City takes permanent control of Torpedo Factory

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The Torpedo Factory is a staple on the waterfront. (file photo)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Council voted unanimously at its public hearing on Saturday to give the city permanent control of the Torpedo Factory.

The art center has been under what was intended to be temporary city control since October 2016. Deputy City Manager Emily Baker said staff feel that “things have been going pretty well in the building” and want to continue management in order to enhance vibrancy and programming.

With the vote, council affirmed the city’s control and directed staff to develop a vibrancy and sustainability plan for the art center over the next year.

The timing of the proposal being brought before council has drawn expressions of frustration from some artists, who said it was too fast for adequate community input. City Manager Mark Jinks brought the proposal before council at its Nov. 13 legislative session, having alerted artists only a week before on Nov. 6.

Councilor John Chapman asked Baker to explain the reasoning behind the timing of the proposal.

“We don’t think that continuing on and waiting and having more discussions about the operations is going to progress any further,” Baker said. “We really need to get into the work of where are we going and what does that vibrancy and sustainability look like, but this decision needs to be made first and that’s why we’re bringing it forward to you now.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor Paul Smedberg agreed with the speed of the process.

“In reality, we’ve been having this same debate for eight years now … at least eight years, maybe even nine or 10,” Smedberg said. “So I’m glad you brought this forward because we need to force the question.”

During the public hearing period, speakers advocated for both sides of the issue. Several Torpedo Factory artists spoke against city control, many of them stating that morale has been low in the art center since the city assumed management two years ago.

“The city should not be in the business [of] deciding what art is made in the TFAC and who gets to make it,” artist Betty Grisham said.

Grisham brought up a proposal that the Torpedo Factory Artists Association had put together to assume management of the center. The organization had submitted the proposal with the help of outside consultants and had gotten no response from the city.

“It was treated with a total lack of respect or consideration,” she said. “I honestly cannot say I feel our ideas have been heard or our opinions respected.”

Other Torpedo Factory artists simply expressed frustration about the timing.

“I’m not saying anyone has done anything wrong in this process,” artist Lisa Schumaier said. “I just think the timing was a little wrong.”

On the other side of the issue, several speakers voiced support for city management.

Matthew Stensrud, chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, spoke in support the proposal and requested that the commission act as a leader in the process.

“We recognize the challenge that lies ahead,” he said. “Some artists fear their voices will be lost. Others are frustrated with the roadblocks artists within the factory have built to necessary change. The vibrancy and sustainability plan is a strong first step toward a unified mission for the arts center.”

Larry Goldberg, president of the Friends of the Torpedo Factory art center, spoke in support of the continuation of the center as a unique and vibrant art institution.

“The Friends welcomes the intent of the City of Alexandria to create a stable environment for the future of our great art institution. We as friends see a role and opportunity for working cooperatively with the Torpedo Factory artists and the City of Alexandria to further this goal.”

During council’s deliberations, Mayor Allison Silberberg and Councilor Del Pepper asked about the jurying process. Pepper said she had heard from community members that the city has not been abiding by the TFAA-established selection system for artists.

Baker said the proposal before council did not have any implications on the jurying system, and that that would be part of the discussions over the coming year.

“There is nothing we are asking council to decide today that will impact the jurying. … We are asking for the opportunity to explore and have those conversations,” Baker said. “… We are all committed to excellence of art and high quality of art here. How those decisions are made is something that has to be part of this conversation.”

Wilson said he was frustrated with the discussion about jurying, and urged the council to make the decision and move forward quickly with the process.

“What’s before us is a plan to make a plan,” he said. “All this stuff before us, the jury process, that’s irrelevant. That’s part of the plan. It’s not what’s before us. …. I think the fact is the city manager’s recommendation is to bring forward a plan and I think we should do that pretty darn quickly. My view is this should be done by the time we recess in June. This is not something that should be drawn out the entirety of 2019. This should not take that long.”

After council’s unanimous approval of the city manager’s recommendation, staff will work on the vibrancy and sustainability plan over the next year.

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