Today is Donnellan’s last day as the top executive in Arlington County government, before her retirement, which was announced in March.
Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz will serve as acting county manager while the county continues to conduct a nationwide search for Donnellan’s permanent replacement.
Donnellan sent the following goodbye memo to county staff this afternoon, after spending much of the morning walking around county government headquarters and saying goodbye to staffers in person.
Friends: I could not leave today without thanking you all for your hard work and your many contributions that have helped make Arlington a great community.
How quickly thirty-one-and-a-half years have flown by. It has been an amazing ride. Together, we have accomplished so much. For me, the most satisfying aspect of this job has been the opportunity to come to work each day and interact with such a talented group of people. But all great things must come to an end.
Tomorrow, I start a new chapter, and I’m looking forward to exploring new opportunities. Under Mark Schwartz’s able leadership, I know that you will continue to do great things.
Again, thank you for everything. It has been such a privilege.
All the best,
Also bidding adieu is Artisphere, which is set to permanently close its doors after today.
The staff of the cultural center in Rosslyn sounded a proud, defiant note in a goodbye message sent to its email list this afternoon. That note is below, after the jump.
Artisphere hosted its final performances this past weekend, as it prepares to close for good at the end of the month. Supporters decry the closure as the county government prioritizing penny pinching over the arts. But Artisphere’s financial losses may have been secondary to another problem: lack of community engagement.
The cultural center in Rosslyn spent more than $1 million on marketing over four and a half years, largely targeting D.C. area arts aficionados with newspaper ads. The strategy paid off with sold-out niche concerts and events, but failed to attract the loyalty of many Arlington residents who have a more casual appreciation for the arts.
Instead of the original vision of a hub for local arts groups and a community hangout, complete with a WiFi cafe, Artisphere became more of a regional draw for one-off performances. Some 75 percent of its audience came from outside Arlington and 83 percent of its artists from outside Virginia, according to a 2014 report.
After hastily opening on the novelty date of 10/10/10, before an executive director or a marketing director could even be hired, Artisphere’s finances proved to be a fiasco. Wildly over-optimistic expectations gave way to the realization that the center would only make a quarter of its projected visitor revenue in the first year. That, in turn, sparked community criticism, set off backtracking by policymakers and led to a series of changes that watered down community participation.
It didn’t help that Artisphere’s multitude of performance venues were small and, as officials figured out after opening, couldn’t host simultaneous events due to noise bleed.
The relative lack of participation from taxpaying Arlington residents and artists, in the end, may have been Artisphere’s biggest downfall. When Artisphere hit the chopping block, few residents showed up at County Board meetings to speak in its defense.
“That’s exactly part of the issue,” said retiring Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan, in a May interview. “At some levels, it wasn’t reaching our community in such a way that won their support.”
Donnellan and the County Board faced criticism in the local arts world for the decision, with letters to the editor, the chair of the Arlington Commission for the Arts and even a Washington City Paper cover story implying that the Board was naive in closing Artisphere just because it was losing money.
“Artisphere’s closure is symptomatic of a much larger political view of culture in which the arts are important to community building, but funding them is not,” the City Paper wrote. It along with the Washington Post were the beneficiaries of 55 percent of Artisphere’s marketing budget.
But there was more that went into the decision to close than just dollars and cents. Arlington County Board Chair Mary Hynes said Artisphere was “able to create some wonderful shows” after “‘we got some of the right programming people in place,” but “there was a struggle in terms of what type of place [Artisphere] was going to be.”
“Within our Cultural Affairs department there was a real desire to be cutting edge and to fill a niche they perceived in the D.C. arts scene,” Hynes said. “So people on the way up” were booked, but “those are people who who are developing an audience, not those who have an audience.”
There was discussion of hosting “community Saturdays” — with performances from school groups and other community-driven activities — “where we get people familiar with coming here because their kid is performing here.”
“But that didn’t fit with the image of what people thought of as [Artisphere],” Hynes said. “So I do think that audience was pretty constrained in terms of all of Arlington.”
