Torpedo Factory celebrates 40 years of creativity

By Katie Callahan (Photo/Katie Callahan)

Four decades after local artists converted a run-down munitions plant into a creative hub, the Torpedo Factory Art Center is still going strong.

Built near the end of World War I, the factory alternately fueled the American war effort and served as storage space for the federal government. But that all changed in the 1970s, when former state legislator Marian Van Landingham convinced City Hall, which bought the property in 1969, to convert it into a haven for artists.

In the intervening 40 years, the art center has become one of the “unique local institutions that makes our city great,” said Mayor Bill Euille, who was on hand to celebrate its anniversary earlier this month.

“The history of the art center is a real swords-to-plowshares story, as this former munitions plant was preserved and its use redirected to support working artists,” he wrote in an email. “It provides our community and visitors with the opportunity to experience art. Today’s Torpedo Factory is a living testament to the power of that experience, and how it can revitalize communities.”

Local artist Rachel Kerwin was commissioned to create the mural, “Coloring Outside the Lines,” to commemorate the occasion. Her piece, selected from among 13 other competitors, has a paint-by-numbers look and depicts the waterfront and the interior of the factory.

Center officials also are using the occasion to take a look back at the Torpedo Factory’s history, transforming the popular Target Gallery into a community art library. The exhibition tells the center’s story through archived pieces of art and news clippings.

At the time of its founding that section of Old Town was a far cry from the waterfront of today. Back then, the city’s Potomac shoreline was dotted by hulking, grey buildings and weed-strewn fields.

“Revitalization of the waterfront in many ways started with us moving into what became the art center,” Van Landingham said. “People would go out our back door and stand on the rotting docks just to see the river.”

But it was not a unanimously supported project. Van Landingham’s vision for the empty munitions plant competed with calls to tear the structure down and transform it into a public park.

Ultimately, Van Landingham — backed by the city’s bicentennial commission — persuaded city officials to give her plan a shot. Armed with $40,000, she had three years to make the center a success.

Many coats of paint later, the center became presentable, thanks in large part to volunteers, Van Landingham recalled. It’s since become an international model, she said.

For example, the Alliance of Artists Communities, a national organization for artist residency programs based in Providence, R.I., considers the Torpedo Factory the largest collection of working artists’ studios in the United States. A nonprofit since 2011, the center is home to 165 painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and other artisans.

Because the last renovation occurred 30 years ago, the Torpedo Factory is overdue for a makeover. The organization’s leaders hope to work with the city to refurbish the nearly 100-year-old factory.

Eric Wallner, the Torpedo Factory’s CEO, wants to take the center to new heights. The art world has changed a lot since the organization’s founding, he said.

Even so, they owe a debt of thanks to the center’s forerunners, who remain an inspiration.

“We’re just very proud of the founders of our organization,” Wallner said. “[Van Landingham] and the other founders had this visionary idea and this visionary drive that we’re really wanting to tap into and see flourish in the future.”

Van Landingham continues to paint in her studio in the center as she has throughout her time in Alexandria. With her fight for the space in 1968 long over, she is thrilled that the center continues to inspire others across the country and abroad.

“I’m pleased and grateful that the factory has thrived and done so well and is part of not only the Alexandria community, but the larger metropolitan area,” she said.

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