Letter to the Editor

Opinion: Thoughts for the Torpedo Factory Stakeholder Task Force

Torpedo Factory Art Center, Alexandria, VA. (Photo: City of Alexandria/Geoff Livingston)
Torpedo Factory Art Center, Alexandria, VA. (Photo: City of Alexandria/Geoff Livingston)

By Joe Sestak

ALEXANDRIA, VA – This month, the city manager appoints twenty “Torpedo Factory Stakeholders” to a task force, whose “…charge is to provide input and feedback regarding expanded vibrancy for the Art Center.”

After Zebra published my article, ‘No Higher Honor’ Than to Preserve Torpedo Factory Artist Space Against City’s ‘Vibrancy Plan’,” the city distributed a memorandum — including to commissions and organizations that are stakeholders on the Task Force – taking exception with the op-ed.

As stakeholders soon embark on their tasking, it’s best to provide balanced counterpoints to what was provided to these stakeholders. The primary reason is the essence of the Torpedo Factory’s unique attraction: it houses the largest number of publicly accessible working artist studios in America which, as former Councilwoman Del Pepper said, is “the goose that lays the golden egg.”

And this is the core of the disagreement: the city claims there are no plans to remove these artist studios. This article shows that city council voted to implement and fund the Action Plan for Vibrancy that eliminates up to 39% of artist studios.

Therefore, stakeholders real tasking will be to provide “input and feedback” on what takes the place of these artist studios, using a list from the Action Plan that provides examples of “public-oriented” spaces and exhibits that can be “viewed as spectacle.”

There are other costs: $46 million to redesign and reconfigure the first and third floor artist studies for the new replacement spaces. However, keeping the Torpedo Factory “as is, in good working order” is only $16 million, including upgrades (wiring, heating, rest rooms, etc.).

Part of the “golden egg” not mentioned in the city’s Action Plan for Vibrancy is in a George Mason University study on the economic impact of the Torpedo Factory. Half of all out-of-town visitors cite the Torpedo Factory as the primary attraction for visiting Alexandria. They comprise 87% of the Factory’s visitors, spending approximately $35 million annually to the benefit of the city’s hotels, restaurants, retail establishments, as well as resident artists at the Factory and other businesses across the city.

The 2017 study found the visitors were of all ages, with as many 20-29 year-olds, as 50-59 year-olds. And there is a broad range of incomes, including as many persons with below-average incomes as above average incomes.

Finally, in June, The Washington Post highlighted an additional reason to let Stakeholders know what the Action Plan for Vibrancy failed to take into consideration about our World War II torpedo arsenal – its vibrant history. Writing about the recent discovery of the long-sought USS Samuel B. Roberts sunk at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the photograph The Post selected to accompany the print article were the torpedo tubes of what is the world’s deepest shipwreck.

The Post selected this photo because those tubes held the weapon that won the largest naval battle in world history, its first shot made by the torpedo built in our Factory. An overwhelming Japanese armada firing guns 25 miles was defeated, destroyed by a weapon firing only 4 miles.

Alexandria’s arsenal of non-segregated artisans — uncommon in Virginia — were ultimately responsible for saving 150,000 defenseless soldiers that had just landed ashore with General MacArthur. It’s why the commanding officer of the Samuel B. Roberts wrote of the courageous crew he lost that day, “There is No Higher Honor than to have served with men such as this.”

Of interest, the city council thought the proposal for changing the Torpedo Factory was of such concern, both Councilwomen Pepper and Amy Jackson stated councilmembers should be on the Stakeholders Task Group. When the Mayor said it would be hard to have councilmembers volunteer, both immediately did so. The council then voted to approve a resolution to have councilmembers on the Task Force – but the city has not yet identified which ones will be assigned this important task.

Synopsis of City’s Actions to Eliminate up to 39% of Artist Studios

On February 20, 2021, the city council voted to implement the Action Plan for Vibrancy. The Action Plan’s eight pages specified ten “actions” to be implemented. One action was to “re-design” the Torpedo Factory’s first floor for “public-facing” features, providing examples that ranged from a gallery for traveling art exhibits to “make-it” spaces. A second action was to “repurpose space” on the third floor to accommodate more than 100 people for business or social functions.

As a consequence, $845,000 was put in the FY 2022 city budget “for implementation of the Action Plan items, including the first and third floor renovations.” On October 19, 2021, the city briefed the Waterfront Commission that implementing these actions would remove 39% of artist studios, displaying diagrams that showed the elimination of all studios on the first floor, as well as removal of studios on the third floor.