“In the end we collectively didn’t see as much of an opportunity for full community participation here than we see in some other things we do,” Hynes said of the decision to close Artisphere and send about half of its budget back into other arts programming around Arlington. “When a locality is putting its tax money into helping the production of art, we have some obligation to consider how we give as many people in our community as possible the opportunity to consume good art.”
A new art piece will lambast the closure of Artisphere on the venue’s final day of live performance.
Artist Carolina Mayorga can neither confirm nor deny that she will assume the form of the Virgin Mary apparition during a performance titled “Our Lady of the Vanishing Arts.” But Mayorga, who’s dressed as the holy figure before, says there’s a good possibility a divine apparition could materialize at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 6.
“[The Virgin Mary] is thinking about making an apparition at Artisphere,” Mayorga says, chuckling. “She might appear. She’s thinking about it.”
During the performance piece, which lasts an hour and precedes a musical performance by Stooges Brass Band and Black Masala, Mayorga will perform mock holy rituals and anoint Artisphere attendees.
“I have these cardboard letters that spell the word art,” explains Mayorga. “and I’m going to burn them in a little metal tray, mix that with oil, and use a brush to [paint dollar signs on attendees’ foreheads].”
A live organist will play Catholic mass classics such as “Ave Maria” alongside the performance.
“I call it Ash Saturday,” says Mayorga.
The point of the performance, explains Mayorga, isn’t to belittle religion. Instead, it’s to mourn the loss of a local artistic institution.
“I benefitted from Artisphere for a long time,” she says. “I did an artist in residency with them in 2013. They’ve always been supportive of my work.”
Some of the art from Mayorga’s residency still clings to the gallery’s walls as a permanent installation.
“When you want to do a special performance, you need a venue like Artisphere,” Mayorga says. “It really hurts to lose it.”
Photo courtesy of Artisphere.
In precisely two months, Artisphere will end its five-year run, but it appears to be going out with a bang.
According to Artisphere Director of Marketing and Communications Barry Halvorson, most of Artisphere’s shows this spring have sold out. But then, he said, that’s not altogether a new phenomenon for the almost-five-year-old arts center.
“Over the last three years or so, we have really been hitting our stride,” Halvorson said. “We’re on track to come ahead slightly of last year. We’ve been performing to an average of 75 percent capacity. That’s above industry average.”
Despite the fact that Artisphere has consistently lost money every year of existence, Halvorson it’s been by all accounts a successful arts venture. He challenges the notion that the Artisphere is a $2.2-million-a-year sunk investment.
“You wouldn’t refer to the Kennedy Center as the ‘money-losing Kennedy Center’ when in fact it is the money-losing Kennedy Center,” Halvorson said. “Every arts organization in town is a money-losing venture… It’s almost a minor miracle that we’ve been able to really run it as well as we’ve been running it.”
Acting Artisphere Director Josh Stoltzfus said the venue has been able to achieve that by targeting international musicians and artists, catering to the D.C. area’s global diversity of heritage.
“In a lot of ways, international music has had a very strong track record in this market,” he said. “The larger Metro area, we have people from all over the world that live and work in this area, people either from all those countries or who were stationed there. We’re trying to reflect the community we serve.”
Artisphere has hosted acts like a controversial Ugandan play, Yiddish punk music, an eight-hour endurance performance and more than 100 belly-dancers. Its 62,000-square-foot space has caused sky-high utilities bills, but the unique venue has allowed performance-goers to see art installations before taking in the eclectic, international performers.
“We’ve really tried to become sort of the go-to presenter of international music in this market,” Halvorson said. “We’ve been largely successful in doing that.”
In the final two months, the venue’s remaining staff is not planning a big grand finale, but rather they will continue to put on shows most weeks; Halvorson said May will one of the busiest months they’ve ever had. Next Saturday, they will be screening a “live documentary” called the Measure of All Things in the Dome Theatre.
That documentary will be cued up and narrated on stage by its Academy Award-Nominated Director Sam Green, and will be accompanied by a live band. The documentary will focus on the lives of people in the Guinness Book of World Records, like the world’s tallest man and the world’s longest hair.
