It seems paradoxical for Alexandria’s local government, whose leaders have stated their intent to turn the city into an arts destination, to want to lessen the arts focus of the Torpedo Factory.
For it is this innovative artist-run institution, built on the sweat of artists like Marion Van Landingham, Mary Ann Stevens and many others in the late 1970s, that has long been the epicenter of Alexandria’s arts scene.
And yet we do see positive potential in change if it’s done right, with the focus always on the long-term success and preservation of the artists’ working spaces rather than on simply maximizing tax revenue.
The use and future of the Torpedo Factory has been heatedly debated for years, with the city and artists at odds over who should control the space. Today’s page 10 story, “City’s Torpedo Factory plan concerns artists,” explains the current plans on the table and artists’ reaction to them, while a story the Times ran two years ago for the 100th anniversary of when the munitions facility was built just after World War I explains the building’s history. See https://alextimes.com/2019/09/torpedo-factory-centennial/
In a nutshell, almost 50 years ago, visionary artists like Van Landingham saw the potential of the then decrepit city-owned building along Alexandria’s then run-down waterfront and convinced city leaders to let them turn the space into an artists’ colony.
The artists succeeded in fashioning a space for them to both create and sell art in one location. The facility was run by and for artists and along the way became a destination for visitors to the city.
But the building remained city-owned all this time, and, while there’s debate around this facet, it has never been entirely financially self-sufficient, with the city responsible for the building’s overall state of repair.
As Old Town was revitalized during the 1980s and 90s, a process that the Torpedo Factory’s success as an arts location helped bring about, redevelopment also started to occur along Alexandria’s waterfront.
Fast forward to 2021 and much of the Old Town waterfront is unrecognizable compared to even 10 years ago. Additionally, the 100 block of King Street has been turned into a closed-off walkway for dining, shopping and street musicians.
City leaders have succeeded in their goal of making Alexandria’s waterfront more fun and welcoming. Amidst all of this change, the Torpedo Factory almost alone stands roughly the same as it has for the past 47 years. While it is many wonderful things, the building itself is not particularly welcoming, nor is it the city’s overused catchall word: vibrant.
So, we cautiously embrace change to the Torpedo Factory that would enhance it as an arts destination and preserve its core mission of providing affordable studios in which working artists can create and sell. With that as the overriding determinant for change, leasing or selling the facility to a developer should be a nonstarter, now and forever.
But it seems to us, if done carefully, that creating a new, welcoming entrance to the Torpedo Factory and turning the first floor into a destination in and of itself has the potential to draw many more people in to experience and buy art from studios on the second and third floors.
It’s unfortunate that the plan the city is advocating would reduce space for artists’ studios in the building by 36% and would reduce gallery space by 23%. Perhaps any change that goes forward on the building’s use could guarantee that those percentages would never be further reduced. Studio and gallery space could in fact be increased if the city’s Archaeology Museum were moved to a different location.
While we think carefully done change at the Torpedo Factory has the potential to be a win-win situation for both the facility’s artists and the City of Alexandria, trust, or a lack thereof, is the crux of the matter.
Trust is hard won and easily lost. Unfortunately, many actions by our local government in recent years, particularly around modifying development special use permits or overlooking violated conditions within them when it’s expedient to do so, have broken the bond of trust between government and many of the governed. At heart, this is an issue of integrity.
Bringing careful change to the Torpedo Factory is a good idea. Bridging the trust chasm will be a Herculean task.