working as both a successful commercial real estate developer and a plaintiff’s lawyer in College Station, a town he chose because he saw an opening there for an unknown lawyer to prove himself. Those were the days before tort reform. By 1988, Crowley had opened a Houston office and was making a bundle litigating class action suits involving everything from leaky chemical pipelines to faulty household smoke detectors. His background in both stagecraft and law had given him a knack for understanding how things worked, how they went wrong, and how they could be fixed. A dying West Texas town would have called to him like the sirens to Odysseus.
Crowley arrived in Marfa in 1997, the result of a somewhat impulsive move he made with Lynn Goode, his wife at the time. She was a well-respected art gallery owner in Houston with an eye for local talent who could go national: for example, the conceptual team known as the Art Guys. With wide hazel eyes lit perpetually with delight, tousled dark blond hair, and an infectious, eager laugh, Goode possessed a ready-for-anything charisma. Crowley met her while shopping for art for his law office. He proposed three weeks later, married Goode in 1990, and moved to Houston full-time the next year.
For several years, the marriage worked despite the stresses of two careers and four boys from the couple’s previous marriages. Crowley’s ambitions kept them busy too: when he wasn’t trying class action suits, he was redoing his two homes and two law offices. Goode and Crowley also upgraded her gallery, with the exterior painted in a can’t-miss shade of mango.
Then, in 1996, Goode was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After she was required to wear leg braces and underwent several hospitalizations, the Crowleys took a long weekend of R&R at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, an old West Texas adobe ranching compound that had been converted into a luxury resort and opened in 1993. (It was one of the first places to demonstrate that the wilds of West Texas could attract the global elite; Mick Jagger once stayed there.)
The couple passed through Marfa on the same trip. Crowley had visited before but this time saw it with fresh eyes. Not many would have seen much promise in the place at the time. Originally a railroad water stop and then a teeming cattle town with its own opera house, it had also thrived during World War II when several thousand soldiers and pilots were trained there. But then the war ended, and a monstrous drought put the cattle business into a perilous decline. The filming of Giant in 1955 provided a thrilling but fleeting respite, with James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor bunking at the Paisano Hotel.
Marfa seemed doomed to become just another Texas town gasping for breath—until 1973, when Donald Judd arrived. He was by then already world famous as a founder of minimalism, an iconoclast fiercely protective of his work and his privacy. Judd began buying up local real estate: two aircraft hangars, a bank, 40,000-odd acres of land, a Safeway, a hotel, a handful of commercial buildings, six homes, and the local hot springs. With the support of the New York City–based Dia Art Foundation, financed by de Menil family oil money from Houston, Judd also purchased most of a sprawling old military installation, Fort D. A. Russell, and reimagined it as a massive exhibition space under his sole control, far from the capriciousness of the New York art world.
That worked until the price of oil tanked in the eighties and Dia tried to reduce its obligations. Judd wasn’t about to let his rich patrons off the hook. He threatened to sue and received a million-dollar payout. Flush with cash and freed from his benefactors, Judd established a new foundation named Chinati, after the nearby mountain range. That foundation paid for vast, permanent indoor/outdoor exhibitions by Judd and a select group of his (mostly macho white male) friends, including Carl Andre, John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Roni Horn, Ilya Kabakov, and other major artists of that period.
If some of the residents of Marfa didn’t know what to make of the huge concrete boxes arranged just so on the fort’s former parade ground or the bunkerlike structure stocked with Chamberlain’s smashed-up-car sculptures, no one complained either. Judd had given the local economy a boost. He hired local craftsmen to build the ten-foot wall around his home and studio. And as Chinati grew, it attracted talented young employees from all over the world. They mixed easily with local eccentrics like Tigie Lancaster, a daughter of Dallas society who wore a pith helmet when she rode her mule Doc into town.
All went reasonably well until Judd died unexpectedly at just 65 in 1994, when Chinati had only $400 left in the bank. By the time the Crowleys took up permanent residence in 1997, Chinati was on life support. So was Marfa. Even the Dairy Queen was closed.