“That’s a great example of programs that is sort of representative of what Artisphere presents,” Halvorson said. “It’s difficult to describe and boil down, but that’s what we’re doing.”
Linda Hesh, the artist who installed a piece of art when Artisphere opened, called “Art Every Day” will return for another installation this spring that will take pieces of art tied to the venue and spread them across the community. After that, the doors will lock and the county will decide what comes next for the space.
“While it’s true that they physical building is closing,” Stoltzfus said, “the ideas that Artisphere has put forth in the community will last for the years to come.”
File photo courtesy Artisphere
The Arlington County Board officially canceled the Artisphere project last night, making June 30 the grand finale for Rosslyn’s critically acclaimed but money-losing arts and cultural center.
June 30 is also the deadline the County Board has set for staff to return with a recommendation for next steps for the space, coinciding with the end of Fiscal Year 2015 and the last performances at Artisphere.
Arlington’s lease for the 62,000-square-foot space ends in April 2023, according to Deputy County Manager Carol Mitten, but the County Board could elect to cancel its agreement with owner Monday Properties and hand them back the unique space.
No formal proposals for the center have come forward, but Mitten said the county has had “lots of informal conversations” with outside parties. The cancellation of Artisphere will save taxpayers $2.3 million in FY 2016, and any scheming for the next steps won’t be coming from the county.
“If someone has an idea, they need to translate that into a proposal, because the county isn’t going to come up with a proposal of our own,” Mitten said yesterday. “The desire is that we get out of the business of subsidizing the use of this space… We have this block of one-time money to close out our obligations under the lease, and anything else the county were to do would really involve an outside entity.”
The only public idea to this point has been the vision of MoDev, a software developer conference company, to transform Artisphere into a tech incubator and conference center. MoDev CEO Pete Erickson told ARLnow.com this week that he is putting together a proposal, but he’s not alone.
“I heard that there are four different parties interested in the space, all with a technology center vision, which is awesome,” he said. “It doesn’t mean a deal will get done as the county could then decide to vacate the lease and put it in Monday Properties’ hands. If this happens, this would be bad for Arlington as the benefits of the existing lease would be away and put way more pressure on a new tenant and the building owner than would be necessary.”
According to Rosslyn Business Improvement District President Mary-Claire Burick, a Chinese business delegation recently toured the space and was intrigued. During the visit, Monday Properties representatives expressed a willingness to renovate and transform the space, if necessary, for the next tenant.
And while momentum seems to barreling ahead to transform the space into Arlington’s next major technology center — and potentially Rosslyn’s answer to 1776’s Crystal City investment — Burick said that the location at 1101 Wilson Blvd could return to its roots, when it was the former home of Newseum.
“We’ve had two groups that have been looking at turning it into a museum,” she said in a phone interview this morning. “Because of the grouping of other things in Rosslyn with Arlington Cemetery and the Marine Corps Memorial, we’re really starting to see Rosslyn have more tourism potential, particularly once CEB Tower delivers with its observation deck.”
All parties involved are looking forward to the unique space — with multiple theaters, high ceilings and an outdoor terrace — becoming something that can generate money for the county, rather than lose it. But the County Board’s decision has also left some wondering what the future of arts funding through taxpayer dollars will look like in Arlington.
Mitten said the cultural affairs department is developing a strategic plan that will address just that.
“There’s a belief that there is a clear nexus between our investment in cultural affairs and the arts and economic development,” Mitten said. “The part of the story that’s missing at the moment is how much is enough and in what way is the most effective in order to have it be a real investment and not just an expense.”
(Updated at 1:20 p.m.) The Artisphere cultural center in Rosslyn will close and Arlington’s property tax rate will stay the same under the new Fiscal Year 2016 budget approved unanimously by the Arlington County Board last night.
The $1.16 billion budget will provide Arlington Public Schools with the extra $6.2 million it sought to deal with rising enrollment.
It also will fund a new internal auditor position, a campaign promise of County Board member John Vihstadt.
