It began in 1911 when a cavalry unit camped in the windswept grasslands just outside Marfa, Texas. Within three years, Camp Marfa had become the headquarters for the Big Bend Military District. It was from there the US Army did its part in dealing with the Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa. In the wake of the fighting, thousands of Mexicans fled across the Rio Grande and were temporarily housed at the army camp, which at the time was little more than a tent city with a train depot. The grassy flatlands made an excellent emergency landing field for the American biplanes patrolling the skies, reporting on Pancho Villa's troop movements. And by the end of WW I, the camp had become an important training site for both the army and the newly formed US Border Patrol.
After the war, Camp Marfa became Fort D.A. Russell. Tents were replaced with good, solid buildings. First came a house for the commander (of course), then officers' quarters, barracks, mess halls, a 96-bed hospital, a gymnasium, a veterinary clinic, stables for horses, a movie theatre, even a radio station. As the 1930s progressed, the base housed over 600 troops and became the social centre of Marfa - an economic bright spot in the otherwise dismal Depression dust bowl of West Texas. As mechanised units gradually replace horses, garages replaced stables, and even as the border patrol took over more and more of the fort, the facilities were well placed for the training of troops destined for duty both in Europe and the Pacific during WW II. Near the end of the war, the fort became a camp for 200 German prisoners of war. But the end of the war also brought an end to Fort D.A. Russell. In 1949, the army moved out and civilians moved into the officers' quarters. The gymnasium became a riding arena; otherwise, only the theatre and the newly built swimming pool continued in use. The rest of the buildings gradually went to pot.
One of the problems which has always faced Contemporary art is that many of its sculptural works are too big and heavy to be permanently preserved. While a museum might move paintings, or drawings, or prints to its basement storage vaults once they're no longer wanted for display, what do you do with a sculptural behemoth, a ten-foot tall Claes Oldenburg construction made of reinforced concrete and weighing several tons when some newer piece of similar dimensions seeks to take its place? Answering that question and others similar was the mission of the Chinati Foundation founded in the late 1970s to permanently exhibit the work of important contemporary artists such as Oldenburg, Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin. And that's when old Fort D. A. Russell was once more called to duty. In 1979, the foundation purchased some 340 acres of the old cavalry base with its dilapidated buildings, enormous garage structures, barracks - even the converted gymnasium/riding arena - to become a museum designed to handle just such overblown works of contemporary art on a permanent basis.
The old barracks became a maze of spacious, state-of-the-art galleries. The riding arena got a new concrete floor and became large-scale indoor exhibit space. Just as important as the inside spaces, the expansive grassy prairie outside became the home for some 14 major works by Judd in concrete, while the old artillery sheds became the refurbished space for 100 of his large aluminium works. Not far away, a massive concrete and bronze sculpture by Oldenburg pays homage to the last cavalry horse to see duty at the one-time fort. Twenty-five works by John Chamberlain also dot the landscape. Traditional (if you can call contemporary art that) paintings, drawings, prints, and photos, including works by Flavin, hang on the remodelled barracks walls where once were displayed cheesecake pinups. And the mess halls serve as classrooms for summer art programs aimed at both kids and their parents. Here college interns gain hands-on experience in curating contemporary art, and travelling exhibitions bring art to a small community where, before, the closest museum was four hours away in El Paso. The Chinati Foundation also puts out a newsletter, and sponsors concerts, research, and workshops to round out its cultural program. Where once there was the sound of artillery, now we hear the delicate "chink" of hardened steel biting into stone. And today, the ugly, booming guns of war are replace by the silent, windswept beauty of art.