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The Community Reacts to Playboy Marfa

Tourists snap photos in front of Playboy Marfa (KRTS Marfa photo).

If you've been out of the house this past week, you've most likely been drawn into a discussion about Playboy Marfa – an installation sponsored by Playboy Enterprises just west of Marfa on Highway 90.

As national news outlets start to pick up the story, KRTS takes a moment to consider the community reaction to the piece.

Not much information was available to the public when construction of Playboy Marfa began just seven days ago.

Big Bend Sentinel Reporter Alberto Halpern broke the story. Halpern told KRTS, “It was just a regular day for me. I went to go cover a meeting of the Presidio County Commissioner's Court and during a break the County Judge Paul Hunt - sort of leaning back from the head of the table where he sits - had the artist's rendering of the Playboy Marfa installation. He picked it up and showed it to everybody in the room and sort of chuckled. Everyone had a nice little chuckle.”

When Halpern couldn't reach Playboy reps for comment, he decided to run the story with the information he had. This was days before construction would start on June 10th.

Renee Mick, Director of the Marfa Public Library, was on her way home from El Paso when she spotted the bunny mid-construction. Renee said, “I didn't really care for it. It just seems a little commercial and still just don't see the reason for it to be out there.”

That question – why? - has been on the minds of many West Texans.

Local musician and cook Anthony Desimone had a visceral reaction to the piece. He told us, “It was so visually atrocious there was no room for me to explore a conceptual meaning.”

It has drawn comparisons to Elmgreen and Dragset's Prada Marfa, the fake Prada store just outside of Valentine, sponsored by Ballroom Marfa. That piece accrued similar criticism when it debuted in 2005 – that it was commercial and had little relevance to the surrounding community.

As Desimone articulates, “It's things like Prada Marfa that make the art community seem trashy and seem elitist. Prada marfa is an interesting piece - it's kind of funny, but I've always tried to look turn a blind eye even since I moved here. You hide your head in shame when people mention it – yep, there's a art installation that's composed of expensive bags and shoes that no one here will ever buy or afford.”

In contrast to local arts foundations that have been credited by many as being an economic boon to the town as a whole, community members expressed that the parachute installation process of Playboy Marfa seems a far cry from Donald Judd's philosophy of citizenship. As James Rodewald, a writer and Marfa resident puts it, “If the corporate machine behind this installation had any sensitivity to the poverty in this area, or any appreciation for what Judd did to establish an infrastructure that makes it possible for people to experience one of the most beautiful landscapes and one of the most important, truly groundbreaking museums in the world, they would have reached out to the community in some way and would make sure they leave behind something other than a scarred piece of roadside.

Desimone also expressed concerns that this installation could be used to demonize the arts community as a whole. He says, “This piece is a home run in the direction of making the new Marfa crowd seem like a negative factor in West Texas.”

Local historian Lonn Taylor told KRTS that we are not living in the heyday of Playboy. Taylor explains, “Playboy is a failing enterprise. I'm sure their desperate for attention and Marfa has certainly gotten more attention than any other town in the southwest in the past two or three years. So, they have some smart PR person who decided to hook on to the publicity Marfa's been getting – a coat tail ride.”

Area residents, who asked to remain anonymous, ventured that perhaps by attaching itself to the so-called Marfa “hype”, Playboy is hoping to harken back to the days when itself was part of the high art establishment – when Roald Dahl illustrated and John Updike wrote for the publication.

Fueling mystery around the project, Playboy has been silent to local media requests.

That silence has included a lack of coordination with major arts non-profits in Marfa. Playboy's Creative Director of Special Projects and curator of Playboy Marfa, Neville Wakefield, has a Marfa connection – he curated the 2011 show Autobody at Ballroom Marfa. However, Playboy Creative Director Landis Smithers paid no visit to the arts and culture space during his visit to town this past week.

Beyond refusing to comment, Alberto Halpern of the Big Bend Sentinel was asked multiple times by Playboy's PR consulting firm to kill the story – because a “national” outlet had an exclusive to break the story (since this story ran, the New York Times ran a blog post on the installation - find it here). As Alberto put it, “Unfortunately for them there is no monopoly on the truth. This huge playboy bunny standing 40 feet in the air - there's just no way to keep that a secret.

In studio, KRTS reporter Alice Quinlan asked Halpern, “What does it feel like to be shut out of a local story, a story that's happening in the town that you grew up in, in the town you report on every day - by this national organization - how does that feel for you?”

Halpern replied, “It's really aggravating and quite frankly its insulting. I've run into this and my folks have too. When somebody from a large city has never been to Marfa and they look at it on the map and see that we're in one of the most isolated parts of the country, they tend to think we're a bunch of rubes and dullards. Well, it turns out that people in Marfa are well-educated and well-traveled and we sort of know how the world works. We don't like to be shut out from whats going on in the world.”

That feeling of a lack of respect of the local community extends beyond Halpern's experience. With reports of a celebratory dinner in New York and a 24 hour newsfeed broadcasting reactions to the piece on the Internet, there have been accusations that the project is merely using Marfa as a back drop, or as one person commented on the KRTS Facebook page, “Marfa, you have become Playboy's newest prostitute.”

It's now been confirmed that Richard Phillips, the artist best known for his hyper-realistic paintings, is the architect behind the project.

As for what Playboy could do to win over some hearts and minds in the Big Bend, Halpern has a suggestion - “I imagine Playboy Enterprises spent a pretty penny on this installation and so I challenge them to give a donation to a local public organization in Marfa - either to Marfa ISD or to the education foundation or Meals on Wheels, to the Nutrition Center - if you're going to put this in our backyard, maybe you should make a small contribution to the community.”

Regardless of community opinion, the installation is here to stay – perhaps for as long as a year. What role will Playboy Marfa come to play in our visual landscape? Amateur photographers can already be seen snapping selfies in front of the piece. One can bet that #playboymarfa will be trending on social media sites within weeks.