On December 14, 2021, council was briefed on the identical options as the Waterfront Commission regarding the first and third floor. Council voted to re-affirm its previous direction to implement the Action Plan. Another option the Council was shown — keeping the Torpedo Factory “as is, in good working order” — was not included in the Action Plan that Council voted to implement.

During the briefing, council was told the FY 2023 budget would fund the design and planning for the reconfiguration of the Torpedo Factory, so its renovation for the new spaces could start about mid-2025.

$3.8 million was put in the FY 2023 budget, spread over FY 2023 -2025. The budget said that the funding could also be used for the actual implementation of the Action Plan, and included $745,000 not yet spent of the original $845,000 that had been put in the FY 2022 budget for the first and third floor renovation.

City Item / Article Counterpoint

Below are the items city staff took exception to in my original April 15, 2022, Zebra article, “No Higher Honor.” Under each staff point is the counterpoint provided for the Stakeholders’ consideration.

City Point #1. “At their meeting in December, city council did not approve a renovation of the Art center (including any major changes to the first floor) … Instead, staff has been directed to proceed with … Implementation of the Action Plan for Vibrancy and Sustainability.”

Counterpoint #1. City Council approved the Action Plan’s implementation twice: February 20, 2021 and December 14, 2022 and — per Oxford Languages — implementation is defined as “execution.”

As a result, a City Manager’s memo dated February 3, 2021 stated: “The FY 2022 proposed capital budget will include funding of $845,000 for implementation of the Action Plan including the first and third floor renovations.” That funding, along with specific direction that it was for “the first and third floor renovation,” was included in the FY22 Capital Improvement Program (CIP), page 6.

The Action Plan had eight pages, with ten “Actions”, that Council voted to implement. “Action #1” (page 7) was to “re-design” the first floor of the Torpedo Factory to achieve the following “Outcome:”

  • Relocate and upgrade existing studio space to accommodate new “public-facing” first floor features (including “hands-on opportunities, specialized technology, and an ability to be viewed as spectacle, such as printmaking and glass making.)
  • Develop a family-friendly, hand on “Make-It” space on first floor.
  • Expand the Target Gallery into upgraded space to provide additional exhibition space and increase its visibility in a more central location.
  • Investigate moving the Art League Store to first floor.
  • Prioritize use of space/space allocation throughout the building with a focus on the first floor to determine highest and best use
  • Develop intentional plan and use for common areas to include expanded exhibit opportunities and how rental use building.

On October 19, 2021, the city briefed the Waterfront Commission on its preferred “Illustrative Custom Option” for the Torpedo Factory. Below are the two diagrams city presented to the Commission for the first floor

Diagram 1 shows artist studios on first floor today. (Image: City of Alexandria)
Diagram 1 shows artist studios on first floor today. (Image: City of Alexandria)

Diagram 1 shows the layout of the first floor, today, filled with artist studios. Diagram 2 shows how the “outcome” from page 7 of the Action Plan above would be “illustratively” implemented — while removing all artist spaces currently on the first floor, which are 30% of the Factory’s artist spaces.

Diagram 2: showing all first floor artist studios replaced by “Outcome” of Action Plan (page 7)
Diagram 2 shows all first floor artist studios replaced by “Outcome” of Action Plan. (Image: City of Alexandria)

Removing all working artist studios from the coveted first floor — where the public enters the Factory — was based on the Study of the Studies from which the Action Plan was drawn. It recommended that the first floor be “transformed into a Great Hall” for a “more dynamic” presentation of “products,” which are the Action Plan’s “Outcomes” listed on page 7.

City staff briefed city council on December 14, 2021, providing examples of the “products” that would now occupy the first floor instead of working artist studios: a large art gallery to show exhibits (mentioned was the Van Gogh), the presentation of long-term public art, furnaces for glass blowing, an art supply store, or performance spaces.

As a result, the city’s “charge” to the Stakeholders Task Force’s appears to really be providing input on what “products” from the Action Plan’s “Outcome” list are to be the replacements for the first floor’s artist studios. Council was briefed that this “Community Engagement Process” would take 12 – 18 months.

With regard to the third floor, below is the illustrative “picture” presented to the Waterfront Commission for a “market-rate revenue generating space,” as well as Diagram 3 showing where the space will replace third floor artist studios

Picture presented Council for third floor “market-rate revenue generating" space. (Image: City of Alexandria)
Picture presented Council for third floor “market-rate revenue generating” space. (Image: City of Alexandria)
Diagram 3 shows “Revenue Space” in Dark Green, Upper Right Corner, removing artist studios. (Image: City of Alexandria)
Diagram 3 shows “Revenue Space” in Dark Green, Upper Right Corner, removing artist studios. (Image: City of Alexandria)

The city briefed the Waterfront Commission that when the first and third floor renovations are completed, current artist studios will have an overall “net reduction” of 39% (slides 8 and 24).

