Interview: Fairfax Dorn & JD DiFabbio

by Kate Watson

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      Michael Meredith and MOS
      Rendering of Ballroom Marfa's drive-in movie theater and music hall
      Courtesy Ballroom Marfa

      During my visit for the Marfa Sessions, I had an opportunity to sit down with Ballroom Marfa Co-Founder Fairfax Dorn and JD DiFabbio, Director of Development for the Ballroom, and pick their brains about the state of the arts in the wild creative outpost we lovingly call Marfa, Texas.

      …might be good: What initially brought you to Marfa? 

      Fairfax Dorn: The landscape initially brought me to Marfa. I was originally trained as an artist so like the majority of artists who choose to be here, I was inspired by the desert. I had been living in New York and needed a change. I moved to Terlingua first and then to Marfa a year later.

      …mbg: And you just stumbled on the space that now houses The Ballroom?

      FD: Virginia stumbled upon it first…Virginia Lebermann is Ballroom Marfa’s cofounder and president. We met in New York City ten years ago and we’ve always loosely talked about having a space or doing something together that was very different than anything else we knew of in terms of art spaces. You know… “how can we make it different than a museum or a gallery?”. Virginia came out to West Texas around the same time I moved from NYC in 2002. Virginia spotted the building and knew it could become something very special.

      …mbg: How long had it been vacant?

      FD: Not very long. The building has always remained fairly active. Prior to Ballroom Marfa, it was a commercial gallery, a grocery store, car repair shop and a gas station but was originally built as a dance hall and theater.

      JD DiFabbio: Someone in the neighborhood said they had basketball courts in here and of course it was originally a ballroom.

      FD: So we’ve kind of taken the space back to its roots, to its original purpose. It was built in 1927 as a ballroom for the community and that’s how we came up with the name—there’s a record of it being called the Queen’s theater and someone told us it was once called the Queen’s Ballroom, but we were drawn to the name “Ballroom” and what that means—bringing people together through the convergence of the arts and empowering the idea of community.

      JD: And what’s interesting is that from the outset Virginia and Fairfax conceived of it as a multidisciplinary space. The three disciplines could have their own programs and staff and organization…

      FD: We want our programming to reflect an equal investment in film, music and visual art, without emphasizing one over another, thereby creating a cross pollination of people as well. Our goal has always been to remain an exploratory space of culture; staying open and free to everyone - for art to be tangible in their lives in one way or another—film, music and the visual arts.

      JD: And that’s been important to draw in different parts of the community, for example people who wouldn’t necessarily come to a gallery space in general but would come to a concert. Once they come to a concert, that opens up that door for them to come to the gallery.

      …mbg: And the drive-in movie theater you’re working on opening is a perfect example of that kind of encounter. Could you tell me about the progress on that new project?

      FD: With the economic crisis, the project will take longer than expected to realize. The project has been in the works for over four years. In 2004, Josh Siegel (film curator at MOMA) came through and he posed this question, you know, “don’t you all have a drive-in theater… (it being) a small town Texas?” And we said no, we don’t. Though Marfa did at one time. The following day, Virginia and Vance Knowles, our Director of Music and Film said, “maybe Ballroom should build a drive-in!” Josh had no idea that he had sparked this thought in our minds until he returned to New York City when we asked him to help organize the inaugural weekend. 

      …mbg: The idea of a drive-in theater truly sparks the imagination—it’s just a fascinating piece of American history.

      FD: It truly is. And it transformed from this simple idea to something far more wonderful and complex when we introduced the idea of design, taking the concept to a completely different level. Currently, we’re working with Michael Meredith (Associate Professor of Architecture at Harvard University) and MOS who designed an extraordinary structure that serves the dual purpose of being both a drive-in and a music hall with the screen and the bandshell being attached to one another. More recently, we have introduced the idea of using renewable energy by way of using solar and wind energy so it’s functional while being off of the grid. Now it’s more than just a drive-in, it’s an environmentally conscience performing arts center. 

      JD: It has become this visual and sculptural representation of our mission statement. It’s something for the community and a place where we can present even more multidisciplinary work. 

      FD: The programming options are endless. It’s a perfect extension of our mission; now it’s just a matter of finding the funds to realize the project.

      …mbg: So in terms of the programming, what will be the focus?

      FD: Right now we’re focusing on seasonal programming. Every year we’ll work with a curator from a roster of international institutions to organize a program – beginning with Josh Siegel – and we’re talking to other institutions such as the Pompidou and the Tate. Curators will have a chance to explore their institutions’ archives and then present the work at the drive-in. We will also invite individual artists, writers and directors to come and either screen their video work or their films, or have them curate a program as well. We will present music performances throughout the entire season.

      JD: And with anything in Marfa, there really is always an x-factor—for example, how many people do you think will come out for the inaugural weekend? There’s no way to reference anything that you’re doing. So the first year will really be a testing ground and will be really experimental, which is exactly how it was with the gallery.

