Why One Woman Is Trying to Create the Marfa of Maine

published Oct 24, 2017
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(Image credit: Michel Arnaud/Getty Images)

Every hipster and her mother is currently plotting a pilgrimage to Marfa, the West Texas artist’s commune and modern art mecca founded in the 1970s by Donald Judd. (It’s recently been featured in the Netflix original show I Love Dick, and is home to the highly Instagrammed “Prada Marfa” installation.) Now, one millionaire divorcee philanthropist wants to create a similarly chic art world destination in a mostly-rural spot at the base of the Appalachian Trail in Maine.

Much like Judd (and later, the Chinati Foundation) bought up 16 decaying buildings in Marfa starting in 1971 — an entire decommissioned Army base, and three additional ranches spread across 40,000 acres — to create his “Xanadu of contemporary art…beneath the wide blue skies and sharp Texas light” (as NPR called it back in 2009), Elizabeth “Betty” Noyce and her Libra Foundation would like to do the same in Monson, Maine.

According to a recent feature in The Boston Globe, Libra has already purchased 13 buildings in the tiny Maine town (population 666), including abandoned storefronts, run-down single-family homes, even a 70-acre farm, and plans to invest an initial $10 million to turn Monson into a hub for artists by offering affordable studios, lofts, apartments, and exhibition space.

About an hour northwest of Bangor, Monson already sees a steady stream of through-hikers doing the Appalachian Trail, skiers and summer residents, and is the last pit stop heading west into Maine’s “100 Mile Wilderness.” (Much like Marfa, which is “200 miles from anywhere” and borders the expansive Big Bend National Park in sparsely populated West Texas, as Vanity Fair noted in its 2014 story, The Renaissance of Marfa.)

While these parts of northern New England are already home to several prestigious writer and artist colonies dating back almost a hundred years, like the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and Monhegan Island, this would be the first entirely and intentionally designed ecosystem — one that would include housing and could include real opportunities for making a living via tourism for the resident makers, as well as for the existing residents.

Dixie Lewis, a 70-year-old former trucker and Monson resident who says she can change the oil on an 18-wheeler “faster than you can bake a cake,” told The Globe that people feel hopeful [about the project] in a town where many have struggled with poverty or drug addiction. (In Piscataquis County, where Monson is located, 75 percent of residents have incomes at or below the poverty level, and Monson is the poorest of the 16 towns in the county, according to local officials.)

As many existing artists and writers well know, and Thrillist recently noted, moving to a place like Monson — if surrounded by other creative types from any walk of life, for any period of time — would be a huge boon to their craft:

“Fact is, whether or not they admit it, most writers, musicians, painters, and tinkerers of every stripe also aspire to remove the ‘struggling’ from the ‘struggling artist’ way of life. No matter what rom-coms suggest, the country is full of cities where you can find a vibrant life, in a home with room to sprawl, where you can cook or play music or just get friends together to conspire and collaborate.”

Marfa has seen massive economic and cultural visibility impact over the last 40 years since Judd moved in, including the addition of a hip motel, El Cosmico (and an annual music festival, Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love, organized by the hotelier, Liz Lambert of Bunkhouse Group), plus several restaurants, galleries, and shops — worth (at least) tens of millions in annual tourist dollars. Recently, the New York Times even did a piece on Marfa’s growing food scene, and wine bar Al Campo just opened this year and is already garnering rave reviews as a Marfa must-visit.

Judd dreamed about art helping Marfa’s economy, Chinati Foundation Rob Weiner told NPR in a 2012 follow-up story — but says his ideas were always more pragmatic and focused on keeping art mostly free from direct commerce.

“Bottling the local water, which is terrific water, [was one idea Judd had],” Weiner told NPR. “And he had even designed a kind of complex series of bottles that could be turned into bricks once the water was consumed.”

One thing that critics (or, at least critical readers of the story by The Boston Globe) might neglect to comprehend is that artists and writers need space, time, peace and quiet, affordability, and each other in order to create art — even if they go on to sell it in other places and aren’t relying on the tourist traffic through Monson itself.

Summer artists colonies (like nearby Skowhegan, with whom Libra Foundation has already secured a partnership for Monson) have been doing this for years — creating refuge, respite, and residencies for artists from big cities. And this is also something that Marfa has very successfully done for artists in Texas and the Southwest for decades.

Libra Foundation, in its own right, already has a proven track record of creating maker-driven tourist destination properties in Maine, such as Pineland Center between Portland and Freeport, which sells handmade ice cream in summer, operates an equestrian demonstration farm, and cross-country skiing in winter.