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Chinati’s Chamberlain Building to reopen after year-long restoration

The historic building in the heart of Marfa, once a wool and mohair building and local store, now houses large-scale works by the renowned American sculptor John Chamberlain.

By Travis Bubenik

On Saturday, April 30, a historic building in downtown Marfa that was once owned by the artist Donald Judd is reopening to the public for the first time in a year.

The Chamberlain Building sits just off the train tracks in downtown Marfa. Inside are more than 20 large-scale works by the late American sculptor John Chamberlain, who was known for his giant, colorfully painted sculptures often made out of crushed metal car parts.

The Chinati Foundation, the arts non-profit that now owns the building, has been meticulously restoring the space for the past year.

Marfa Public Radio recently caught up with the foundation’s director Jenny Moore for more on the reopening and the legacy of Chamberlain’s work. Listen to the full conversation via the audio player above.

The arts organization is hosting a day-long celebration of the reopening on Saturday, including a free community dinner outside the building along Marfa’s main thoroughfare.

Interview Highlights

On the building’s history

What is now the Chamberlain Building was once the Marfa Wool & Mohair Building, according to the Chinati Foundation. The building was initially comprised of three separate structures, Moore said.

“So what was significant about Judd purchasing the buildings and turning it into a permanent installation of Chamberlain’s work was the opportunity to clarify the architecture of the building,” she said.

The building was also the first that Judd opened to the public in the early 1980’s, Moore said.

“I always compliment Judd’s generosity that in establishing Chinati, it was not just for his own work, but to support the work of artists that he thought were among the best of our time,” she said.

On how the collection of Chamberlain’s work came to Marfa

“It was really on the terms of the artists themselves,” Moore said. “They selected the work, they transformed the building to support it.”

Moore noted that the Chamberlain collection stands out from most of the Chinati Foundation’s art collection, in that most of the museum’s other holdings were created specifically for the buildings where they are now permanently located.

Many of the sculptures in the Chamberlain Building, by contrast, were created earlier, in the 1970’s. The artist made some of the sculptures on a ranch in Amarillo, Texas.

On the building’s extensive restoration over the past year

The Chinati Foundation moved Chamberlain’s works out of the building in March 2021 and launched a $1.25 million restoration project two months later. 

Since then, crews addressed what Chinati has described as “structural concerns” with the building, including the complete replacement of the building’s metal roof and skylights, along with a whole host of other improvements.

“Those of us who visit or live out here know the harsh effect of the high desert climate, so for decades now, the building has been in a state of deterioration,” Moore said. “The original openings on the facade, while they had been closed in, had been sort of popping out, so it was important to repair” those areas.

Through the restoration, Moore said, the foundation was able to make the building and its courtyard more accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On the cultural value and legacy of the Chamberlain Building, and the artist’s sculptures in Marfa

“This building now has had at least two lives,” Moore said. “It follows on from Judd’s legacy in terms of his commitment to historic preservation, his commitment to Marfa.” 

Moore said preserving the building upholds that commitment, along with Judd’s “commitment to artists in perpetuity.”

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