Torpedo Factory launches vibrancy initiative

The Torpedo Factory at 105 N. Union St. is celebrating 100 years as a building and 45 years as an art facility in 2019. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

Two months after the city assumed permanent control of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, artists and administrators are settling into the new management structure and preparing to launch a vibrancy and sustainability plan for the space.

When City Manager Mark Jinks proposed in November that the city permanently operate the art space – which had been under temporary city control since 2016 – some of the facility’s artists spoke out in opposition. Many said they were surprised and disappointed with the expedited timeline of the proposal, which went to city council less than two weeks after the artists were notified.

Despite their concerns, city council unanimously approved the proposal later that month. The transition to permanent management has not brought about any major changes in the ensuing two months, but the facility’s leaders are designing a vibrancy and sustainability plan for the center.

The goal of the plan is to establish a broad stroke vision for the Torpedo Factory moving forward so that it remains a relevant and lively community institution, according to Brett Johnson, director of the Torpedo Factory.

The World War I-era munitions factory turned art center has long needed a new vision, Johnson said. Establishing a plan prior to the city’s takeover had been difficult because of uncertainty about who would be running the art center in the future.

“They [couldn’t] quite come up with new missions and plans because there’s too many voices in the room, too many people wanting to run it, too many people not being able to come together,” Johnson said, “so the city decided and thought best to eliminate the question of who’s in charge would be necessary in order to start those planning stages.”

When council approved city control and directed staff to establish the vibrancy and sustainability plan, it also committed $10 to $15 million in capital funding over the next decade to address facility and programming needs at the center. Now that the funding has been secured and the Torpedo Factory’s management has been decided, administrators are in the early phases of determining future programming, improvements and processes.

Alyssa Ross, communications and marketing manager for the Torpedo Factory, said that a combination of strategic plans by the city, the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities and the Office of the Arts would help guide the new vibrancy and sustainability plan. The plan will also be informed by community engagement and 13 reports that have been done on the Torpedo Factory over the past 10 years.

“[We have] all these foundational documents that will help us direct where we should be going,” Ross said. “There are these roadmaps that already exist. So now our goal will be to try to plant some flags.”

Torpedo Factory artists expressed mixed reactions to the new city control. Some are happy about the stability of permanent leadership, while others have been less accepting of the change.

Artist Rosemary Covey, a former Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association president, said it’s been liberating to fully commit herself to her art, rather than having to worry about administrative work.

“It’s a huge relief, and it’s also working really quite well to have the city running the art center, because for one thing, then you know directly what they’re aiming for, and they’re clearly involved and I’ve always found their involvement super professional,” Covey said.

On the other hand, Printmakers Inc. President Patrick Sargent said it’s been frustrating not knowing exactly what the new administration’s goals are.

“They just don’t seem to have a real clear plan for how they’re going to run the building,” Sargent said. “If you’re in a business, you would have mission, vision, values, goals, and we don’t have that overarching vision.”

Other artists said the change has been underwhelming.

“Everybody was worried about some big impact that this would have, but I really didn’t see much of anything change,” artist Chris Erney said. “There certainly hasn’t been any poor treatment or change in treatment or new rules imposed or anything that’s impacted anybody, which is a fear.”

Both Sargent and Erney agreed that artists’ opinions are split 50/50 between those against city management and those supportive of or indifferent to it.

Johnson said he hoped the vibrancy and sustainability plan would help boost artist morale and provide clarity on the future direction of the center.

“There’s always going to be some folks who are not happy with the way things are going, no matter who’s running it,” Johnson said. “… No matter what, change is hard, especially for a 45-year-old institution. I think part of the reason that morale might be low has to do with … fatigue of change, frankly. It’s always coming up and crossing the mountain to see more mountains in the distance. We hope that that will go away as we finish this next plan, but we know that it’s a challenge for everybody.”

He said they hope to have a plan in place by the end of 2019. 

Covey said some of the recent controversy associated with the Torpedo Factory is a result of a lot of strong opinions.

“Like so many of us, I just feel so strongly about this place,” she said. “I think that’s why you get a sense that there’s friction maybe at times is because there’s so much caring about it.”

Covey said a solid plan for the future might ease some of the tension between artists and administration.