Other budget highlights include:
- An additional $1.4 million for economic development efforts, including an extra $200,000 for TandemNSI, $200,000 for tourism promotion and an extra $100,000 for the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization
- Five new sheriff deputy positions
- Salary supplement for the public defender’s office
- Additional jail-based mental health services
- An additional animal control officer for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington
- Funding for Affordable Housing Investment Fund remains steady at $12.5 million
- An additional $1 million for housing grants, for a total of $8.9 in housing grant funding
- The county manager’s proposed cuts to BikeArlington were eliminated. Funding for county bike and pedestrian programs remains at $812,121.
- A merit compentation increase for employees
- Funding restored to the “Live Where You Work” program for county employees
Under the budget, Arlington’s real estate tax rate will stay at $0.996 per $100 in assessed value. However, due to the 4.9 percent rise in residential property assessments and a 1.8 percent increase in the water-sewer rate, the average Arlington homeowners’ tax and fee burden will rise about $281 a year, to a total of $7,567, a 4 percent increase.
“Arlington’s real estate tax rate remains the lowest in the region,” a county press release noted.
County government spending will increase 1.1 percent and Arlington Public Schools spending will increase 4.5 percent compared to the previous fiscal year.
Under the budget, the per-pupil cost of Arlington Public Schools to taxpayers will drop to $18,558 per student from $19,040 per student during FY 2015.
The internal auditor position sought by Vihstadt will require $200,000 of funding. The auditor will be independent, reporting to the County Board as opposed to existing internal auditing programs that report to the County Manager.
“The auditor, and an advisory committee, will report directly to the County Board and will focus on tightening financial oversight and deepening program performance review,” according to the press release.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill this year giving the Board the authority to hire an auditor. The only other positions the Board can hire directly are the County Attorney, the County Clerk and the County Manager.
County officials say they were able to balance the budget without a tax increase and find additional funding for schools and other priorities by making budget cuts elsewhere, including Artisphere.
“The Board’s most significant cut was its decision to close Artisphere, a move that will save $2.3 million in net taxpayer support for the County’s critically acclaimed arts and cultural center,” said the press release. “The County has said that the center’s failure to consistently attract a large enough audience and its ongoing need for substantial County funding put too great a burden on strained County finances. The County is redirecting $496,000 of the money saved to fund alternative arts and cultural programming across the County.”
Artisphere is set to close June 30.
Dems Debate in Ballston — The six Democratic candidates for County Board faced off in their first debate last night, before a standing-room only crowd at the NRECA conference center in Ballston. The debate was held by Arlington Young Democrats. Though knowledgable about current issues facing Arlington, candidates were light on specifics about what should be done to address those issues. [InsideNova]
Disruption Corp. Sold to 1776 — Disruption Corp., the Crystal City-based tech investment fund and office space, has been acquired by D.C.-based tech incubator 1776. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. [Washington Post]
Caps Pep Rally at Elementary School — Third grade students at Carlin Springs Elementary School have won a contest to bring a Washington Capitals playoff pep rally to their school today. The rally will start at 12:30 p.m. “There won’t likely be any players, but it will be a great time for all,” a teacher tells ARLnow.com. “The kids will be getting prizes, pictures with Slapshot (the Caps’ mascot) and learning some hockey skills. The Caps are also donating equipment to the school.” [Washington Capitals]
Artisphere ‘Doomed from the Start’ — Artisphere, which is on the budgetary chopping block next week, was “doomed from the start,” according to the artistic director of a theatre company that was booted out of its space at the cultural center two years after it opened. An anonymous Artisphere employee said of the early, over-optimistic attendance and revenue projections: “All of those numbers were so completely false.” [Washington Post]
McAuliffe Signs Special Needs Bill in Arlington — On Tuesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe came to Arlington to sign the ABLE Act, which will allow individuals with special needs, and their families, to set up tax-exempt accounts that will allow them to save for future living expenses. Virginia is the first state to enact such legislation, which received the blessing of the U.S. Congress in December. [WJLA]
Security of Va. Voting Machines Blasted — The touch screen voting machines now being replaced in Arlington and elsewhere in Virginia were “so easy to hack, it will take your breath away,” according to reports. [Ars Technica, The Guardian]
Flickr pool photo by Alan Kotok
(Updated at 2:25 p.m.) Next Tuesday, the Arlington County Board will vote on a budget that may or may not close Artisphere, the ambitious but money-losing cultural center in Rosslyn.
