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Art and(or) Outdoor Advertising in Marfa, Texas

“What is art?” is most often an academic question, debated best either late at night over a glass of wine, or at scholarly conferences.  In the west Texas town of Marfa, however, it has a very practical impact.

Public art is an integral part of Marfa.  NPR has called Marfa “nothing less than an arts world station of the cross” and a “blue chip arts destination.” Marfa’s place as an art destination can be traced back to the 1970s, when minimalist artist Donald Judd grew tired of the small, confining gallery spaces of New York City and bought 16 decaying buildings, a decommissioned army base, and three ranches near Marfa.  He moved there, and filled it with art.  Since then, many artists have come to the region and set up shop in and around the town.  (Sculptor Campbell Bosworth said, “You just come out here and you feel like, I want to make something; I want to do something!”)  Many works are integrated into the unique west Texas landscape.  Imbued in the area is a sense of independence and alternative living. The bookstore, the pizza shop, and the coffee shop are all independently owned.  One of the best known installations is “Prada Marfa”, which is a replica of a Prada boutique created by artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, replete with luxury shoes and handbags set a few miles outside of town.  Perhaps the structure is a commentary on the prevalence of luxury brands or an exercise in context; whatever it is, however, one cannot escape the irony of a fake Prada store in the middle of the desolate landscape.

Recently, Playboy Enterprises built (or “commissioned,” depending on your perspective) what it claims is also an art installation near the entrance to the town — a 40 foot Playboy bunny on a pole along with a black spray-painted Chevy, called “Playboy Marfa.”  Playboy worked in conjunction with artist Richard Phillips to produce the piece.  Residents of the town have been upset by what they see as a corporate advertisement and an unwelcome intrusion into the landscape.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, if the structure is art, it can stay — but if it is a roadside advertisement, it has to go.  Playboy does not have a permit for a roadside advertisement, and the location of the sign doesn’t qualify for a permit.  TxDoT regulations define an “Outdoor advertising sign” as “an outdoor sign, display, light, device, figure, painting, message, plaque, placard, poster, billboard, logo or symbol, or other thing which is designed, intended, or used to advertise or inform, if any part of the advertising or information contents is visible from the main-traveled way of a regulated highway.”

The issue is, thus, whether Playboy Marfa is “designed, intended, or used to advertise or inform.”  Art can inform, and perhaps art can advertise, but to the extent it does so within sight of a regulated highway, the Texas Department of Transportation can have it removed.  (This kind of makes me want to go spray-paint “MADISONIAN.NET” on Cadillac Ranch.  Just a little.)

Over the summer, the Texas Department of Transportation decided that Playboy Marfa was an Outdoor Advertisement, and ordered the landowner to remove it within 45 days, a period of time that has recently expired.  Playboy refused to remove the piece and issued its own statement, stating that the company does not believe that “the art installation by Richard Phillips violates any laws, rules, or regulations.”  The piece is still up, and the parties are reportedly in negotiations.