Knowledgeable about art and preternaturally social, the Crowleys were a welcome addition. “They were in their forties. They had money. She was adorable, vivacious and warm and a dingbat all at once,” remembers one longtime Marfa resident. “People really loved Lynn, and they liked and respected Tim and felt maybe a little intimidated by him.” The couple made friends quickly—hosting barbecues, playing Scrabble, encouraging friends from Houston to mix with the locals and maybe even buy a second home, a nice adobe bungalow you could decorate with a lot of ranch gear. Lynn became a particular favorite of some of the old ranching widows, who let her in on local lore. (You know that’s not his real daddy, don’t you?) If Tim seemed the less glamorous member of the duo, he, too, spent time getting to know the ranchers and tradesmen, even hanging out with them at the 6 a.m. gatherings at Carmen’s Café.
Tim had plans. “If I could just get the right fifty people to move here . . . ,” he said idly to a neighbor, who thought at the time that it was a pretty funny thing to say.
Almost immediately Crowley went on a buying spree, using a substantial stash from the sale of two homes and Goode’s gallery in Houston. Along with a group of other investors, Crowley helped underwrite the Nature Conservancy’s purchase ofthe 32,000-acre U-Up U-Down Ranch in the Davis Mountains. He bought a 3,800-acre parcel for himself and got a hefty tax deduction by agreeing to the conservancy’s terms for land use.
Marfa seemed on track to achieve a rare balancing act. It was the place where high art met the best of small-town life.
Leaving Houston behind, the Crowleys attempted, at first, to camp on their ranch. With typical enthusiasm, Tim took riding lessons and began stocking up on all the trappings of ranch life: horses, trailers, camping equipment, and, of course, a pickup. When it became clear that building a small cabin on the property would take longer than a year—there wasn’t much of a construction business in Marfa, much less a Home Depot—the Crowleys spent $50,000 on an adobe house in town. Soon enough, it became a larger, somewhat grander version of its old self.
In the meantime, Crowley also bought the old Brite Building, on the main drag of Highland Street. Today, it is a jewel of a property, whitewashed with its wrought-iron balconies lovingly restored, the gay hues returned to the Mexican tiles dotting the facade. Crowley’s subsequent purchase of the Jim Tyler building made headlines in the Big Bend Sentinel. Soon after, more office buildings. The feed store near the railroad tracks. A few more houses. Even an old bus station. Everything was just so irresistibly cheap. Fixer-uppers—Victorians, adobes, whatever—ranged from $20,000 to $50,000.
What else did Marfa need? What about a bookstore/coffee shop/wine bar? That became Goode’s domain and, soon enough, a cultural locus of town. The prestigious Santa Fe–based Lannan Foundation had coincidentally chosen Marfa as a site for its residency programs for artists and writers, so now anyone could stop into the Marfa Book Company for an espresso—espresso! In Marfa!—and a reading by major authors such as Grace Paley and David Foster Wallace. Goode also launched a local reading program called “Ten by Ten,” in which locals were invited to share portions of their favorite books for ten minutes each. Goode’s MS went into remission. Just as Marfa was coming back to life, so was she.
In 2001 the couple opened the Goode-Crowley Theater in that refurbished feed store. The first event, a soft launch in late 2000, was a showing of High Lonesome—not the classic western filmed in Marfa in the fifties but a play by the same name written by a young Marfa woman. There was a pachanga party, with music and dancing, for the whole town afterward. In the hands of director Rob Weiner, a New Yorker who also worked at Chinati and had been Donald Judd’s assistant, the quality of the work presented at the theater became exceptional, whether it involved a premiere written by a Lannan fellow or a Wallace Shawn playperformed by locals. Marfa seemed on track to achieve a rare balancing act. It was the place where high art met the best of small-town life.
Only a real sourpuss would complain, really. And it was just little things. A local realtor seemed awfully beholden to Crowley, running hither and yon to find ever more folks willing to sell their properties to him. The same realtor also seemed very careful about who moved to town. One young couple with a certain set of credentials (or funds) might find a multitude of homes on the market, while another might have a tough time finding anything. Nobody could prove it, but some residents said they got the feeling that Crowley was looking over their shoulder. Crowley says he has never heard of any realtor doing such a thing.
Then he started playing in local politics, boosting an old friend for city attorney. To some, he was acting as if he owned the residents of Marfa along with all those buildings he’d bought.
