By Kelly MacConomy
On Tuesday, November 13, 2018, one day following the 100th anniversary of the renowned Torpedo Factory’s 1918 groundbreaking, and one week after Election Day, City Council is scheduled to discuss the permanent long-term management of the beloved art center, determining if it will remain under the City-controlled umbrella of the Alexandria Office of the Arts. The historic building’s construction commenced upon the Armistice, mere hours after World War I ended.
City Manager Mark Jinks set the agenda for Tuesday’s Council legislative docket. Caught by surprise were Mayor Allison Silberberg, Council members, working artists affiliated with the Torpedo Factory Artist’s Association and art center staff, who were advised of the agenda Friday, shortly before the three-day holiday weekend. Mr. Jinks considers this to be the start of a conversation versus a conclusion.
In his November 6 letter to the Torpedo Factory Artists, Tenants, and Friends organizations, Mr. Jinks said, “The City is the only organization capable of the level of investment needed that can ensure that the community’s interests are also considered in future substantial capital improvements to the building. Additionally, the City is best situated to achieve group collaboration, the goals outlined in the Arts and Culture Masterplan and the Waterfront Small Area Plan and continue to invest in the Arts Center as a model of placemaking and civic improvement.”
According to the City’s website, The Office of the Arts, the Commission for the Arts, and the City’s cultural outreach “grant management facilitates opportunities for innovation and collaboration by providing operating and program support to 25-30 area non-profit arts organizations and artists each year who provide arts access throughout the community where art organizations generate over $111 million annually in economic activity and support over 2,600 FTE jobs.”
The City, under the auspices of the Office of the Arts, assumed provisional operating control of the Torpedo Factory in 2016. The prestigious waterfront art center opened its doors 44 years ago on September 15, 1974. Artist and former Virginia Delegate for Alexandria Marian Van Landingham was instrumental in the founding of the artist mecca situated ideally at the foot of King Street along the harbor with vast panoramic views of the Potomac River. Marian continues to work and show her popular paintings and artwork in her expansive third-floor studio overlooking the scenic harbor and Maryland Shore beyond.
Prior to the City’s temporary takeover on October 1, 2016, the TFACB and the TFAA (Torpedo Factory Art Center Board and Torpedo Factory Artist’s Association) determined leasing terms, created event schedules and activities and organized fundraising programs almost exclusively. In years past the Board set the lease provisions: artists were given 12-month leases that passed through two intermediary organizations.
Now all artists receive a 36-month lease per City-established policy. However, one east side corner studio with a river view on two sides recently occupied by a working graphic and print-maker designer now houses an administrative-purposed conference table and chairs. She does not appear to have been relocated in the art center.
The TFAC Board was dissolved in August 2016. Brett John Johnson is the current Director of the Torpedo Factory. Daniel Guzman is the Programs Coordinator. Alyssa Ross is the Marketing Manager. Brett and Daniel were on site and engaged in activities Friday night for the November Late Shift theme “The Late Shift: 100” celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Torpedo Factory munitions building. Aside from a small gathering at the opening reception and artist talk for the stunning new exhibit “Art of Armistice” at the Target Gallery, all was quiet on the waterfront art center.
Reached for comment, Torpedo Factory studio artist members, visiting exhibiting artists and staff hesitated to be quoted on the record. Those who did requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. The consensus proved to be that relinquishing control these past two years has been by and large detrimental to the vivacity and morale of the art center. There have been complaints of studio space being appropriated for administrative use as well as claims of an authoritarian climate usurping programs and activities; at-work studio artists instead working for the City agenda, distracted and detracted from working on their artwork. And without input.
Visitation, community participation and sales seem to be down. Numerous studios are dark. Some are open at best infrequently. The center remains a popular choice for event, reception and party planning. These events generate a lot of support revenue but require early closures of studios and prohibit public access.
Testimony from the general public will be heard at an upcoming hearing, Saturday, November 17 at 9:30 a.m. before the Council vote regarding the disposition of control and care-taking over arguably one of the most valuable jewels in the Port City crown. Citizens, artists and interested individuals may register to testify or submit written testimony online (www.alexandriava.gov/participate) at least one day ahead of the hearing date or in person at City Hall day of the hearing. In-person testimony at the hearing is limited to 3 minutes.