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Renovation of Damaged Prada Marfa Art Installation Begins

Prada Marfa near Valentine, Texas on February 18, 2015 (Travis Bubenik / KRTS)

Renovation of the badly damaged Prada Marfa art installation near Valentine, Texas has begun and will continue over the next few weeks.

The popular roadside art installation was vandalized by a Waco resident named Joe Magnano almost a year ago, an act Magnano claimed was meant to be its own kind of art and an act of protest.

Magnano pleaded guilty to criminal mischief charges in November, and was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, plus $10,000 in restitution to Ballroom Marfa, the nonprofit art gallery that takes care of the installation.

Ballroom has estimated restoring the piece could cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000.

The gallery's deputy director Katherine Shaughnessy says the restitution money likely won't be enough to  cover the cost of completely restoring the piece.

That effort began this week with the careful removal of the installation's awning, "Prada Marfa" emblem and glass.

Some of those items will be shipped to El Paso for further restoration, with Elmgreen & Dragset - the German artists who created the piece - consulting with Ballroom on the replacement materials.

Shaughnessy says the most time-consuming part of the process will be replacing the bulletproof Plexiglas that was damaged when Magnano glued TOMS Shoe Company flags and other items to the artwork.

Boyd Elder, the artwork's official caretaker, says it's a big job.

"These windows, they're probably $1,000 a pop, if not more, and then the labor," he says. "The windows have to be replaced, the awnings have to be replaced because they were torn"

This isn't the first time vandals have struck Prada Marfa. Someone shot it full of holes and stole all of the Prada shoes inside back in 2005 shortly after it opened.

Over the years, security at the site's been beefed up. Bulletproof plexiglass and cameras are now installed, and because of the high costs of this latest vandalism, there's more security measures on the way.

"There's going to be some secret security installations that I'm going to oversee," Elder says. He's already able to remotely log into the security cameras at the site and capture photos from his phone.

While most people in the Big Bend region dismissed Magnano's act as petty vandalism, like it or not, it did bring up an old debate about whether Prada Marfa should be protected at all.

Its creators originally wanted it to wither away to the elements - human or otherwise - but over the years, that philosophy's changed.

Michael Elmgreen initially said you can't really stop vandals, and that even if you do restore this kind of public artwork, it's going to be a target again sooner or later.

But that existential question's stirred enough of a debate that Ballroom recently published a "Prada Marfa explainer," laying out how and why the stance on protecting the art has changed. The gallery says it's a "complicated and multifaceted" issue, and that the site has to be maintained to some degree, partly just because of public safety concerns.

The damage isn't the only hurdle the installation's faced lately.

The Texas Department of Transportation had been looking into whether Prada Marfa constituted an unauthorized highway advertisement, a status it gave to the ill-fated Playboy Marfa roadside installation, forcing the bunny to move to Dallas.

In September, the ruling came down: Prada Marfa is now officially art, and will be allowed to stay.

Even with Prada Marfa now essentially a construction zone, Shaughnessy says plenty of travelers are still pulling off the highway to get a look.

"When I was out there, eight cars must have stopped in 90 minutes," she says. "It's a nonstop stream of people."

"This guy from London was like, 'I just missed it!'"

For some travelers, it will seem that way for the meantime, but Ballroom hopes to have the work fully restored in time for the Marfa Myths music and art festival it's hosting with the Mexican Summer record label in March.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.