Tim Crowley remembers those early days differently. “There was a simplicity to the place,” he told local historian Cecilia Thompson in 2010. In that interview, Crowley waxed philosophical, just as he would to reporters for years to come: “When I first got here there was no opposition,” he told her. No one questioned the actions of anyone else; it was live and let live for “a bunch of weirdos.” Then things changed, to Crowley’s way of thinking, with growing tensions between newcomers and newer-comers. “Everyone wanted Marfa to be frozen at the moment that they showed up.”
Not Crowley, though. With a partner, he bought another large plot of land closer to town and subdivided it into small ranches available for sale. The rancher who sold the land to Crowley was furious about the future of his spread: “In no way, shape or fashion was it my desire to have the 11,000+/- acres mentioned be subdivided,” Mo Morrow wrote to the Sentinel. “I was led to believe [Crowley’s] wish was to keep the property intact and in one contiguous tract and under one ownership.”
Crowley saved a sizable plot for himself and set out, with architect Carlos Jiménez, imported from Houston, to build an eight-thousand-square-foot dream house in the desert. This was no adobe bungalow. It was a sprawling minimalist mansion with dark pecan floors and a pool area well suited to the French Riviera. Walls inside displayed the couple’s impressive contemporary art collection. There was a table by George Nakashima and a light sculpture by Dan Flavin. Each window framed a particular—and spectacular—view of the desert. “Jiménez created courtyards in the front and rear of the house that are buffers between the elegance of the interior and the savagery of the setting” was the way the New York Times described the house in 2005.
By then Crowley had landed his board position at Chinati. Now he was rubbing shoulders with some of the most influential people in the art world: other board members and big Chinati contributors included the actor Tommy Lee Jones; collector Len Riggio, who was also the founder of Barnes & Noble; Gabriel Catone, an art consultant married to Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen; and Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of London’s Tate Museum. Another member of the board was a young woman named Virginia Lebermann, the daughter of Austin philanthropist Lowell Lebermann, who was part of the oil-rich South Texas O’Connor family. It was Virginia who teamed up with the scion of another Texas ranching dynasty, Fairfax Dorn, to create yet another art venue in town, Ballroom Marfa.
Prada Marfa was born for the Instagram era. It has garnered 572,080 likes since Beyoncé posted an image of herself there.
These two women would follow in Crowley’s (and Judd’s) footsteps, bringing the outside world to Marfa and, along with it, the kinds of changes that create gratitude and spark controversy. Not unlike Crowley, Dorn and Lebermann had landed in Marfa on something of a whim. After September 11, 2001, the good friends packed their bags in Manhattan and headed southwest, buying an old auto repair shop in town as an exhibition/performance/whatever space. Ballroom was in many ways the polar opposite of the solemn, reverent Chinati. One of the early shows was a performance piece in which an Austin music fan created a living room and played records for two weeks.
It was probably more fun than studying the play of light on concrete boxes. Dorn and Lebermann were buzzy people: young, rich, and glamorous native Texans. Within a few years, Dorn would be married to Marc Glimcher, the son of Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, a major player in the international art world. Their wedding reception in 2015 would be held on the Dorn family ranch, just outside Marfa, amid a trio of tepees. Lebermann’s Marfa home would be featured in Elle Decor, and the article showcased, along with fine art and family antiques, some Texas tumbleweeds spray-painted red.
In 2005 Ballroom installed what remains, so far, its most transformative artwork. Located on the lonely road to Valentine was a “site-specific permanent land art project” by the Berlin artists Elmgreen and Dragset. Entitled “Prada Marfa,” it was, in fact, an $80,000 facsimile of a store featuring the breathtakingly expensive luxury goods designed by Italian fashion legend Miuccia Prada. It was designed to slowly deteriorate—ostensibly a commentary on materialism. Maybe the timing was wrong, because many people didn’t get the joke: by 2005 thirteen-year-old mall rats in Wisconsin were coveting Prada shoes, and some locals were downright offended by the celebration of $680 pumps in a place where most of the elementary school kids relied on government-funded lunch programs. Still, it worked. Prada Marfa was born for the Instagram era. It has garnered 572,080 likes since Beyoncé posted an image of herself there. Says one person closely connected with Chinati: “It became more of a landmark than anything of Judd’s.”
But Prada Marfa also raised some pointed and painful questions about what Marfa was becoming. Yes, it was still a small town with limited resources, but word was getting out that it was evolving into a younger, more daring Santa Fe. In a 2005 story called “The Great Marfa . . . Land Boom,” the New York Times noted that immigrants from Chicago, New York, and California as well as Texas (“Many were friends of a Houston couple—Tim Crowley, a plaintiff’s lawyer, and his wife, Lynn, a gallery owner”) were snapping up adobe houses that were now going for closer to $100,000 than the $25,000 of the late nineties.
