Discussions on Torpedo Factory’s future to start next month

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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The future of the Torpedo Factory Arts Center could become clearer starting next month, as the city is set to begin the process of determining its future governance structure with the public.

Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the city’s department of recreation, parks and cultural activities, said the first step will be determining goals and strategies for the center. Then, those goals and strategies will be used to help determine how best to organize its leadership.

Starting in February, the public will be invited to give feedback on those goals and strategies a variety of platforms, including at town halls, focus groups and in online surveys. Ruggiero said the process will engage residents from all areas of the city and with diverse backgrounds.

Under this timeline, preliminary findings are expected in June, should be finalized in the fall and then discussed further with the public.

This step comes hot on the heels of city council adopting the city arts and culture master plan late last month, a process that drew plenty of concerns about the Torpedo Factory’s future.

Arts commission chairman Matthew Stensrud said the plan provides a “framework for developing annual priorities” through five broad goals designed to drive arts policy across the city.

Included within the plan is a sentence that mentions the office of the arts’ “significantly expanded portfolio” after the city assumed temporary control of the Torpedo Factory on October 1 for up to three years. The move came amid significant disagreement on the future governance of the center, which had been run as a nonprofit and led by a city-organized board.

Given the apparent uncertainty about the art center, Mayor Allison Silberberg attempted to add a sentence into the plan stating that the plan does not “imply nor address any council decision regarding the future governance” of the Torpedo Factory.

But that addition did not make the final version of the plan, unanimously approved by city council at its December 17 public hearing. But City Councilor Del Pepper stressed in the legislative record council’s intent to reexamine the city’s future role in the Torpedo Factory’s governance.

Former Torpedo Factory Artists Association president Don Viehman said the reference to the Torpedo Factory in the final report is ambiguous.

“It can be taken as a statement of fact, in which case it’s true,” he said. “It could also be read in a different way, that maybe that’s something that they intend to keep doing, and in which case we’re not in favor of that.”

In the run-up to the hearing, the TFAA distributed a letter urging its members to testify before city councilors on the importance of the Torpedo Factory. The letter, obtained by the Times, painted an ugly picture of the center under city management.

“This new bureaucracy comes with limited artistic experience and no long-term plan,” the letter reads. “The early results are very grim: departing studio artists, rising city expenses, declining visitor services and a less creative environment for artists and visitors alike.”

Viehman said that more than anything, the artists are concerned and want the future of the arts center to be less fluid.

Since the city assumed control of the Torpedo Factory on October 1, Ruggiero said officials have taken a number of steps to ensure it is up to standards as a city facility, albeit a temporary one. Immediately, staff undertook a safety and security audit to ensure the building complies with city code, as well as a cash-handling audit to standardize how money is taken.

The building has also received better wiring for IT services, while custodial services have come under city control and a member of staff from the office of the arts is now permanently stationed at the center. Ruggiero said such actions were taken to ensure consistency with city policies.

“The city and especially the parks and rec department are now responsible for the facility, and we do an assessment of any new one that we inherit,” she said. “The Torpedo Factory fell into that category. It just helps give us a starting-point so that we’re all on the same page, everybody here is on the same page of what the facility needs, what the staff needs to do their work. All that kind of stuff is so that we can make sure we’re running an effective day-to-day operation.”

In addition, the nonprofit board voted in August to cease its operations. Under the terms of the new management, artists, The Art League and other entities in the building rent directly from the city, as opposed to previously when the board handled the leases.

Under the terms of the three-year leases offered by the city, rents on artist studios increased from $13 per square foot to $15 per square foot, a change Viehman said was the biggest one-time rent increase in the center’s history. Ruggiero said that increase, plus an increase by 3 percent in each of the next two fiscal years, was necessary to help absorb possible rising costs.

Ruggiero said that artists’ fears about the center and its future are unfounded, and that the city remains determined to uphold the character of the Torpedo Factory as discussions unfold.

“We’re not trying to hamper anybody,” she said. “We know that a lively, active building is what the community is looking for when they go there, so I don’t think it benefits anybody to destroy the creative aspects that are going on in the building, and that’s not what we’re trying to do.”

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