Torpedo Factory Art Center board split on overhaul

Torpedo Factory Art Center board split on overhaul

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

Dissent has flared up among Torpedo Factory Art Center board members after a consultant’s report recommended an organizational overhaul.

The controversial plan calls for creating a new, independent board of directors for the celebrated art center headquartered in a city-owned building. But concerns that the new structure will give less of a voice to the Torpedo Factory’s artists and artisans have created a deepening rift among existing leadership, according to documents obtained by the Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

The consulting firm — The Cultural Planning Group, which specializes in arts and culture and also is working on the City of Alexandria’s cultural plan — was brought in after Torpedo Factory leadership asked City Hall for a rent rebate of $137,500 in 2014. City officials asked for an outside review of the organization’s organizational structure first.

Torpedo Factory CEO Eric Wallner said the rebate was intended to free up funds for maintenance and other “basic infrastructure needs.” Wallner said the center’s annual total rent to the city is $629,403.

The report was also driven by preparations for renewal of the center’s lease, which expires June 30.

The report’s major recommendation is its most controversial: creating a self-appointing independent board of directors. The proposal would also do away with the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, wrapping it into a single overarching entity.

Members of the new board should be aligned primarily with the art facility and not its “individual constituencies or stakeholder groups,” CPG concluded.

The existing board is made up of 15 members who represent the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, the Art League, relevant city commissions and departments and residents.

The recommended new board structure would streamline operations at the art center, an aspect Wallner sees as beneficial.

“I think it’s pretty clear, and if you take a step back and look at it from a common sense perspective of trying to create an organization, it probably makes sense to have a singular governance function as opposed to two different organizations,” he said, referring to the artists association. “Within that, we’re very respectful of wanting to honor the voice of the artist, and wanting them to always be included at the table.”

Still, emails between City Manager Mark Jinks and Diane Ruggerio, deputy director of parks, recreation and cultural activities, indicate significant disagreement among board members on the consultant’s findings. Both said non-artists support the report’s recommendations, while the artists do not.

Ruggerio added in a January 21 email that she believed the artists will start a letter-writing campaign, and said one non-artist member resigned partly because of the lack of support by the artists for the plan.

The most recent board members to resign were Fay Slotnick and Lisa Karlisch, who served as at-large members. Wallner said that while they had disagreements with artists over the report’s findings and the length of time the process was taking, they did not resign in protest. He admitted, though, a rift exists between artists and non-artists.

But Karlisch and Slotnick said in interviews that there was a lack of agreement on the board rather than a definitive split. Karlisch said she resigned because of frustration with the slow progress, although there were other factors leading to her decision.

“I think [a split] is more of an impression than the reality,” Slotnick said. “I think that what was set up was really not well thought out by city council when it happened. This board was almost set up to fail, and I don’t think there was anything intentional in that. There was some difficulty from the beginning in whose job was what and who was in charge of what.”

Other board members view the situation more positively.

“There are new opportunities — with the new waterfront development at its doorstep, the trend toward experience-based retail and growing diversity of our citizenry — that present exciting opportunities for the factory to contribute and serve our city in new and dynamic ways,” said Patricia Washington, president and CEO of Visit Alexandria and a TFAC board
member, in an email.

“The business analysis and recommendations … [were] a step toward exploring the future of the art center and taking a hard look at the structural changes needed to undergird the organization and leverage the most benefit for the citizens of Alexandria.”

Even before the report was finalized, the consultants’ work showed evidence of disagreement. CPG conducted anonymous interviews with past and present board members as well as selected city staff and community members, and gave a presentation to the board in early December using material from those interviews.

“My perception of where we are? Distrust — splintering,” reads one quote. “No one agrees who is in charge, and for that matter what they are in charge of. There is no central or unified vision. No clarity on mission but we need some continuity and when everything is not a battle. There has to be respect for each other. The bigger vision needs to be articulated — that will take time.”

“There are too many middlemen, i.e., TFAC leases from the city, who has a lease with TFAA and the Art League and on down the line,” reads another. “[It is] way too cumbersome and creates endless opportunities for dysfunction and infighting.”

Wallner said such disagreements are to be expected. He said since the center generates $16.2 million in visitor spending — the majority of dollars change hands outside the art center in the nearby shops and restaurants — it must keep all views in mind.

“I think what direction we move forward in is really where people have very different opinions about what our focus should be,” Wallner said.

Wallner said the art center’s leadership is awaiting further guidance from the city on next steps. He added that the Torpedo Factory may ask for an extension on its current lease to further alleviate pressure.

In spite of it all, he said that the Torpedo Factory will be a key part of the waterfront as development along the shoreline continues. With nearby Robinson Terminal North and Robinson Terminal South set for redevelopment in the coming years, Wallner said he hopes the center will serve as an anchor for the community.

“We want to be the central focus for any cultural programming that takes place on the waterfront,” Wallner said. “We’re really looking to expand beyond our doors and spill out across the waterfront, if you will, and looking at how we can provide programming and civic engagement opportunities for our community to really engage with the waterfront, with the history of the building, with our artists.”