Marfa got its own NPR affiliate around that time as well. The landlord? Tim Crowley, who also served on the board. Carmen’s Café closed, and folks started gathering at the high-toned Mexican restaurant Cochineal, where Crowley earned a reputation as a big tipper. His restorations attracted other renovators: Austin-based hip hotelier Liz Lambert redid the sixties-era Thunderbird Hotel. (She’s no longer involved.) Art galleries—fine ones from the likes of Eugene Binder, who also had galleries in New York and Dallas—began to replace the mom-and-pop stores on Highland Street. (At one point, the Crowleys couldn’t understand why the owner of a Mexican American restaurant didn’t want to move out of one of their properties after they offered her a nicer spot south of the railroad tracks. Neither of them realized they were trying to get her to move to the proverbial wrong side.)
It was also during this time that Crowley provided Marfans with their much-beloved Shade Structure, an oversized patio under a tin roof held up by oil-field pipe. It became the equivalent of a Mexican zócalo—a gathering place for townspeople after softball games or readings or church, with Mediterranean and vegan selections provided by the local Food Shark truck.
Still, the oft-stated belief of wealthy Marfans that the town had no social classes became harder and harder to sustain. When, in 2005, the owner of the Marfa-based American Plume and Fancy Feather Company—Vegas showgirls were the major market for their boas—tried to build a subdivision of affordable housing for people like its workers adjacent to Chinati, the arts community launched a NIMBY campaign in protest. “Chinati has always been protective of their view corridor, particularly with the concrete pieces in the field,” Crowley explains now. The development never happened.
The tensions were growing in Marfa between those who wanted the place to remain a must-see station on the international art circuit and those who wanted more affordable ranch houses and chain stores, which, after all, would create jobs and serve the wider population. The latter began referring to the former as “Chinatis.” And while one function of art is often to challenge the status quo, it could be said that some of the work being presented in town was pushing some Marfans well beyond their comfort zones. An invitation to the Chinati opening of the artist John Wesley was sent to everyone in the predominantly Catholic town; the show contained an image of a vagina. The Art Guys came to Marfa and installed a piece that portrayed them as Jesus and Mary. Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts featured an onstage orgy.
One who took the brunt of the ensuing protests, even though she herself didn’t agree with the most provocative pieces, was Lynn Goode. Her husband was committed to Marfa, but he was also often out of town—traveling with Chinati board members, managing his law practice in Houston, pursuing a new venture manufacturing medical equipment in China.
Goode, meanwhile, was either alone battling rattlesnakes in her casbah or entertaining the cast of There Will Be Blood when they filmed just outside town. Friends noticed her jeans were now replaced with ensembles Crowley picked out for her. (Prada!) There was the issue of the land they had purchased as part of the sale of the U-Up U-Down ranch. She had wanted to keep it as a nest egg; Crowley sold it. Goode felt pressured by the Chinati types to donate to the foundation an old hospital she longed to turn into a group home. Eventually she relented, and the building was demolished and rebuilt as an installation by artist Robert Irwin.
As Crowley grew in stature and the couple’s social life became more dazzling—tacos with the head of the Tate!—Goode seemed to recede. Her MS symptoms returned. When her father died and her mother descended into dementia, she began spending more time back in Houston. The couple divorced in 2008. “Marfa ended up working for me and not for her” is the way Crowley puts it.
The Goode-Crowley Theater became the Crowley Theater, and Goode’s name disappeared from the list of contributors to Chinati. She was erased from Marfa.
If there was a period that could be labeled Peak Marfa, it would have been around 2012 and 2013. That was when national publicity reached its zenith, with glowing if slightly confounded stories about this art oasis in the desert, in Texas of all places. Morley Safer of 60 Minutes did a feature called “Marfa, Texas: The Capital of Quirkiness.” Vanity Fair’s story was called “Lone Star Bohemia.” Vogue: “From Marfa to the Moon: A Weekend in West Texas,” written by Ballroom cofounder Fairfax Dorn. And so on. By then hotelier Liz Lambert had opened El Cosmico, her new inn close to Chinati, where guests could choose to stay in an Airstream trailer or a tepee or a yurt. There was a “hammock grove,” and guests could reserve, for $85, a soak in a wood-fired Dutch hot tub.