On December 14, 2021, City Council was similarly briefed, and approved, the “Illustrative Custom Option” based upon the Action Plan. (The briefing included a “Ground Lease Option” with identical floor plans that used a private developer to rehabilitate and lease non-art spaces. But it was deemed “Not Financially Feasible.”)

A third “Incremental Option” – keeping the Factory “as is, in good working order” – was not accepted, and was not part of the Action Plan that Council voted to implement.

City Point #2.  “The op-ed letter also states, ‘The FY 2023 budget included $3 million to begin executing the Vibrancy Plan.’ That is not true. The 10-year proposed Capital Improvement Project (CIP) budget is $16.3 million for maintenance. Its purpose is to maintain the building in good working order, not for renovations. The $3.2 million proposed for Fiscal Year 2025 (which begins on July 1, 2024) is for items such as upgrades to the building’s electrical system.”

Counterpoint #2. The CIP does have $16.3 million for maintenance on page 9.48, and it also includes upgrades to items such as the building’s electrical system.

However, on page 9.54, the CIP lists, separately, $3.8 million for “Torpedo Factory Art Center Revitalization.” It states the funding is for “The Action Plan for Vibrancy,” and that “Funding may also be used for implementation of elements of the Action Plan,” specifically mentioning “re-configuring the first-floor spaces to create a more dynamic public experience of the Art Center.” It also includes $785,000 not used from the $845,000 FY22’s CIP which said “… this project provides funding for implementation of Action Plan items including first and third floor renovations.”

City Point #3.  “The author also said that the Vibrancy Plan will cost the city $46 million. That is not true. He has mistaken the Vibrancy Plan for the three illustrative scenarios mentioned above that were not approved by Council.”

Counterpoint #3. On December 14, 2021, city council voted to implement the Vibrancy Plan (Action Plan), and the staff briefed that the “Illustrative Custom Option” to implement the Action Plan will cost $46 million (slide 33).

However, as noted in Counterpoint #1, the briefing included only two other options: (1) a “Ground Lease Option” with identical floor plans and a private developer that was deemed “Not Financially Feasible” (slide 37); and (2) The “Incremental Option” that kept the Torpedo Factory “as is, in good working order.” It was not selected. Its cost is $16 million for upgrading the electrical wiring, heating and air conditioning, and other items (slides 4).

City Point #4. “The op-ed letter states that because of the approval of the Action Plan for Vibrancy and Sustainability for Torpedo Factory Art Center, “all working artist studios will be removed from the coveted first floor,” citing “overall, 30% of the Factory’s working artist studios are to be shuttered.

The Action Plan for Vibrancy and Sustainability does not call for studios to be removed from the first floor … there are no plans for studios to be removed.”

Counterpoint #4. Counterpoint #1 above cited the city brief that showed that the sole financially feasible option presented to city council to implement the Action Plan (“Illustrative Custom Option”) will result in all artist studios being removed from the first floor, “shuttering” 30% of the Torpedo Factory’s artist studios. The option to keep the Factory “as is, in good working order” is not part of the Action Plan that Council directed be “implemented.”

City Point #5.  “This Custom option, which is not being implemented, included a reduction in “art spaces” that totaled 1% overall, not 30%.”

Counterpoint #5. By renaming the 25 “art studios” on the first floor to 25 “art spaces,” the city can then claim that if it replaces the 25 “art spaces” with one large “art gallery space” that covers the entire first floor, it decreased “art spaces” by 0% — although in reality, it is closing 30% of the existing first floor art studios. Such a change in terminology is more akin to a card shark dealing from the bottom of a deck than a forthright public official dealing with the public.

But it does highlight the exact point of what makes the Torpedo Factory a unique national model of world renown: it’s not “art space” — such as art galleries or art exhibits or “make-it” spaces — that makes Alexandria an artistic attraction for over 500,000 visitors from outside our city, annually. Rather, it is the fact that we are different, and singularly inimitable, as America’s home of the largest number of publicly accessible working artist studios. It is these working artisans we should be dealing the public, not art spaces – unless the Stakeholders believe we should be like everyone else.

Therefore, as shown in Counterpoint #1 and #4 above, the “Custom Option” eliminates 30% of the Torpedo Factory’s artist studios by “re-designing” the first floor to achieve the “Outcome of Spaces” on page 7 of the Action Plan.

