Members of Torpedo Factory board present future vision

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Members of Torpedo Factory board present future vision
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

As discussions around the future of the Torpedo Factory Arts Center continue, five non- artist board members presented a proposal last month for how the center can evolve.

The plan, one of several on the table, was formulated by board members Patricia Washington, Maria Hopper, Suzanne Willett, Eric Nelson and Pat Miller. The quintet — which calls itself Community Members for the Future of the Torpedo Factory — presented its vision at the TFAC board’s May 18 meeting, but the vote on whether to accept it was tied.

It is built on four principles: an independent board of directors; a public square for the arts on the center’s first floor; a public-private partnership for fundraising; and more flexible rules on artist residences.

An independent board of directors was one of the key recommendations in a report by consultants The Cultural Planning Group, which called for a number of management changes to the center after its request for a rent rebate.

The Torpedo Factory board and the city commission for the arts both accepted the report’s findings in March. But it exposed deepening rifts among board members on the center’s direction.

Also in the mix was the need for the center to renew its lease with the city, which was set to expire June 30. Last month, officials announced the center will be placed under temporary city control for up to three years be- ginning October 1.

Hopper said the first floor of the center would be well suited as a public space devoted to the arts with activities that change regularly. She said a black box theater, a screening room that could partner with the annual Alexandria Film Festival and a space for theater troupes to rehearse and perform are just some of the ways to utilize the first floor, which she said is currently not used as well as it could be.

“It’s a wide open space, and currently, the way the space is used is that we raise money to support the arts center programming by renting it out for weddings and other parties,” Hopper said. “But that’s not really working for our mission at all. It doesn’t help create a wonderful arts center, so what we need to do is get the programming right.”

But Torpedo Factory CEO Eric Wallner disagreed, saying the first floor already is used for plenty of arts activities like Art Safari, lectures and artists’ professional development among other programming.

“I think this [proposal] is really just an extension of what we’re already doing,” Wallner said. “It’s, ‘How do we create a sense of vibrancy and the feeling that when- ever you come into the Torpedo Factory there’s something new and interesting and dynamic to engage with and see?’”

The five wrote in their proposal that an independent board also would help with fundraising and to establish a public- private partnership. The city currently subsidizes the Torpedo Factory’s activities, and Hopper said that could be leveraged for more donations from the community. She said she had already garnered interest from potential donors.

“The Torpedo Factory’s position is amazing,” Hopper said. “Most arts centers are in the middle of very little traffic, and the Torpedo Factory has such wonderful potential to get so many visitors a year by nature of its location. To get a $3 million-a-year gift for your building without question from the city is an amazing thing to build a private partnership off.”

One point of the proposal that is likely to raise unease is its plan for a more flexible leasing policy on artist studios and replace lifetime residencies for artists. Instead, the quintet proposed short-term, medium-term and long-term leases that the group says would reflect how art has changed and not allow anyone to get too comfortable in their residency. Washington said it would also encourage diversity, both of artists and art forms.

“I think there’s a sense that the art center needs to be inclusive in every way,” Washington said. “With the artists’ studios, it means inclusive of contemporary art forms like digital art, video, maker spaces and performance art. Our vision calls for an arts center that is really in the forefront of the art world today, just like in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the TFAC was at the forefront of the artist movement.”

Torpedo Factory Artists Association president Don Viehman said he disagrees with the view that lifetime residencies are bad, especially as there is already plenty of new artists coming through the doors and taking up those residencies.

“If what people are saying is that there isn’t change here, that you don’t have short-term, long- term and in between, we already have that,” he said. “There’s already organic turnover of 10 percent per year. Partly that comes from [D.C.] being a fairly transient city as cities go. People come, people go, people move in, people move out.”

Viehman also said that the jurying process — where it is decided whether an artist will be awarded a residency — does not need many alterations from its present state. Jurors are blind, in the sense that they do not know anything about the artist presenting to them, which Viehman said keeps proceedings fair.

But stakeholders agreed that the process is ongoing, and discussions around the center’s future will continue. Wallner pointed to the conversations be- tween the executive committees of TFAA, TFACB and The Art League as one other forum where those discussions are taking place.

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