It was also around that time that Crowley appeared—at least in the perceptions of some Marfans—to tighten his grip on the place. Wealthy and powerful people can be unusually dominant in small towns, but Marfa had a substantial creative class—artists, writers, restaurateurs, boutique owners—that was a little harder to corral. Crowley had done a lot to make their small-town lives much richer than those of, say, a struggling painter in Presidio, but they began to believe that Crowley’s beneficence came with strings attached. People noticed that Crowley got grouchy when someone opened a business that competed with one of his own. As big-city trial lawyers often do, he contributed generously to the campaigns of local public officials, which to some Marfans suggested he had the city and county wired. They noted that he rarely seemed to run into much trouble having his projects approved. He also served as an assistant district attorney for four years; that, too, made people think twice about crossing him. Everyone from regular patrons of the Crowley Theater to employees in his various businesses was in some way dependent on him. “People got attached to the money,” one local explains. Crowley had become a modern-day version of the Mexican patrón: someone who was paternalistically generous but seemed to expect fealty in return.
Crowley knows he draws his share of criticism—but also praise. “I don’t feel like I am without friends and love in Marfa,” he tells me. He’s proud that the local Chamber of Commerce named him citizen of the year in 2011. But, he adds, “there are all sorts of issues that come up when you employ a hundred people in a small town.” And then there’s the element of class disparity. “In Houston, I would be considered on the ultra-liberal side. But in Marfa, just being employed, you could be accused of being the next corporate raider.”
The environment became more fraught when word spread that Crowley and Jiménez planned to build a new hotel. It would replace the original Hotel Saint George (torn down in 1929), on land that more recently housed the Marfa Book Company and Marfa Public Radio. Surely it was time for another hotel—the old Paisano could use some competition—what with the rise in tourism and the growing number of destination weddings in town. But some Marfans weren’t so thrilled. Why had the early planning been kept under wraps? Blindsided by the announcement, several locals wrote letters of complaint to the Sentinel. There was a debate at the city council. Who had okayed the contemporary design? Did it fit in with the historic structures on Highland Street? Should a hotel compete with the courthouse to be the tallest building in Marfa?
Outsiders had no such concerns when the Saint George opened in April 2016. There were raves in everything from Condé Nast Traveler to Forbes to, yes, Texas Monthly. PaperCity, the statewide design and society publication, cooed, “Were he still living, Donald Judd would likely hang out at Marfa’s newly opened Hotel St. George . . . The 55-room hotel sets a new standard of style for this remote West Texas town of 2,000 that has attracted such high-profile and diverse visitors as Anna Wintour, David Byrne, Wallace Shawn, Natalie Portman and Karl Rove.”
Indeed, the semiotics of the Saint George checked all the boxes for the style-obsessed: challenging local artwork on the walls, repurposed wood weathered just so in the dining room, a bar crafted of black marble rescued from an old building facade. There were Alvar Aalto tank chairs and Arne Jacobson floor lamps in the lobby, for those with the eye to recognize them. The svelte, contemporary guest rooms were stocked with Aesop bath products, more original art, and tiny packets of earplugs for those who couldn’t stand the sound of the trains barreling through late at night. (The instructions included a lyrical description of why you might not want to use them.)
The building’s exterior—it was a four-story box, its white walls liberated of all adornment save rectangular windows—didn’t sit well with everyone. Some detractors called it The Clinic. Crowley engendered more hard feelings when the beloved Shade Structure, which had been the site of so many casual town gatherings, had to be dismantled and moved because he needed the space for the hotel party rooms and swimming pool. (Crowley donated the metal components of the structure to the city so that it might be rebuilt elsewhere.) Sure, locals could use the pool during designated times, and the high school could use the hotel ballroom for its graduation party. But such giving followed by such taking fostered distrust.
The new mayor elected in 2017, a painter named Ann Marie Nafziger, ran afoul of Crowley when she began working on a parking ordinance that could inconvenience some of his guests at the hotel, which has scant parking of its own.
