Your Views: Misguided TFAA threatens Torpedo Factory’s future

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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)
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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

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1 COMMENT

  1. As a TFAA Board Member and artist, I wanted to ask one of our members who served during Erics tenure to respond.Marsha Staiger
    With his permission here is Don Viehman’s response:
    The recently published letter written by Eric Wallner found in the Alexandria Times is nothing more than a carefully orchestrated, obviously selective, pseudo history of the Torpedo Factory Art Center (TFAC) during Eric’s tenure as Director.

    During his time, there was a distinctive lack of skilled leadership that was recognized not only by the artists of the Torpedo Factory Artists Association (TFAA), but also by City Management representatives. In addition, the many citizens and civic organizations of Alexandria, who were asked repeatedly by Eric and his management team to contribute non-profit donations in substantial amounts to support the City established Torpedo Factory Art Center Board’s (TFACB) goals and decision making, found his appeals lacking and were not willing to support them.

    The genuine financial picture of the TFAC is much more revealing. It is, and has been to this day, the efforts and money from the TFAA artists and the Art League collected as rents and provided as additional expenditures that has supported and subsidized the existence and operation of the TFAC. To claim that TFAC rents are subsidized is to reveal a lack of understanding of basic real estate. No one, including the City has ever subsidized any artist rents. The City hired a Director with those artist rent payments from 1974 through 1998. Otherwise, the City has not supported the operation of the TFAC with a single City Council Budget line item of taxpayer dollars. Nevertheless the TFAC has survived and prospered because of the efforts of its tenants, sometimes in spite of hostile City administrators. In fact, the TFAA artists even dreamed up, started, grew, and made successful three subsidiary businesses, a Gallery, a gift shop, and an after hours building event rental business between 1999 and 2011. In a questionably legal act, those businesses were confiscated by the TFACB along with the trained staff in 2011 when the TFACB took management control, with no payment or compensation to the artists or TFAA other than a small inventory accounting.

    No one can argue that the location of the TFAC makes the property valuable. But repeated commercial real estate assessments have shown that the current rents are completely in line with market rates for undeveloped, raw commercial properties that have had minimal maintenance and no owner financed capital improvement for 35 years.

    What the TFAA artists, like artists around the world, have been saying for a long time are the following:
    1. We don’t want to be gentrified out of existence and we don’t think doing so will benefit the City of Alexandria and its citizens.
    2. If you want the TFAC to be a genuine, viable Art Center, the TFAA artists who are the tenants have to be able to survive economically, like any other small or micro business.
    3. To make that survival happen, real decisions about operations, marketing, short and long term planning, artistic participation and judgement, and the nature of the working environment have to be made by the artists, not alone or in isolation, but in serious cooperation with the City owners, community members, and administrators who are not authoritarian, self-important, and stuck in antiquated management models.
    4. The role of good management individuals should be to find ways of assisting artists that artists find meaningful, help them grow, and treat them as the respected professionals that they are. It should not be to treat them as disposable objects, tell them what to do, exclude them from genuine meaningful decision making, constantly publicly and privately vilify them, and distort the genuine history of the TFAC. This ought to be especially relevant for current and past managers, the money for whose salaries, often at rates and consistency much higher than the vast majority of artists they claim to manage, is provided by the hard work and creativity  of the TFAA and Art League artists who are the subject of the distorted publicity in Eric’s letter.

    How do I know what is written here? I served as either Treasurer or President of the TFAA for almost all of  Eric Wallner’s tenure and had the regular responsibility of interacting with him on behalf of the TFAA repeatedly and often.