Editorial: Alexandria residents, the Torpedo Factory needs you

(File Photo)

Like any building that has seen hard use over an extended period of time, the Torpedo Factory Art Center needs a little tender, loving care.

Built near the close of the Great War, the armament plant alternately supplied the United States’ war machine and served as a federal storage shed before City Hall bought the property in the middle of the last century. Not long after, members of Alexandria’s creative class successfully turned it into an artistic hub.

As the building approaches the centennial of its construction, the Torpedo Factory naturally needs a touch-up. Given that 30 years have passed since the last round of major renovations, that need is significant.

But the situation is not dire. It’s not as if the massive structure is about to slide into the Potomac River, after all.

It should not come as a surprise that the Times supports the city councilors who politely pushed off a request made by the nonprofit art center’s leadership for financial support last month. While all were in agreement the Torpedo Factory is one of Alexandria’s jewels, cutting it a check for about $137,000 outside of annual budget negotiations — which most recently concluded in May — was unreasonable.

But they agreed to reconsider the request in the fall, when budget talks begin again.

Like our city councilors, we are fans of the Torpedo Factory. We want to see it succeed. It would be thrilling if it got a makeover, particularly if a bit of renovation work helps it become even more of a draw on the waterfront.

This, then, is a two-fold call to action: The art center’s leaders must up their game while residents in this cultured and wealthy Beltway community should ponder how they might lend a hand.

The Torpedo Factory’s management team needs a better plan than asking City Hall for a large sum of cash — outside of budget season, no less — to bolster the art center. They also need to draft a backup plan devoid of taxpayer dollars. There’s no guarantee city officials will be able to carve out the money they need next year either.

As for residents, now is the time to get involved. Donating money is an option, but it is not the only one. No doubt more than a few of our readers have experience in fundraising, securing corporate sponsorship, grant writing, marketing and financial planning, not to mention the technical and handyman skills needed in this undertaking.

Though the Torpedo Factory temporarily might be stuck playing the waiting game, that doesn’t mean it is too early to rally around the beloved art center. Comparing it to the Corcoran’s recent troubles would go too far, but we have all seen close up what happens when financial difficulties beset a local cultural institution.
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(2) Readers Comments

  1. The Torpedo Factory should be turned into an open market to rival Eastern Market in DC. It would be far more useful for residents and be a huge tourist draw. The building is perfect for an open, thriving market. Not a dying subsidized cave for artists. Instead of draining tax payer money, it would generate money. I’ve lived in Old Town for 20 years and the torpedo factory is the biggest waste of space we have in the city. Fix it!

    • I disagree. I grew up in Arlington, and I will always be grateful to my mother for often bringing me to the Torpedo Factory as a kid and for enrolling me in classes with The Art League (one of the groups housed in the Factory).

      There are definitely some ways in which the management could be improved, but TFAC residents are accomplished and well-respected artists. A 2010 study for the City showed that the Torpedo Factory is a “magnet for out-of-town visitors” and “plays a significant role in the Alexandria tourism economy.” That study cites an earlier one that determined that, in a year, visitors to the Torpedo Factory spend approximately “$54.6 million on lodging, food, auto-related and other purchases while in the City of Alexandria, and an additional $2.3 million in the Art Center itself,” plus $1.8 million in tax revenue for the City. The study did find that while visitors were spending their money at local restaurants and whatnot, the artists themselves were earning less that they had been ten years earlier but, again, this study was from 2010, so I’d be interested in knowing if the artists’ sales have recovered in the last few years.

      Aside from the money, the building is an educational destination for numerous field trips and tour groups, and the Art League’s school enrolls about 7,000 students every year. I work in Alexandria now, and I’m one of those students–whenever I can fit a class into my schedule–and I’ve met artists from out of state who will drive to Alexandria and get a hotel room just so they can sign up for a weekend workshop, because they can’t find anything quite like it anywhere else.

      The history of the Torpedo Factory and Old Town is interesting, too: before the Factory was an Art Center, it was just a government storage facility in a fenced-off, run-down part of town. The artists put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into cleaning out the asbestos and pigeon poop, and the Art Center revitalized that end of town. Once the artists took over the building, there was a reason for businesses to open at that end of town, as both the artists and their visitors wanted places nearby to eat and shop. The woman who started it all, Miriam Van Landingham, still has a studio on the third floor, and a bunch of the original artists who rebuilt the place are still there.

      If the Torpedo Factory Art Center were to be replaced by an open market–or anything else– there are a lot of us out here who would be devastated. I’m not too worried, though. I think it’ll be around a while longer. While it does need some fixing, it’s certainly no waste of space. Have you spent much time in the Factory? Come to an event, or sign up for a class– it’s a fun place to be.

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