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Is Lockhart the New Marfa?

A flourishing arts community is putting this small town on the map

Spellerberg Projects Art by Rene Raul Gonzalez (photo by Laurel Coyle)

If you know nothing else about the West Texas town of Marfa, you’ve probably at least heard of the famous fake Prada store on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, outside of town. Decades before Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset created that, it was minimalist artist Donald Judd who put Marfa on the map as an oasis of the arts. He moved from New York City in the 70s and before his death in the 90s, he acquired an Army base in town and filled it with giant works of art. Perhaps because of its desert location, making it the least likely place you’d expect to find fancy galleries or famous pieces of art, it’s been featured in The New York Times again and again, and has long drawn visitors and artists from around the world.

Lockhart, once known pretty much solely for its barbeque, is also becoming a (perhaps) unlikely hub for the arts. This growing town, though, is less of a quirky destination and more of an appealing place to call home — for not only artists, but small business owners, makers and families. Lockhart is an easy 30-mile commute from Austin, but it doesn’t feel like just an extension of Austin; it’s got its own identity and a strong sense of community. People who live there are proud, supportive of one another and generally inclusive. The center of town is a charming historic square, full of galleries, shops and restaurants … offering more than just barbeque. As Austin is becoming less and less affordable, it makes sense that many creatives would opt to live in this vibrant town.

Spellerberg Projects (photo by Laurel Coyle)

“Lockhart is an inspiring place exuding creative energy, so of course it attracts creative people,” says Donna Blair, co-founder of Commerce Gallery. While many artists have long called Lockhart home, the art scene didn’t really begin to emerge until 2016 when Spellerberg Projects opened. The gallery’s mission is to present a diverse array of contemporary art to the public and support emerging and established artists. Owner Marty Spellerberg bought the building on the Lockhart square with a plan based on what he’d witnessed of the art gallery scene in his hometown of Toronto. He worked for a gallery owner who moved his space out of the city, to the west. He was the first to do so, but other artists and galleries followed, and what once was a bland area with very little cultural options, became a trendy, exciting, inspiring place.

Photo courtesy of the Commerce Gallery

A thriving artist community attracts a wave of new galleries

“Artists need space to work, and so they look for space where there’s (affordable) space!” says Spellerberg. “Seeing that happen in Toronto really influenced how I approached this project.” When he found the perfect space for the gallery on the Lockhart square, he knew he wanted to buy, not lease, because he could predict how the town would grow in popularity (and therefore, eventually, cost), especially with the knowledge that the city had an actual plan to bring more of the arts to the square.

When Spellerberg Projects opened, there was so much positive support, and it seemed to both inspire residents and artists who already lived there, plus spark chatter outside of Lockhart — changing people’s perceptions of what the town could be. Marty laughs that as an artist who’d been living there was so shocked by the gallery’s presence, he wondered if it was some sort of joke, likening it to Marfa’s famous fake Prada store. It wasn’t a joke, though, and since opening a number of galleries have followed including Lone Star Workshop, Commerce Gallery, Soundwaves Art Foundation, Lockhart-Post Gallery and LockhART House.

“When I first opened, I heard there was a First Friday, so I showed up and opened, but there was not really a First Friday. Now it’s really hopping!” says Marty. People can make an entire evening of bouncing around the galleries. “It was nice to be the only one, and then it was nice to be first, and now it’s nice to be one of many,” he adds. As for Spellerberg, they’re currently working on an expansion that will include ten studio spaces behind the gallery as well as an event space. So the growth continues!

Christopher St. Leger “Sweet Red” Oil on Canvas

Finding a new hub for local artists in the town’s historic square

Local artist Christopher St. Leger is a watercolorist who moved from Austin to Lockhart with his family back in 2005, so he has witnessed that growth firsthand. When they were looking for a place to buy a home and have studio space, Austin prices were prohibitive.

“I asked my wife about that barbecue town where she’d taken me once,” says Christopher. “I had been living in rural Hungary for a while, and so the prospect of a small and quiet town like Lockhart didn’t scare me. It did prove to be very unhappening, though, and it seemed like all we did for that first decade was take turns dining at each of our friend’s homes (there were no restaurants here then). These days, by contrast, we hardly leave because practically everything we need is here. And the town is full of artists.” Christopher was thrilled when Commerce Gallery opened. Also located in the historic town square, Commerce features contemporary visual art from regional artists.

“My partner, Donna, and I opened Commerce Gallery in 2019, and since then, it’s become so much more than just an art gallery — it’s a gathering place to connect,” says Tamara Carlisle, the gallery’s director. That spirit of connection has had a big impact on Christopher.

“It changed the career I had been building for myself by boosting it,” says Christoper. “Until Commerce, I relied on more established gallery locations and their good reputations. Commerce was brand-spanking new, and it possessed a spirit that played by its own rules. Showing and buying art with Commerce felt a bit less somber and a lot more fun. Openings each month were big parties. When an artist finds themselves in my situation, where an energetic gallery suddenly takes root, you click your heels. Years ago I prioritized showing in New York … not interested anymore.”

“In March we will be celebrating five years of fostering community, through field trips for Lockhart ISD students, artists’ talks, poetry readings and even yoga classes,” says Donna of Commerce. “The artists and their work who energize the space bring us all together, and we place that artwork in homes all over the country right here out of Lockhart, Texas.” Donna and Tamara also own Nightbirds Hospitality — four stylishly renovated Airbnbs that they’ve filled with art.

Photo courtesy of Lockhart Arts & Craft

Locals support creative growth and spotlight local artists

What was once a one-note town has grown into a thriving community of visual artists, writers and musicians. A number of restaurants and bars host live music regularly, like Arts & Crafts, known affectionately as “Lockhart’s living room.” Founded by artist and graphic designer Sara Barr, Layne Tanner and Jessica Rutland, the space also offers actual craft workshops, regular Irish music sessions, open mic nights and writing groups.

Another resident of note is Steven Collins, the frontman and songwriter for DEADMAN and owner and operator of Troubadour Image + Sound in Lockhart. A year ago, Steven and his wife Kate started the 78644 Podcast, dedicated to honoring Lockhart’s dynamic art and music community, which includes Austin transplants James McMurtry and Dustin Welch.

“Initially, the podcast set out to document Lockhart’s version of its own artist haven or the ‘New’ Old Austin, sparked by an influx of remarkable talent,” says Kate. At first they were worried there wouldn’t be enough content to sustain the podcast, but they’ve produced 24 episodes, each featuring three musicians and one artist (all who either live in Lockhart or have a gig there), so it turns out there was nothing to worry about. In November, they’ll be collaborating with Texas Monthly to launch the TM BBQ Fest. On November 3, as part of First Friday, there will be a live show on the Texas Monthly main stage at the square. The event will feature local musicians, with James McMurtry and The Heartless Bastards headlining.

The active music scene is yet another element that distinguishes Lockhart from Marfa. So, while there might be a parallel between what happens when the first person brings art to a small town, that’s where the similarities between Marfa and Lockhart seem to end.

“Marfa is a very strange thing — a satellite of the New York and L.A. art worlds,” argues Spellerberg. “People literally helicopter in. I also think there’s some antipathy between the native ranch community and the art scene. It’s a little bit like oil and water. I think Lockhart is much more of an authentic growth of an art community … just artists finding space to work and sharing ideas.” It might also be a disservice to think of Lockhart as the “new old Austin.” It’s really its own place, and its name kind of says it all — a town with a lot of heart, and a lot of art.