The city’s controversial move last week to temporarily take control of the Torpedo Factory Art Center caught many in Alexandria off guard. While three years seems to be pushing the boundary of what’s truly “temporary,” on face value the action makes sense.
It’s both necessary and helpful to periodically stop and take stock, instead of robotically plowing ahead with the status quo. This is true of businesses, government processes and policies, relationships and, in this case, an art collective.
It is time to take, if not a cold look, at least an objective one, at the structure, processes and product of the Torpedo Factory. The center’s lease is due for renewal. A report by consulting firm The Cultural Planning Group suggested major changes to the confusing governance structure that guides the center.
We are also in the beginning stages of a once-in-a-generation renewal of our city’s waterfront. There will never be a better time to reassess, and the city’s takeover provides stability in the interim. And as city officials rightly note, it is easier to make an informed, unhurried decision on the future of the Torpedo Factory’s governance without a lease negotiation looming.
That the Torpedo Factory is so many things is part of its charm, but also the cause of what could fairly be labeled an identity crisis. The center’s very name comes from its history as a munitions plant from the end of World War I through World War II.
Yet the percentage of the 500,000 annual visitors who visit the center because of this history are surely disappointed that the entirety of the site’s museum aspect is one torpedo with a bulletin board above it. Our city’s history is what draws most tourists to our streets. The Torpedo Factory’s history could become a central reason for people to visit the facility, rather than the afterthought it appears to have always been.
The Torpedo Factory has been an artists’ enclave since 1974, when Marian Van Landingham spearheaded the effort to turn a decrepit, city-owned building on the waterfront into artists’ studios. The building also houses The Art League, which offers art classes to the public, and a small Bread and Chocolate cafe.
Resident artists understandably feel that after 42 years as an art center, the Torpedo Factory belongs to them. But the fact remains that the building is owned by the city, and thus by all of Alexandria’s residents. And so we all have a stake, and a say, in the site’s future.
A segment of Alexandrians undoubtedly fear, with some justification, that this “temporary” city takeover may be a precursor to a permanent power grab by officials with dollar signs before their eyes. Those prone to conspiracy fascinations likely already are having nightmares about a future “Torpedo Factory on the Potomac” development.
We think that commercialization of the site would be a gross misuse of a city treasure and a breach of trust. But within the parameters of preserving the Torpedo Factory as a space for art and history, there is much that could be improved, and much that should be explored.
The Torpedo Factory and city stakeholders need to emerge with a better vision for how to feature the site’s history, how to make the facility more appealing to visitors and how to make it financially stable — while also ensuring its continued viability as a haven for artists. The center’s structure, both physical and organizational, may need to change.
The city takeover was the easy part. Now begins the hard work.