City set to take over Torpedo Factory operations

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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The Torpedo Factory Arts Center will come under temporary city control October 1 for up to three years as officials with the center continue to debate its future management structure.

Under a proposal that was unveiled May 12 and communicated to artists through a letter, the city would lease studio space directly to the artists at the center as well as to The Art League, galleries and the Bread and Chocolate cafe.

Currently, the city leases the space to the Torpedo Factory Arts Center board, which then issues leases to the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, The Art League and Bread and Chocolate. The TFAA then rents studio and gallery space to artists.

“The Torpedo Factory Art Center — and the artists themselves — are integral to Alexandria’s unique cultural and tourism experience,” said City Manager Mark Jinks in a statement. “The city’s actions today begin to build a bridge to the future for this important facility. Our goal is to provide certainty and stability by preserving the art center’s core character until a new organizational structure is determined.”

The new regime comes as the center and its board continue to wrestle with its future. A controversial report released by consulting firm The Cultural Planning Group called for a
number of management changes to the center, including a board independent from city control and streamlined management by one nonprofit organization.

The report’s findings were accepted in March by the center’s current 13-member board as well as the city commission for the arts. But it exposed deepening rifts among board members on the center’s direction, upon which the Times first reported in February.

Also in the mix is the need for the center to renew its lease with the city, which expires June 30. Under the proposal put forward by the city, the current structure will be in place for three months from July 1, with the new structure scheduled for implementation on October 1.

“We wanted to ensure some stability,” said Deputy City Manager Emily Baker in an interview. “We felt that the board was not in a position to be able to continue to function in a positive way and make decisions, so we decided that while decisions about the future governance structure are continuing, the city would step in and take over the lease arrangement directly.”

Under the interim structure, Baker said the board will be able to continue its discussions unabated and without time-based pressures placed on it. She pointed to weekly conversations between senior TFACB, TFAA and The Art League figures on the board in a joint executive committee as an indication of progress being made.

Meanwhile, Baker said the TFAA likely will continue to serve the city in an advisory role, which could be codified through a memorandum of understanding between the association and the city. TFAA president Don Viehman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Torpedo Factory staff, including CEO Eric Wallner, will temporarily become city employees, with the center’s income being ring-fenced in the city’s coffers. Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of parks, recreation and cultural activities, said that TFAC’s income comes largely from rent, sales of artwork and other items and some grants, with that money used to pay its employees. Wallner did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The expectation now is that if we are leasing directly with the artists, now the city is bringing in that income, so we’re expecting the business model to still be self-perpetuating as it currently is but in a slightly different channel,” Ruggiero said. “Especially since this is a temporary measure, we will set it up within our system as a separate budget so it won’t be absorbed into the office of the arts. It’ll be a separate thing so we can track it better.”

Both Ruggiero and Baker emphasized that the city does not intend to step in and interfere with either the day-to-day operations of the center, which attracts around 500,000 visitors each year, or the ongoing discussions about its future. Baker said the city may advise on how some rules and processes governing artists’ obligations can be streamlined, but providing stability and continuity was most important.

“Our intention is not to now step in and start running everything,” Ruggiero said. “We’ll continue to let the joint executive committee group meet as they’ve been meeting. Once all of that is completed, we now have the ability to really engage the larger Alexandria community and now make some of those connections.

“We don’t think there’s going to be unanimous consent from all the stakeholders for the outcome, but having the discussion is an important part of that and understanding some of that is going to be helpful.”

Baker said the city still is compiling the various leasing documents from throughout the building, with that process aided by having an extra three months in the current structure.

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