City Point #6.  “The op-ed letter quoted the Vibrancy Plan as saying, “The more passive programming of open studies … will have to shift to a more proactive public attraction role. This fragmented statement is pulled from the Study of Studies.”

Counterpoint #6. Yes, that is true. The actual title is A Study of the Studies: Themes and Recommendations for a Vibrant and Sustainable Torpedo Factory Art Center. This Study of Studies was to evaluate the most relevant themes and recommendations in reports commissioned over the last decade to guide the path forward for the Torpedo Factory. The sentence in City Point #6 above was part of Theme 5 of 6 themes of “strategic concern.” The Action Plan was then developed from these six themes by the same consultant (Chora/Smith Group).

As a consequence, the op-ed used this sentence merely to point out that the unique working artist studios were deemed of little value by the Action Plan, and that the replacement of 39% of the artist studios with “spaces” that can be “viewed as a spectacle” was voted upon — perhaps unknowingly — for implementation by the city council.

City Point #7.   “The op-ed quoted the Vibrancy Plan as saying the first floor will be a ‘showroom’ and equated it to a car dealership.”

Counterpoint #7. That’s correct. The op-ed used the word “showroom” from the Vibrancy Plan from which the same consultant developed the Action Plan. The Vibrancy Plan’s sentence read, “Re-think the vision for the entire first floor to make it the ‘showroom’ for the purpose and products of TFAC [Torpedo Factory Art Center], including gallery spaces, make-it spaces, etc…..(it then lists the same items as on page 7 of the Action Plan that the city council voted to implement).

As a result, the op-ed did equate “showroom” with that of a car dealership since that is what the Action Plan does: it removes the “factory workers” (working artists) and moves them away off the “showroom floor” where only the “products” (cars or art) are on display – not the artisans making the art, or the cars. And those working artists are what have made our Torpedo Factory unique in America, and have been responsible for attracting so many “outside” visitors.

City Point #8.    “The author implied that the Torpedo Factory Art Center Board (TFACB) is still in existence…it dissolved in 2016.”

Counterpoint #8. The city staff is quite right. While the other two boards mentioned are in existence, I appreciate that the staff caught that the TFACB no longer is.

City Point #9. “The author suggests that it would be wise to jury high school students for studios at the Art Center…to lease in the building an artist needs to be 21 years or older.”

Counterpoint #9. Actually, since the Vibrancy Plan’s six themes stress equity and youth development, the op-ed recommended advertising at schools such as Washington DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts and our own Alexandria City High School. The high school does a wonderful job of “youth development” in “the trades” with outside “businesses” – which, at times, later hires them.

A similar process would be useful for helping to achieve more equity and youth at the Torpedo Factory … eventually leading to a “jurying process,” where our “artist businesses” mentor artistic youth and later “hires” some of them (i.e., go through the jurying process).

Nevertheless, I would also support changing the leasing age in the Torpedo Factory to 18 years old, since the city is changing the jurying process in many other ways. Youth join our military at 18, serving their nation in war, from running a nuclear reactor to participating in pitched combat firefights in battle (the average age of the 5000 sailors on the aircraft carrier in the battle group I commanded during the war was 19 ½) … and these youth have earned the right to vote at 18. Why not allow them to try to jury and lease at 18, if deserved? No other “business” prohibits someone leasing a place at 18 for work. Michelangelo even started at his first studio when he was 12 years old. Again, if the jurying process shows it’s deserved.

City Point #10.  “In regard to the jurying process, the op-ed letter said that 50 of 100 points are based ‘almost exclusively’ on an aspiring artist’s talent for both ‘pubic interaction’ and ‘marketing ability’ – not art. The first phase of the jurying process is blind and based exclusively on art. More than half of the applications’ final scores are based solely on the artists’ art, including scoring art during an in-person review. Five points out of 100 are awarded on marketing ability.”

Counterpoint #10. While “marketing ability” is five points, that, along with the points for “pubic interaction,” still make the non-blind Phase II and III based primarily on these two attributes – not art. And these two phases are not blind.

But the op-ed also makes clear why the non-blind Phase II and III of a jury focused primarily on “public interaction” and “marketing ability” is of concern:  it discriminates against those who are talented artists but may be less socially adept due to a personality trait such or shyness (which is genetic for 30% of shy people), as well as those on the autism spectrum (the CDC states approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or other reasons. This is one reason why it is concerning that the city now has almost half of all the non-blind jurying points based upon an artist being essentially an “influencer.”

