By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
A recent presentation from the Office of the Arts outlining several proposed options for how to renovate the Torpedo Factory has led to pushback from artists, who claim the city’s plans would radically and irrevocably change the historic art center.
One artist, woodcutter and engraver M. Alexander Gray, has even started a petition to oppose the city’s plans, which will appear before City Council on Dec. 14.
“It’s an existential threat to my business and every other artist in the building,” Gray said of the city’s proposed plans. “… [The Torpedo Factory] is a unique treasure. There’s hardly any other place like that where you can actually go and have people come and appreciate your work.”
The three current proposed scenarios for the art center are still preliminary and range from relatively minor maintenance to handing over management of the art center to a private entity, according to Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities.
One scenario would involve what Ruggiero called “incremental revitalization,” which would more or less maintain the status quo with some minor adjustments. Another scenario involves the city relinquishing control of the building and leasing it to a private entity. The city would set the terms of what kind of projects could be pursued in the building, but the capital investment for those projects would be provided entirely by private developers. All revenue would also go to those developers.
The scenario that the city has invested most of its time and effort explaining to the public and various commissions is called the “custom program.” The city would continue to manage the building while reimagining the ground floor to include more interactivity and immersion for visitors and space for public-private partnerships, which could “pay something closer to market rent or market rent in the building,” Ruggiero said.
“[The city] is making sure that the art center could continue to provide significantly below market leases to artists so that they can afford to be in the building, but [also] having that more hands on, immersive experiences that audiences are looking for now,” Ruggiero said.
After seeing the city’s presentation outlining potential scenarios for renovation of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Gray, who has had a studio in the Torpedo Factory since 2014, said his worst fear had become a reality.
The Torpedo Factory, which previously served as a munitions plant during World War I, became an art center in the 1970s. Although the city has owned the art center since the 70s, the Torpedo Factory Art Center Board, a nonprofit, managed the building for decades until 2016, when the city’s Office of the Arts assumed management duties. At the time, some artists opposed the change, fearing the city’s new role would result in a shift away from the artsbased focus of the Torpedo Factory.
The city’s control of the building was originally intended as a temporary arrangement, but in 2018, City Council voted to make the city’s management permanent. Council also directed the Office of the Arts to set up a “vibrancy and sustainability action plan.”
The action plan was the latest in a long line of plans, studies and reports that were meant to review and solve issues, such as management, maintenance and purpose, at the art center. For its latest action plan, the city hired a consultant to conduct a “Study of the Studies,” designed to analyze past studies and compile a list of any shared themes in order to recommend a potential future for the art center.
The resulting action plan, which the Office of the Arts released in October 2020, proposed a range of steps aimed at revitalizing the art center. Two of those proposed projects involve reimagining the first floor to make it more interactive and moving the main entrance from Union Street to the waterfront.
Gray said that while some artists raised concerns about the 2016 change in management, the most recent plans put forward by the city have galvanized the artistic community in a completely different way. In particular, the proposed changes to the first floor have rung alarm bells for Gray and other artists who fear they will be pushed out of the art center to make room for other kinds of spaces.
“I don’t think the threat was clear then, but once they put this on the table, it was like, ‘This is a threat. This is real,’” Gray said.
In the custom program, the first floor of the Torpedo Factory, which is now made up predominantly of artist studios, would instead be occupied by a restaurant, retail space, a glass blowing studio, a tech-based ‘maker space’ – essentially a communal public workshop – and other potential immersive experiences.
“[We’re] just looking at where best to put some of these types of arts interests because one of the things we’re working to do is expand the definition of the type of art that we see in the building,” Ruggiero said. “If we can bring in something like glass blowing or bring in more wood and metal art, I think that would be great, but the first floor becomes the space that’s best for that kind of thing.”
The second floor would then be devoted entirely to artist studios, while the Art League’s gallery would move up to the third floor where it would sit alongside the existing Alexandria Archaeology Museum and more studios.
Since the building is at capacity and rooftop uses pose a structural challenge, the custom program focuses on opening up the side of the building that faces the waterfront using glass and a new main entrance.
Ruggiero acknowledged that reconfiguring the first floor would result in a reduction in the amount of square footage devoted to artist studios. According to the staff presentation, artist studios take up 32,758 square feet of the art center and galleries take up 4,632 square feet. A preliminary future area total done by the city estimates the renovations would reduce artist studios to 20,878 square feet, which amounts to a 36% reduction, and galleries to 3,577 square feet, a 23% reduction.
Although the square footage for artist studios is sure to decrease, Ruggiero said that it is not yet clear if the number of individual studios will also shrink. Studio sizes vary from 150 to 1,300 square feet, so breaking up larger studios and dividing them could provide additional space on the second and third floors. Ruggiero said the city is still determining how many studios could fit in this proposed reconfiguration.
Regardless of the numbers, Gray and his fellow artists are worried about the future of the Torpedo Factory and the creatives who call it home.
“The whole thing is displacing artists, who are the whole reason people go there. It’s not anything that the city [does] that brings people to that building. It’s the artists,” Gray said.
Gray, a lifelong Alexandrian, grew up visiting the art center and staring in slack jawed awe at the artists’ work. Now a resident artist himself, he said he realizes the value of the space.
“Do you know how hard it is to make a living as an artist? It’s really hard, and the Torpedo Factory gives people a shot at that,” Gray said. “It doesn’t do it for them, but if you are in the Torpedo Factory as an artist, people are going to see your work and people are going to buy it. It’s still tough, but it’s such a unique opportunity.”
With his petition, Gray has proven he is not alone. Since starting his Change.org petition on Oct. 24, Gray has secured 1,291 signatures from artists and community members.
“People don’t want what the city’s proposing. They want to see artists stay,” Gray said. “That’s my firm belief, and they’re showing that with this petition.”
The petition is available at https://bit.ly/3byyips.
According to Ruggiero, the city’s plans for the Torpedo Factory are, at the moment, still preliminary, although the city will be working to perform financial assessments and collect public feedback over the next few weeks ahead of the Dec. 14 legislative meeting.