Artists release plan for Torpedo Factory’s future

Artists release plan for Torpedo Factory’s future
(file photo)

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

The Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association presented its proposal for the future of the Torpedo Factory Arts Center last week, a plan that would give greater control to artists at the center.

But its future could be in an even greater state of flux, as current CEO Eric Wallner is slated to leave his position at the end of this month.

Wallner declined to comment, but Torpedo Factory spokeswoman Alyssa Ross said he rejected an offer by the city
to become a public employee when it officially takes over temporary center operations next month.

Under that plan, beginning October 1 the city will lease studio space directly to the artists, The Art League, galleries and the Bread and Chocolate cafe. When officials announced the move in May, they said the temporary control could last up to three years.

Ross said Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the city department of recreation, parks and cultural activities, will assume more of a leadership role during the temporary regime following Wallner’s departure. Ruggiero did not respond to requests for comment.

The TFAA presented its plan to the public last Friday at a birthday celebration for arts center founder and former state delegate Marian van Landingham. The artists’ proposal, put together by a variety of members, calls first for the dissolution of the current board and the establishment of a new one led by artists as the main stakeholders.

Consulting firm The Cultural Planning Group suggested a new board independent from city control and able to select its own members. But the TFAA plan advocates placing artists and officials from The Art League on the board and giving them equal representation. Because the city owns the building, this proposal also calls for government officials to hold some board slots.

“Those are the three major stakeholders, and there’s a lot of history about how arts centers and arts organizations across the country are successful or not,” said TFAA president Don Viehman. “Ones that are most successful financially and for a long time period are ones that are artist-led. So we felt that was a very important segment of it too.”

The CPG report released earlier this year said management should be streamlined under one nonprofit organization. The report’s findings were endorsed 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 over the center’s direction. City officials commissioned the report after Torpedo Factory leadership asked the city for a rent rebate of $137,500 to pay for capital improvements in the building.

Viehman said that instead of treating the Torpedo Factory like a nonprofit organization or a charity, artists should be respected as small businesses, and the center should uphold its marketplace feel.

“We decided to come back to the model of the marketplace, and what does a marketplace do?” he said. “It tries to find a transaction between people. It tries to provide our job as residents there, as artists, both on an individual level and on a collective level in terms of operating the arts center, is to create products and services that people find useful and are willing to transact about. We feel like there are lots of ways to do that.”

The artists’ proposal includes increasing revenue streams through public-private partnerships, as well as partnering with local businesses for whom products or services in the Torpedo Factory may be useful. The TFAA plan also suggests increasing event-space rentals and diversifying the art on offer.

One example Viehman gave is “A Dream Within A Dream: Madness,” an immersive play about the writer Edgar Allan Poe that he said can fit with the art already being done on the premises, so long as it does not overtake the Torpedo Factory’s core mission.

“As artists, we’re thrilled to apply our creativity to a business challenge that affects our livelihoods,” said Rachel Kerwin, an artist at the Torpedo Factory, in a statement. “It’s also exciting to demonstrate that we’re more than just an ‘artist colony.’ We’re small businesses committed to making the Torpedo Factory a dynamic marketplace. We all win when that happens.”

Viehman said by diversifying revenue streams beyond artist rent, income from The Target Gallery’s gift shop, the Bread and Chocolate cafe and event rentals, the Torpedo Factory can be financially self-sustaining. With artists in control and emphasizing the marketplace, it is doable, he said.

“It needs to be economically viable without the city having to pour tons of taxpayer money into it,” Viehman said. “All the other plans that we know about basically require the city constantly to refund it and refund it.

“While they own the building and have certain responsibilities as a landlord for the building, our feeling is that the city has other things that need taxpayer money desperately to do, and the Torpedo Factory ought to be able, in the long run, to stand on its own.”

The city will officially take control October 1 in a move that could last three years. The TFAA submitted its plan to the city manager’s office last month. The plan is one of several to have been submitted, including the CPG report.
After review by city staff and a public engagement process, city council will approve a new management structure, whatever that may be.