Latest Torpedo Factory plan proposes a redesign of the first floor

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Latest Torpedo Factory plan proposes a redesign of the first floor
The interior of the Torpedo Factory Art Center. (Photo/Lindsey Sullivan)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

The most recent Torpedo Factory action plan, which outlines a strategy for the future of the city’s waterfront art center, could go to City Council as early as 2021.

Like past plans, the latest action plan, which was released in October, details a big-picture direction in which the art center should move, rather than revealing concrete changes that will be made if the plan is approved. Major elements include reimagining the first floor, making the center more interactive for visitors and integrating other forms of art into the facility, such as music and technology.

The plan has been in the works for years. For more than a decade, various stakeholders have commissioned studies and reports to review and comment on issues at the art center ranging from management to purpose, according to the plan.

A safety station at the Torpedo Factory provides hand sanitizer and alerts visitors that they are required to wear masks in the art center. (Photo/Lindsey Sullivan)

The Torpedo Factory, a former World War I munitions plant, officially became an art center in the early 1970s. While the City of Alexandria has owned the building since then, it was previously managed by a nonprofit called the Torpedo Factory Art Center Board.

In 2016, the city Office of the Arts assumed what was supposed to be temporary control of the facility. However, council voted to make city management permanent in 2018. With the vote, council directed the Office of the Arts to come up with a “vibrancy and sustainability action plan” for the center. 

In order to do that, the city hired a consultant for yet another study on the facility – this one called a “Study of the Studies” – to distill previous studies and merge overlapping themes in order to suggest a path forward for the center.

“What we knew council wanted was something actionable,” Diane Ruggiero, director of the Office of the Arts, said. “They were calling it [a] vibrancy and sustainability plan but I think really what they wanted was, ‘Tell us what you’re going to do.’ They wanted action. They wanted movement.”

The Torpedo Factory Art Center, located along the Alexandria waterfront, contains three floors of artist studios, where visitors can stroll and watch artists at work. (Photo/Lindsey Sullivan)

The result of the Study of the Studies is the action plan that was released in October this year. Still in the community engagement phases, the Office of the Arts is currently in the process of presenting the plan to relevant city commissions, such as the Commission for the Arts, the Waterfront Commission and the Park and Recreation Commission. In December, they plan to open up community engagement to the general public and to host more artist meetings. They hope to take the plan to council in early 2021, Ruggiero said.

The three “core strategic directions” for the art center that are listed in the plan are: “re-establish the art center’s identity for a 21st century audience;” “curate the building, with a focus on the first floor, for improved visitor experience and artist/studio program;” and “establish policies and procedures that identify the art center as a high performing organization and rebuild the art center’s role as a leader in the country.”

If approved, two of the first things the Office of the Arts plans to accomplish are reimagining the first floor and changing the facility’s main entrance from Union Street to the waterfront, Ruggiero said.

“On any given day, there’s a lot more people walking up and down the waterfront than there is walking up and down Union Street,” Ruggiero said. “We also know that coming in from the waterfront side, it’s a really awkward and somewhat odd experience because … you’re kind of confronted with this weird space and it’s really two sets of doors before you make it into the main section of the art center.”

Ruggiero said the Office of the Arts has not yet worked out how to redesign the entrance.

As far as the first floor, staff plans to make the space more interactive, which could involve relocating artists throughout the building. Specifically, Ruggiero mentioned relocating a print-maker studio from the third floor to the first, as well as the Art League’s art supply store.

Art hangs on the wall in a gallery at the Torpedo Factory. (Photo/Lindsey Sullivan)

“If the action plan is approved, there would be different criteria … for being on the first floor than maybe being somewhere else in the building,” Ruggiero said. “We’re looking for that kind of higher level of interaction for artists on the first floor.”

Staff is also considering some sort of food option on the first floor, most likely a pop-up kiosk with rotating vendors. Ruggiero noted that the Office of the Arts’ current proposal does not involve converting the first floor into a food hall or building a permanent restaurant on the first floor, contrary to rumors.

“The city gets approached by lots of other people and other businesses and things like that, that have ideas for what I will call an alternative use for the arts center,” Ruggiero said. “Within some of those options, food halls are very popular.”

When Office of the Arts staff present their plan to council, they will also make council aware of the alternate proposals.

“We did ask some of the folks that had come forward if they’d like to put their ideas down on paper,” Ruggiero said. “We will share it along with the action plan so folks can see all of the different options.”

When asked for their thoughts on the plan, several Torpedo Factory artists expressed skepticism that anything would actually be accomplished, largely due to the number of plans that have been proposed in recent years.

“I have seen a lot of plans for the Torpedo Factory and … to me, this is just one more,” Don Viehman, a Torpedo Factory lease holder and former president of the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, said. “I’m seeing a lot of the same things. I’m seeing a lot of large words that don’t have precise meanings.”

Printmaker Judith Coady at work in her studio. (Photo/Lindsey Sullivan)

Several artists continued to question why a plan is necessary at all.

“I keep on thinking that the city wants to fix something that wasn’t broken to begin with,” Veronica Barker-Barzel, president of the TFAA, said. “We have a very strong artist community and all the artists that are in those spaces want to be there to engage the public.”

Barker-Barzel said she is comfortable with some aspects of the city’s control but not others, largely the fact that the city has taken over artist selection and placement. Before the city assumed permanent control of the facility, artists had been selected through an independent, blind jurying process.

“I have no problem with the city running the building and doing the after-hours events and all that kind of stuff, but as far as placement of artists in the studios, I don’t really think government should be involved with that, with the actual art,” Barker-Barzel said.

Torpedo Factory Founder Marian Van Landingham said she was also comfortable with certain elements of the plan, so long as the original vision of the Torpedo Factory is not compromised.

“It’s important that what is put on the first floor continues to be … working artists, that it not just be galleries,” Van Landingham said. “It’s important for somebody coming into the building to also see people at work creating the art, because that’s what the main thing of the building is about. We certainly don’t want restaurants and this sort of thing in the building.”

On some aspects of the plan, however, Van Landingham remained skeptical.

When asked about core strategic direction that involves bringing the facility into the 21st century, Van Landingham said, “That sounds a good bit like gobbledygook to me. … I have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s one of these things that sounds grand, but is it?”

Back in 2018 when the city assumed permanent control of the facility, several artists spoke out about a disconnect between the management and the artists. They said they didn’t feel included in the decision making regarding the facility’s future, a sentiment that appears to linger.

“If they can find a way to cooperate with artists in leading this, then I think that would be great,” Viehman said. “We’ve always argued that it’s gotta be both, and they’ve always argued that they have the final decision about everything, and that’s how they operate now.”

The action plan is available at www.alexandriava.gov/TorpedoFactory. The first open community meeting is scheduled for Dec. 9. The event will take place virtually via Zoom.

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