To the editor:
I had the honor of serving as the Torpedo Factory’s chief executive officer for almost four years, from Jan. 2013 to Oct. 2016, under the nonprofit Torpedo Factory Art Center board. I remain an avid supporter of the organization and because of that, feel the need to offer some perspective on the continued tension between the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association, a membership organization of TF artists, and the City of Alexandria.
I currently live in San Francisco, the most expensive real estate market in the country. There is nothing like the Torpedo Factory here, and the high cost of living has forced waves of artists to move away. The impact on the creative community has been deep and profound.
Last fall in San Francisco, a 75 percent voter majority passed Proposition E, allocating a portion of the city’s hotel tax to go toward the arts and newly created cultural districts. This is projected to raise $5 million more in the first year alone. This effort was successful due to the thoughtful, savvy collaboration of city leaders, artists, arts professionals and the art-going public.
The situation at the Torpedo Factory has been brewing for years but is actually quite simple: The City of Alexandria owns and operates the facility. The artists have been offered deeply subsidized studio rental rates for decades. It’s hardly the David and Goliath story the TFAA would have the public believe.
While the artists – not all of whom support the TFAA – deserve respect and gratitude for their work, the TFAA has consistently chosen to take an adversarial attitude toward the city. In the process, they have maligned and alienated art center staff, organizational partners, community members and fellow artists who disagree with them. Their aggressive and politically naive demands for control, far from “saving” the art center, are simply about preserving their self-interest.
While artists in major cities are displaced from their studios and often priced out of their living spaces, TFAA-aligned artists believe they are entitled to publicly subsidized studios for life without oversight. They seek to control the trademark, control the jurying process, control operations, marketing and programming. Contrary to best practices, many artists have been in residence for decades without review, despite a mostly homogeneous population that no longer reflects the demographics of Alexandria nor the contemporary art world.
It’s time to put aside petty internal squabbles. Developers and the rising demand for commercial space are the real threats to the Torpedo Factory. Amazon’s move to Northern Virginia only increases these pressures. Responsible stewards of an organization see the bigger picture and act responsibly in good faith. The TFAA should be cooperating and contributing alongside those seeking to help them. Future generations of artists and art lovers, not to mention the citizens of Alexandria who subsidize this important institution, deserve as much.
-Eric Wallner, former Torpedo Factory CEO