“I would say that part of the volatility here has been from insecurity as to our future,” Covey said. “I would like to see the commitment go into the future on everybody’s side, so that the artists feel more stable here, not that they can rest on their laurels, but more that this is going to be an art center and that it’s going to stay that way.”

Like they have different opinions on the facility’s leadership, the 100-plus Torpedo Factory artists have differing ideas for its future.

Lisa Schumaier, a lifelong Alexandrian who became a Torpedo Factory artist in 2004, said she wants the plan to maintain the character of the center.

“If our mission is open studios and working artists, it’s that you can actually come in and see a little bit how our brains work. So, I don’t always love the whole cleaning up of things, you know what I mean? Art is messy, and I think it’s okay if it looks messy,” she said. “… There’s been a lot of mention of moving working studios up to higher floors and I really don’t want that to happen. I want people to understand what the purpose of the factory is the second they walk in the door.”

Others have also supported a vibrant first floor.

“Being someone that’s here 40 hours a week, I’m often disappointed that my neighboring studios are all closed a lot. I’m on the first floor and … people don’t go to the third floor if they come in the first floor and they’re disappointed,” Erney said. “I was really actually hoping maybe tied to our lease there’d be a little more strictness on people doing their hours and actually being open.”

Another recurring concern of artists was the jurying process for artists, which has been a hotly debated topic since before the city’s control of the facility became permanent.

“I want to make sure that the jurying remains blind,” Schumaier said. “I think that’s really important. To still have the respect of the art world, you have to have a blind jurying.”

Johnson said the Torpedo Factory administration has been working with the TFAA to find a compromise and a system that works for both parties, but that they haven’t come to any conclusions.

“We were working with the TFAA on [the jury process] with the hope of doing a collaboration,” Johnson said. “We weren’t able to make that happen this year … so we are in the process of trying to find a temporary way to do it this year, more of a pilot program slash temporary way of jurying with the understanding that the vibrancy and sustainability plan has not yet been adopted.”

He said jurying typically occurs in late winter or early spring and that he hopes to implement a temporary jurying process sooner rather than later.

Beyond determining the internal processes and regulations of the art facility, the vibrancy and sustainability plan will set a framework for new efforts and programming.

Until the plan is further along, Johnson said the administration is working on getting buy-in for the programs they already have, like the monthly Friday night Late Shifts. Administrators are also planning for anniversary celebrations in the fall, when the Torpedo Factory will celebrate 100 years as a building and 45 as an art center.

One step forward in vibrancy occurred at last night’s planning commission meeting. The body unanimously approved a special use permit for a new outdoor food and craft market adjacent to the waterfront entrance of the Torpedo Factory. The market will include picnic tables, an airstream trailer with food and alcohol and five outdoor artist stations. It would operate from March to October, according to the proposal. With the planning commission’s approval, the proposal advances to a city council vote later this month.

Several artists and Torpedo Factory leaders agree that nothing is set in stone since they are still in the early stages of the vibrancy plan, but that they all want to see the center succeed.

“I think the city, they mean well, they’re doing the best they can,” Schumaier said. “I feel like they’re hampered a little bit by rules because that’s kind of their job to figure out the rules and make sure you follow them, and for an art center I think it’s a little bit of a problem, but basically I think everyone’s trying their best.”

Johnson said that while plans at the moment may be abstract and vague, the city’s end goal is positive.

“I think the end story for us is a positive move forward,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, we know that it’s positive, that the city’s committed to the place, that we want to make an amazing art facility. We want the community to think of us as an art institution, as that creative engine, and we want the artists to believe in that too.”



  1. There’s no plan but we as tax payers will now foot the expanding bill for a center that was once a self-sustaining art center run by small businesses for three decades. Would love to hear about any examples where one of our local governments successfully managed generating “vibrancy” for an arts center. Although we have some great examples of how they have failed, and failed expensively, reference Lorton’s Workhouse Arts Center. So now we’ll pay layer upon layer of bureaucrats to “fix” a visual arts marketplace. While they’re figuring that out, we’ll continue to see more artists choose to leave the Torpedo Factory Arts Center for the Mosaic District, National Harbor, and Crystal City. They had a chance to collaborate with these artists when the artists presented a plan to course correct. The city council instead chose to get into the art center management business at our expense. We’ll be back to the drawing board in a couple years but this time the assets will have left the building.