Council to mull whether Torpedo Factory remain under city management

Torpedo Factory Art Center (File photo)

By Missy Schrott |

It appears the city is about to be permanently in the arts business.

City Manager Mark Jinks presented a proposal to council Tuesday night for the city to assume permanent control of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, just a week after alerting Torpedo Factory artists of the suggested change.

Council voted unanimously to receive the proposal and docket it for Saturday’s public hearing.

The proposal has drawn concern and opposition from several Torpedo Factory artists, who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity and said the art center would be better managed by artists than the city.

The Torpedo Factory has been under city control for the past two years after the Office of the Arts took over management on Oct. 1, 2016. While city management had been expected to be temporary, Jinks said in a memo to Torpedo Factory artists on Nov. 6 that the management structure had “proven to work well promoting broader community engagement and open communication.”

“Continued city management of the building is critical to its continued use as an arts anchor in the community as the city is only organization capable of the level of investment needed that can ensure that the community’s interests are also considered in future substantial capital improvements to the building,” Jinks said in the memo.

The artists, however, disagree. They said not only had vibrancy decreased since the city had taken over, but the entire culture of the space had changed.

Some of the negative changes they cited included not being allowed to display art outside of their studios, requiring them to barricade pets and purchase special insurance for them and interfering with an effective, anonymous jurying process for studio spaces.

Marian Van Landingham, the founder and first director of the Torpedo Factory, said the city’s management has demonstrated that they don’t understand the concept of the Torpedo Factory.

“I think there are people in the city government who still don’t realize what we are in a sense. That seems strange,” Van Landingham said. “We’re not competing with the museums in Washington. … We don’t have budgets or want to bring shows, quote unquote, from somewhere else. I once had someone from the city [say], ‘I’m sure the Virginia museum would loan you something.’ Defeats the purpose. It showed a complete and total misunderstanding of what we are. They’re used to museums. And we’re certainly not that.”

The jurying process for studio space is one point that has caused artists to clash with the city over the past two years.

“They haven’t yet accepted fully even though it’s been explained many times how our outside jurying system works,” Van Landingham said. “It’s totally above board. You never even see the people who are applying for the space. They present their work. Outside judges who change each year look at the work – they’re gallery people, they’re professors at universities, people of that order who make up the juries. And the juries change. That’s one reason there’s no one aesthetic in the art center. The people there have been chosen by very different juries over time.”

The artists said the city has not been using this system when studio space becomes available. They expressed concerns about what it could mean if the city got involved in the process, saying that even though the process is blind and anonymous, information could be FOIA-ed if the city is involved, and disgruntled artists who were not accepted could retaliate.

Regarding studio space, the artists said the city had not handled turnover the way the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association had in the past, and that in several cases they had used the space for non-art purposes, such as offices and conference rooms.

“As far as the spaces, they did take one really good studio and make it into a conference room,” Van Landingham said. “… They put the little gift shop in what was a studio space. Then there’s another space that I don’t think any of us understand; it’s very small but the Office of the Arts seems to think it’s important. Then an artist died up on the third floor and they didn’t go through the jurying system to place somebody there. … So there’s some concern there’s been some loss of studio space.”

In addition to the city’s impact on the art center’s processes and procedures, the artists said government management of the facility’s programming had not been beneficial.

They said the city employs several full-time staff members to oversee management of the Torpedo Factory, and that one of those positions focuses solely on programming. Despite full-time Programs Coordinator Daniel Guzman being in charge of program development, the artists said certain offerings like the Art Safari were more successful under volunteer control.

Another event they cited as being unsuccessful was the Beer and Wine Torpedo Garden in September. They said it had been a flop because of a rule banning visitors from taking alcoholic beverages into studios.

Including the programs coordinator position, the city employs five full-time and one part-time staff member, Deputy City Manager Emily Baker said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Documentation obtained by the Times lists the total that the city spends on Torpedo Factory personnel at more than $540,000.

The artists said several of the duties fulfilled by these positions were previously – and better – handled by volunteers.

While this allegedly unsatisfactory management has taken place in past years, the TFAA has not sat idly by. In an attempt to assume control of the art center itself, the organization sought outside consultation to put together a proposal for the city.

“The artists’ association working with consultants actually developed a fairly extensive plan for operating it themselves,” Van Landingham said. “And gave it to the city over a year ago, and there was absolutely no comment from the city. Artists spent a good bit of money and a lot of energy to do it. And there’s been no response.”

The 55-page plan, developed at the personal cost of the artists, covers everything from marketing to governance to finances to managing studio space.

“The artists’ proposal would be run totally by the artists,” Van Landingham said. “It would be self-perpetuating. It was based on something called the Spanish Village in San Diego. Which has been in existence for a very long time. The artists ran the building for about 10 years in the 1990s. There were no financial crunches. It did work. … We’ve had four different consultants to look at us. And nothing’s come out of them.”

Beyond the poor management, the artists said they were upset at how rapidly Jinks’ proposition for city control was being put through council, after only being alerted of it in last week’s memo.

The artists said they felt blindsided by the proposal and wanted more time for community engagement.

At Tuesday’s legislative session, staff said they would work with artists to improve operations and vibrancy over the next year. The docket item itself calls for the development of a “Vibrancy and Sustainability Plan,” for an acknowledgment that capital funding of between $10 to $15 million will be required to be invested in the Torpedo Factory and that the Office of the Arts continue as the “long-term managing entity” for the Torpedo Factory.

Mayor Allison Silberberg was the only member of council to bring up concerns about the speed of the process.

“I have heard from some in the community that they felt … it was very recent that they learned that this was coming forward, and to be docketed for Nov. 17, … I think some people didn’t realize it was coming so soon for whatever reason,” she said.

Despite artists’ concern, council received the proposal unanimously and planned a final vote on whether the city will assume permanent management at the public hearing on Saturday.