With the future of Artisphere and the nature of the county’s support for the arts on the line, it’s worth taking a look back at the optimism that surrounded Artisphere’s opening.
County leaders showed off the $6.7 million, 62,000 square foot facility on Oct. 6, 2010, touting it as — in our words — “a centerpiece of the effort to revitalize the workaday Rosslyn business district.”
Indeed, even though it was a county-owned facility, the Rosslyn Business Improvement District provided much of the support for Artisphere’s opening. In a press release about the opening — printed on Rosslyn letterhead — the BID committed $1 million in start-up funds for the facility, and pledged $300,000 annually for the life of the center. That commitment was signified in the form of a giant $7.3 million check presented to then-County Board Chair Jay Fisette at a press event.
Artisphere was designed to be a “new breed of urban arts center,” with four performance venues, three visual art galleries, a 4,000 square foot ballroom, a “WiFi Town Hall,” and its own cafe and bar. Initial programming cut a broad cultural swath, including music and dancing, often with an international flair; conceptual and interactive art exhibits; poetry open mic nights; documentary and art film screenings; the Washington Shakespeare Company; educational events; and even puppetry.
Rosslyn, county and cultural leaders believed that the Artisphere would be a game-changer for the neighborhood, attracting 250,000 visitors a year and generating nearly $800,000 in admission and ticket revenue, in addition to expanding the county’s artistic horizons.
“Artisphere is a new model for American cultural centers… a unique techno-savvy arts space that offers interactive opportunities to participate in the creative experience,” Arlington Cultural Affairs division chief Norma Kaplan said in the 2010 press release. “It will be a venue between work and home where people living and working in the Washington area can engage in the arts, challenge their intellect, or just hang out.”
(Kaplan would leave her post for a job in New Jersey less than a year later, after Artisphere’s visitor revenue projections came in 75 percent below expectations. By the April 2011, fewer than 50,000 people had visited Artisphere.)
Artisphere might have opened on an intriguing date, but in the rush to open on 10/10/10 the county was unable to hire an executive director or find a cafe operator in time for the opening. It would be January 2011 before Jose Ortiz, who previously worked at the Harvard Art Museum, was hired to lead the center as executive director. In April came the opening of Here Cafe + Bar, run by the owners of Guajillo in Rosslyn.
While the Arlington County Board enters their final deliberations surrounding the potential closing of the Artisphere, one local entrepreneur is trying to save it.
Pete Erickson is the founder of MoDev, which organizes conferences for mobile software developers. Erickson has hosted a handful of conferences at Artisphere and is planning his latest — MVP (minimum viable product) Conference — for May 18 and 19.
When Erickson heard that County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended defunding the arts and events venue in Rosslyn, and then realized that no one else seemed to share his vision for its business potential, he could no longer sit idly by.
“I thought I’d wait to see what was going to happen, who was going to come around and just kind of keep tabs on things,” he told ARLnow.com yesterday. “Nothing concrete has come from any other parties. The county is nearing a vote, and they’re under a lot of pressure to cut costs where they can. As that reality began to hit, I sprang into action and said ‘I’ve got a big enough network here to pull together the partners we would need to turn Artisphere into a destination technology, incubation and events hub.’ “
Erickson’s efforts — first reported by Technical.ly — stem from what he’s already been able to do at Artisphere: host events that attract as many as 1,000 attendees. In the D.C. area, there is no place like it.
“It’s hard to find space for a medium-sized conference, which is less than 1,000 people — and 95 percent of all conferences,” he said. “There’s a number of reasons why Artisphere is really well-suited for conferences. Artisphere is a unique space, and you can bring in outside catering, which is a big opportunity, it’s got an IMAX theater, it’s got a black-box theater, an open-air ballroom. It is a good confluence of several things. It’s also hard to find space that’s right on a Metro, close to D.C. and also accessible from the west.”