Nafziger, whom Crowley labels “the darling of the newcomers,” suddenly found herself under siege from old-timer constituents alarmed by rumors that they might soon be forced to pay for metered parking downtown—which, worse, could lead to the issuance of parking tickets in a place that traditionally had no need for rules about where and how long one could park. Such overregulation, Crowley still says today, would be “like copying from a town in Connecticut.” Never mind that Nafziger’s plans were limited and aimed at curbing some of the tourist traffic. Crowley and his allies, it seemed, had painted her as representing Big Government, the biggest bugaboo in West Texas.
When the mayor came up for reelection earlier this year, Crowley campaigned enthusiastically for her opponent, who won. When Nafzinger asked a friend to put up a yard sign in support of her, he demurred. He worked for Tim Crowley.
In early 2019, Marfa found itself beset by another controversy, one far more polarizing than a parking fight. Fairfax Dorn, one of the Ballroom Marfa founders, had agreed to let an Austin promotion company called C3 Presents, a subsidiary of Live Nation, host a music festival on her family ranch, the Gage, outside of town. The promoters were vague about how many people they expected: more than the 2,000 or so who attend the down-homey annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love held at El Cosmico but far less than the 70,000 wildlings who had showed up at Burning Man in the Nevada desert in 2018. Some full- and part-time Marfans were all in—Vance Knowles, who had been an assistant to Lyle Lovett, became a local lobbyist, and the point man was Charles Attal, a C3 cofounder who had been an early Ballroom board member and was a frequent visitor to town. In the evolution of cool places, a big outdoor concert could seem like a logical next step for Marfa.
But not everyone agreed, particularly members of Marfa’s less moneyed creative class. Someone launched a website called “Marfa Says No.” Someone made buttons with a slash through the C3 logo. There was eye-rolling over the buzzword salad C3 used to promote the event: “The festival will be curated to attract art and music appreciators and a sophisticated, culturally attune [sic] adult audience that is excited by cross-disciplinary collaboration and innovation.” Social media erupted over what might happen if the concert were allowed to proceed: everything from pillaged grocery store shelves to empty gas pumps to devastating fires ignited by cigarettes, deaths from drug overdoses, and the trampling of delicate grasslands. Marfa had no hospital, and an ambulance ride to the one in Alpine, just over 25 miles away, was not a satisfactory alternative, according to the concert’s opponents. Marfa, they claimed, would be overwhelmed. The anti-C3 group wanted tourism, sure, but “sustainable” tourism. Not a bunch of drunk kids throwing up around Donald Judd’s hallowed boxes. Concert opponents didn’t want what they called “the Marfa brand” sullied (though one look at the myriad Marfanalia on offer at the Paisano gift shop suggested the brand was already in need of some Clorox).
Cracks in the social fabric became chasms. The late West Texas icon Lonn Taylor, who died last July, wrote in to the Sentinel in March and called C3’s response to citizen’s concerns “the most puerile collection of clichés and meaningless generalizations I have seen in many years.” Virginia Lebermann, the cofounder of Ballroom, then sent him an email that was subsequently leaked all over town. “Without Fairfax and her family foundation we would never have been able to support the hundreds of artists, musicians and filmmakers that are a part of our history . . . Nor would we have been able to create the jobs that we have created . . . ,” she wrote, with a deft twist of the patron’s knife. “So I ask, with all of your knowledge, wisdom and insight . . . how you would advise the ranching families of this great region who have for generations paid the property taxes, the inheritance taxes and all associated expenditures to keep your backyard and the countryside of Far West Texas pristine and unspoiled—what are your alternative solutions to leasing the land for a temporary installation of three days a year?”
Setting aside her tone, she had a point: Marfa’s population had dropped from almost 3,000 in 1999 to 1,700 in 2017. Higher property taxes and more tourist dollars had taken up some of the slack in lost city revenue, but more economic development wouldn’t hurt. Then again, no one has so far been able to explain just how much concert money would flow into city coffers and how much would go to the promoters and landowners. To concert opponents, the same rich folks who have underwritten Marfa’s transformation into a creative paradise now seemed intent on selling out.
But if this was a clash over money, it was also a fight for something more intangible. As Crowley quite rightly says, “C3 is a metaphor for concerns people have aside from [the concert]. I think it’s people’s opinions about the direction of the town or how they perceive the image of the town.” He decries anti-growth concert opponents as shortsighted. “Whether or not the town does well is irrelevant [to them].”