I also doubt the young man who won my first congressional high school art competition out of 100+ entries would ever have a chance under the new jury selection process. Our “blind jury” chose a blind artist…extremely shy, quiet, his art speaking for him so loudly that it was then chosen to hang in the chambers of Congress.

The impact this has can be seen in the results of the new, more subjective jurying process that was just completed for the first time. One artist, whose studio lease was not renewed, received comments from the four jurors in the blind portion of the process that cited her work as, “very impressive,” “great work,” but also, “not in line with issues in contemporary art.” In the non-blind “public interaction” portion, the only comment was, “not sure how she will engage the public” – perhaps not with an adult juror, but she definitely did with an aspiring teenage woman artist.

When trying to replicate the hand engraving on a set of vintage wine glasses that had broken, our teenage daughter and I spent days searching the internet in America and overseas, calling, visiting numerous glassware places, including those that made them by hand, asking if they could do the beautiful design. None could … until one said there are two artists in America who could do this; one is at the Torpedo Factory. And her mesmerizing engraved glassware confirmed what he had said, while she enchanted our daughter with a half hour of explanation of her exquisite method of making her art.

One of the few living masters in the art of hand engraving crystal, she painstakingly cuts each detail into glass with wheels, freehand. Each piece tells a story that is unique and irreplaceable, a one-of-a-kind, handmade object to be treasured over generations. Despite its inherent beauty, glass is an unforgiving medium and patience is one of her most important tools, whether the glass canvas is a vase, a blown wine glass, a paper-thin ornament, or a special heavy piece.

The craft began in the first century, BC, takes years to learn, yet a fragile vessel of glass then holds designs that have been created on multi-levels to give a special sense of texture and depth. We have a handful of such artisans left worldwide, but now Alexandria has lost one of these rare, unique practitioners of this atypical and ancient art form. Her art hand-carves out the shape, then layers it with details by taking away more glass; unlike a painter that puts on more layers, she does the inimitable opposite – and why our teenage daughter was so entranced, by the art and the artist, who took the caring time to explain her love.

At a minimum, the city should change its instructions to its jurors. The new directive for the jurors that the city just implemented is that, “Jurors will be looking for deliberately crafted artwork with an authentic and original point of view that reflects an awareness of current trends and aesthetics in the broader art world.” This artist was authentic and original and rare – she does have an accent, and it’s charming. Contemporary, current? Her art designs certainly are, even if her way of making beautiful art is ageless.

Yet, like an animal species facing extinction from climate change, her art form will similarly be extinct without recognizing the harm such jury directions can bring about, without a statement to the jury to also husband impressive art forms that are rare, albeit for all time. Current fads, perhaps like crypto art, may seem important at the moment, but not to the extinction of the rarest of ancient arts. Poor Michelangelo might not have stood a chance, today.

City Point #11. “The author suggests the torpedoes are hidden away and that the Art Center doesn’t talk about the history. We, in fact, celebrate that history (a torpedo in the Factory, one on the waterfront, and a timeline and panel explanation of the factory).”

Counterpoint #11. Actually, the op-ed quoted Councilwoman’s Pepper who stated, “the torpedoes are hidden away” and that the Torpedo Factory “has a very interesting history. I’d like to see that emphasized.”

However, I do agree with Councilwoman Pepper. The op-ed pointed out that in all the city’s effort to “relook” at the Torpedo Factory, its history was notable completely absent, including in the Action Plan. Yet, artists have mentioned that some visitors to the Torpedo Factory arrive expecting to find an historical ensemble regarding the Factory’s torpedoes – and what a rich story of American courage it is, even just with the one story of the Battle of Leyte Gulf noted at the beginning of this article. How can we also make that history “more vibrant,” honoring our courageous veterans and our skilled artisans of that time, in order to enhance the Torpedo Factory’s attraction to the public?

A consultant was tasked to develop the Vibrancy and Action Plans for the Torpedo Factory, and focused solely on aspects of art. Organizations such as the Navy History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC, and the U.S. Naval Underseas Museum in Keyport, Washington could have been engaged. As Stakeholders, they could readily help “revitalize” the presentation of the Torpedo Factory’s history, which was focused only on art.

I hope this article helps to clarify matters for the Task Force Stakeholders. Based upon city documents and presentations of what is at stake, its purpose was to show what may be inadvertently lost in an effort to “revitalize” the already vital Torpedo Factory.

Joe Sestak is a former Congressman, retired U.S. Navy officer, and current resident of Alexandria, Virginia.

SEE MORE: A New Film “A Brush With History” Torpedo Factory Art Center

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