Erickson is thinking bigger than conferences, too. He has ideas for innovation labs that would bring companies and individuals in during the week, partnerships with incubators like 1776 in D.C. to collocate member businesses. It could turn into its own incubator, and there “could be events happening all the time.”
“One of the downsides with how Artisphere runs currently is everything is linear,” Erickson said. “When a play is happening, there’s not other things happening. When there’s a gallery opening, there’s nothing else that happens.”
The 62,000-square-foot arts center opened at a cost of $6.7 million in 2010 and has been losing money ever since. It was opened up to non-arts events in 2011 — paving the way for MoDev’s conferences — but still is a budget boondoggle for the county.
The County Board appears ready to support Donnellan’s decision — it voted 4-1 in favor of closing Artisphere at a work session earlier this week — but Arlington Economic Development is hoping Erickson can come up with something concrete before it’s too late.
“Right now, it’s just an idea. It’s not even a proposal,” AED Director Victor Hoskins told ARLnow.com yesterday. “The idea is attractive. How you execute it is the question. That’s a much bigger investment than the $250,000 [D.C. invested] in 1776 in 2011.”
“I think MoDev could pull it off, because that’s what they do,” Hoskins added. “But we haven’t even seen a proposal. That’s what we would be looking for.”
Artisphere Executive Director Left in Feb. — Jose Ortiz, executive director of Artisphere, quietly left the position in February. Ortiz is now working as the deputy director of the Bronx Museum in New York City. Artisphere programming director Josh Stoltzfus, meanwhile, has been promoted to acting executive director of the cultural center, which is on the county’s budgetary chopping block.
CivFed: No Tax Hike — Members of the Arlington County Civic Federation approved a resolution this week urging the County Board not to approve any increase in Arlington’s real estate tax rate. Fiscal conservatives on the Civic Federation argued that the county has plenty of reserves and surpluses to tap without the need to further tax struggling homeowners. [InsideNova]
Planning Comm. Rejects Wilson School Historic Status — Arlington’s Planning Commission on Monday voted to oppose a historic designation for the Wilson School in Rosslyn, by a vote of 5-4. That follows the School Board’s unanimous vote again a historic designation for the school, which was built in 1910 but was subsequently renovated significantly from its original form. The school system says trying to preserve parts of the school would require additional time and expense as it plans to build a new facility for the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program on the site. [InsideNova]
Urban Igloo Debuts Clarendon Page — Local apartment matchmaking service Urban Igloo, an ARLnow.com advertiser, has debuted a number of neighborhood information pages, including one for Clarendon. The company says its recently revamped website makes it “one of the first real estate companies to take an online hyperlocal approach to connect renters to specific neighborhoods.” [Urban Igloo]
Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley
Tech Leaders Want to Save Artisphere — Some 100 tech leaders and supporters have signed a petition asking Arlington County to reconsider closing Artisphere. Numerous tech-related events have been held at Artisphere in the past couple of years and the petition’s organizer says it’s a “unique” venue that has attracts tech networking events and conferences. [Technical.ly DC]
Memorial Bridge Lane Closures — Two center lanes of the Arlington Memorial Bridge will be closed nightly from April 20 through May 8. The lane closure, slated to be in place between 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., is for a “geotechnical inspection” of the bridge, according to the National Park Service.
ACPD ‘Chief for the Day’ — The Arlington County Police Department, which is currently seeking a successor for now-retired police chief Doug Scott, intends to replace him with a fifth grader — well, sort of but not really. While it conducts a real-life search for Scott’s replacement, ACPD is holding its second annual Chief-for-the-Day contest. The contest encourages submissions from fifth grade students in Arlington schools who want to serve as the honorary Chief of Police for a day. [Arlington County]
Endorsement for Cristol — Arlington Commissioner of Revenue Ingrid Morroy has endorsed Katie Cristol, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination for Arlington County Board. Morroy has also endorsed Democratic candidate Christian Dorsey in the race for two open County Board seats. [InsideNova]
Artisphere (1101 Wilson Blvd) in Rosslyn is hosting a unique show this weekend.
“The Pigeoning” is a bunraku puppet show for adults, featuring “live original music and lo-fi special effects to describe the divide between man and nature and the illusion of safety and control in the context of the end of the world.”