      FD: With the Ballroom, the first year, we had four large shows. And then we learned, ok, we couldn’t do four shows. We’re out in the middle of nowhere—it doesn’t make financial sense for us to do four shows. So we went from four to three to two, so we learned pretty quickly what worked.

      JD: Plus the way that information and “buzz” disseminates out of Marfa, you want to have four months for people to plan to travel here. If you go home and talk about the show, it’s not like your friends can say, “oh I’ll do that next Saturday.” You have to give yourself time to be here…

      …mbg: …which is also one of the best things about the place.

      JD: The location keeps us protected—the pilgrimage here keeps it from becoming overly touristy.

      …mbg: I guess that leads to me to ask about how you’ve seen Marfa change since you’ve arrived here.

      FD: I believe Marfa started to change right before I got here in 2002. The Marfa Book Company, Maiya’s restaurant and the Lannan Foundation had all just recently established themselves, showing signs of the town’s vitality and possibilities. It is not the easiest place to make a living but there has been a clear relationship between art and tourism within Marfa, which has helped the city’s economy. It is great to witness other people moving to Marfa with their own dreams of creating something new. I believe this keeps the younger generations connected to Judd, which is the primary reason (in addition to the landscape) why Marfa is Marfa. 

      FD: Overall, it hasn’t changed that much—we still face the same challenges that were here five or six years ago, in terms of there being no pharmacy or full time doctors. Marfa’s modest population and infrastructure remains the same, which presents a challenge for the town’s growth. 

      JD: Before, visitors came here to see the Chinati and Judd Foundations specifically, now because of these changes and media coverage Marfa is known to a broader audience. People travel to investigate the evolving concept of Marfa.

      FD: People want to have this rural art experience, especially living in this technology-laden world; coming here can be a welcome break from the over-stimulated, over-populated urban life. The moment you enter this culturally stimulating community, you are immediately a part of it.

      JD: Even if it’s for a short amount of time.

      …mbg: Does that ever become exhausting?

      FD: Both exhausting and exhilarating. Obviously, as a full time resident, my experience is very different than most as we have to make many things happen with very limited resources. Ballroom has a responsibility to serve the community in Marfa as well as the international community of art, music and film.

      JD: You can come here and be very isolated but it’s also amazing to be plugged in and invested in this community because everything you do has a huge impact in this microcosm, so it’s really satisfying to be an active part of expanding and refining and…

      FD: …and shaping the community. We’re very lucky to have an opportunity to do that.

      JD: To make that leap and say that this is the town where I’m going to make my life is a huge step.

      FD: Living in Marfa gives one an opportunity of creative entrepreneurship, to be a pioneer, and to reinvent one’s own world.

      …mbg: How transient does it feel?

      FD: It’s quite transient.

      JD: It seems like it comes in waves—it seems like it’s gotten younger and younger. And the length of time you stay seems to correlate with age. But if you’re twenty and you’ve just graduated from art school and you’re not sure what your next step is, a year in Marfa could be fantastic.

      JD: Furthermore, people are always coming in from all over the world and it stops you from becoming jaded. Because there are always people coming for the first time, you can always remind yourself what it is that drew you here in the first place.

      …mbg: So can we talk more about what the future holds for the Ballroom?

      FD: We have a number of music events on the horizon, including Japanther, Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band, YACHT and Billy Joe Shaver. We typically develop our exhibitions two years ahead of time. Right now we are organizing our first major benefit and auction for May 2009, and Alicia Ritson, our Associate Curator, is developing an exhibition of emerging Mexican artists for our fall 2009 show. We’re very focused on the present—of course the Drive-In is a major project but we also need to secure core support to ensure Ballroom is alive and well in ten years. We’re constantly working on fundraising. My hope is for Ballroom to continue working with emerging and established artists, curators, musicians, and filmmakers in presenting new ideas that have international relevance – the kind of projects that hold the power to inspire the creative spirit.

      JD: There is a huge capacity for Marfa to transcend the box that Texas institutions sometimes find themselves in. Many wonderful institutions bump up against this idea of a regional space. The Ballroom, from the very beginning, produced shows that allowed us to have an international focus.

      …mbg: It’s a challenge being in Texas. You really want to focus on what’s happening regionally but because of the physical distance from a major international art center like LA or New York, you really want your audience to have access to and get excited about seeing new work. Marfa feels like a destination in that sense.

      FD: But even though Marfa is remote, because of all the great foundations and new projects we manage to stay very culturally connected. That’s what’s so amazing and intense about this place—the opportunities to have genuine interactions with writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and art connoisseurs from around the world. Throughout the year people are coming here, flying here, driving here, which is a humbling experience. Though the landscape is vast, the experience is intimate— this is why experiencing art and culture in Marfa is so different from anywhere else.

      Kate Watson is Coordinator of testsite and an assistant editor at ...might be good.

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