The State Of Texas Vs. Prada Marfa
Even if you’ve never seen Prada Marfa—and unless you’ve made a pilgrimage to rural Texas’ unlikely outpost of conceptual art, you probably haven’t—you’ve no doubt heard of it. The eerie adobe installation in the middle of the Texas desert was created by the artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset in 2005. Though it is made to resemble a store, it is arguably more of a sculpture, given that it’s not open for business (or open at all—the doors are permanently locked). And it is not an official Prada location, though Elmgreen and Dragset did receive the company’s permission to use the logo, and the house donated Prada bags and shoes for the windows, albeit bottomless bags and only right shoes to prevent looting.
Most critics see Prada as a comment of sorts on consumer culture. Is it also an advertisement for a luxury brand? That’s what the Texas Department of Transportation is now arguing. And for that reason, the installation is in jeopardy of being removed.
“According to law, Prada Marfa is considered outdoor advertising, and a state license and permit are required. Prada Marfa does not have either of those,” said Texas Department of Transportation representative Veronica Beyer. “Obviously we appreciate artwork, and we enjoy seeing it across our beautiful state. But like all other outdoor signs, we have to make sure that they follow federal and state law,” she continued. “The real big issue here is that 10 percent of our federal transportation funding is tied to us following these laws. We are at risk of losing 10 percent of federal highway funding—which is huge for Texas.” When asked if the federal government had actually made any such threat, Beyer responded, “We need to check that out for you.”
“I was in disbelief,” Elmgreen said in response to TxDOT’s ruling. “They obviously work in a very slow pace in that office…How could this happen after eight years!” The answer may be that similar installations, like Richard Phillips’ collaboration with Playboy, which went up this past June, raised hackles; Playboy Marfa was deemed illegal and will be removed in December. Playboy Marfa, however, was situated just outside of Marfa, whereas Prada Marfa is set on private property twenty-seven miles out of town, and Playboy Marfa was commissioned by the magazine, rather than allowed by it. Beyer, for her part, confirmed that the decision regarding Playboy Marfa had thrown Prada Marfa into the spotlight; the piece was cited in legal discussions regarding the Phillips installation.
Fans have rallied around the artwork by joining the Save Prada Marfa initiative via Facebook and Twitter. “This is a piece that is adored by children, art critics, and truck drivers alike,” said Yvonne Force Villareal, cofounder of the Art Production Fund, which helped make the work a reality.
“We highly respect Richard Phillips, but definition-wise and legally, there is a big difference between these two situations,” added Elmgreen, whose work is now the subject of a new show at London’s V&A Museum. “Our work is not linked to Prada as a fashion brand. We could have chosen a different luxury goods label but Prada was and maybe still is the favorite fashion brand in art circles.” (He also compared Prada’s retail aesthetic to the minimalism of Donald Judd, the artist whose foundation helped to establish Marfa as an art destination.)
As of press time, TxDOT was still checking on whether the federal government was threatening to withhold funding due to Prada Marfa, and the possibility of a removal order remains. “Hopefully we don’t end up in a silly court case, but we will for sure fight to the end,” Elmgreen promised. “If it turns out that we have to remove the artwork—which would be extremely sad—we will erect another version somewhere else.”
Join the Save Prada Marfa initiative by visiting the cause’s Facebook page, or using #SavePradaMarfa on Twitter.