Crowley supports the concert. Dorn and Lebermann, he says, “are girls who could spend the rest of their lives on any beach in the world. They don’t have to do anything, but they do.” He says he admires the women’s civic generosity. “And yet they are the subject of a lot of criticism.”
So is Crowley. Rumors have flown that his closeness to the county attorney means the concert is a done deal. (It isn’t, at press time.) Opponents of the concert have pointed out that Crowley stands to profit handsomely if thousands of people show up in town.
The fault line in Marfa split wider this year when news leaked that Crowley had been granted a permit to extend the late-night drinking hours to 2 a.m. seven days a week on vacant land he owned on the outskirts of town that could become another wedding venue or hotel. How had this happened, people wondered, when hotelier Lambert had earlier applied for a similar extension for El Cosmico and been denied? Back then, the community had firmly rejected the idea for fear of more drunk drivers on the road after midnight.
Instead of meeting with county commissioners in town, where Marfans could easily attend, Crowley had met with them sixty miles away in Presidio, where his permit was handily approved. Some people in town saw this move as an end-run around the process. David Beebe, a Marfa resident and justice of the peace in Presidio County, says Crowley “pretty much organized with the commissioner’s court and the commissioner to push through a liquor license.” Crowley calls that allegation “one hundred percent false.”
Meanwhile, the go-along-to-get-along owners of the Sentinel sold the paper this past spring to a young documentary filmmaker named Maisie Crow and her husband, Max Kabat. It wasn’t long before one of Crowley’s employees complained to the pair that the new coffee shop and venue in the Sentinel building competed with the Saint George restaurant. The relationship deteriorated further when Crowley thought the paper’s coverage of a local assault trial involving a friend of his (who was later found not guilty) was unfair. He warned Kabat about what he saw as a decline in the quality of journalism. “If you keep writing trash, we will not support you,” he remembers saying. He also reminded Kabat that his hotel and other businesses accounted for 10 percent of the Sentinel’s circulation and that he was a major advertiser. Then the Sentinel published a news story about the late-night permit controversy. (It was news, after all.) Crowley promptly stopped distributing free papers at the Saint George.
Then Jenny Moore, the executive director of Chinati and someone whose history with Crowley was spotty at best, called in to the Marfa Public Radio show “West Texas Wonders” to raise questions about how after-hours permits were granted. (Full disclosure: Texas Monthly has worked with Marfa Public Radio on an unrelated podcast.) The station followed up with a lengthy investigative segment. Crowley declined the station’s request for comment. Around the same time, he informed Moore that the Crowley Theater would have no room for the illustrious Chinati Open House event in the coming year, as it had for decades prior. As for the radio station’s director, Elise Pepple, she suddenly found herself barred from the only real gym in town: Crowley’s gym. (Crowley would not comment on the record about his reasoning.)
This did not earn Crowley any new fans. A recent Instagram post by a Marfa resident who goes by the handle Buttermilk_Brisket stated, “We are at war, y’all. From Tim Crowley attacking @marfapublicradio to Lebermann’s response to Lonn Taylor. It’s a class war, y’all. …Stay woke.”
Next up, Sentinel journalist Abbie Perrault broke the news in September that Crowley owed the county $100,000 in unpaid hotel occupancy taxes for the Saint George. “We’ve never had a situation with this much missing for this long as far as I know,” a city council member told the paper. He described the late payments as “a material loss for the city” because they were preventing Marfa from earning interest on the money as it would have if the payments had been made on time. As of this writing, Crowley says he has paid the debt in full and fired the third-party management company responsible for the oversight.
The battle over C3 rages on. In November, the county issued stricter guidelines for a mass-gathering permit that seemed to mollify some, if not all, of the protesters. The détente gave Marfa a breather, an opportunity to think about what it is and what it wants to be: just another struggling small town, an art-world oasis, or an Instagram version of its former self.
The answer depends on who’s talking, of course. Everyone clings to their own Marfa of memory. As one old-timer says, “It’s my hometown, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it anymore.”
Crowley believes that some of the agitators will eventually leave town. And at that point, he is confident, the storm will blow over. “Strife doesn’t define Marfa,” he says. “It has the best arts and culture of any small town in America. It will have that long after these folks move away.”
He says, “There’s just no reason to be tearing things apart, to be so confident that your vision of the town is the only vision of the town.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Battle for the Soul of Marfa.” Subscribe today.
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