“Convinced the pigeons are plotting against him, Frank sets out on an adventure to solve a problem that perhaps isn’t really there,” according to the Artisphere website. “New York-based creator and director Robin Frohardt worked closely with composer Freddi Price and an ensemble of five puppeteers to develop humorous, dialogue-free scenes that succinctly capture the absurdity of Frank’s journey.”
The show will take place at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, March 27 and Saturday, March 28. Tickets are available online for $20.
Photo courtesy Artisphere
Artisphere is very likely to close on June 30, barring a change of heart from the majority of the Arlington County Board, and while many agree with the Board’s decision, the local art scene is lamenting the loss.
Artisphere — with multiple theaters for programming of everything from local orchestras to international groups with experimental sounds and galleries for its free visual art displays — will continue operating as planned, Executive Director Jose Ortiz said.
“The show must go on,” he told ARLnow.com yesterday. “It was definitely a disappointing decision … We have programs that are planned and on the books, from exhibitions and performances to rentals. The items that are on the books must continue.”
ARLnow.com’s unscientific poll yesterday asked readers if they agreed with County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s recommendation to close Artisphere at the end of the fiscal year. Some 57 percent of poll respondents — out of nearly 3,000 votes — said they agree with the decision. Ortiz said he didn’t necessarily disagree with it.
“Barbara said it. This was a business decision,” he said.
Some critics of the move are calling it “short-sighted,” alluding to the multimedia center’s uptick in both revenues and visitors in the past year or more. Donnellan said the theater would require $2 million or more per year to stay open, but vowed to continue the revitalization efforts in Rosslyn.
“In an era when communities throughout the country and especially in the D.C. area have used arts and culture to successfully revitalize neighborhoods, Donnellan’s recommendation to close the county’s most vital cultural asset is both shocking and remarkably short-sighted,” wrote Phil Hutinet, editor of D.C. arts website East City Art.
Ortiz started at Artisphere four months after it opened to lots of hype and hope the it would be revenue neutral. He said he would have “helped people understand what Artisphere was” if he had been involved from the beginning. Still, he said, he’s proud of the four years of programming the center has showcased.
“My hope is people will remember us because they were part of a project or they attended something here that blew their minds,” he said.
A full statement from Oritz on Artisphere’s closing, after the jump: (more…)
(Updated at 9:40 p.m.) Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan is recommending that the county close the Artisphere cultural center in Rosslyn after the first half of 2015.
Donnellan said Artisphere “has not lived up to projections” and would likely require substantial taxpayer support to stay open — more than $2 million per year.
Based on subsequent comments from County Board members, it appears that the Board is likely to adopt the manager’s recommendation next year.
Do you agree that Artisphere should close?
Donnellan made the recommendation at today’s County Board meeting, after being charged by the Board earlier this year to study Artisphere and suggest a way forward for the money-losing, county-run center.
“I will be recommending that the county close the Artisphere as a cultural center in fiscal year 2016,” Donnellan said. “This was a business decision… this was a tough decision, a disappointing one. The reality is that the Artisphere has not lived up to projections.”
Donnellan said Artisphere, in her opinion, would require “substantial ongoing tax support.”
“That is not what we promised our community when we opened Artisphere,” she said. Artisphere will remain open through June 30. It will close after that, if the County Board adopts Donnellan’s recommendation. After Donnellan gave her report, it became clear that the Board was behind her decision and it’s likely the art center will close on June 30.
“I support what you suggested, that next June, Artisphere would close as we know it,” Board Chair Jay Fisette said. “My hope is whatever option will move forward on our economic competitiveness goals one way or another.”
County Board member John Vihstadt, who had used the Artisphere as an example of wasteful county spending in his election campaign this year, obliquely referenced the county’s cancellation of the streetcar last month.
“I think we all realize the changing course on a long community initiative, as has happened in the last few years and months, is never easy,” he said. Speaking to reporters after the meeting had adjourned, he added, “I think it was the right decision. I was concerned about the Artisphere all along.”
County staff will be studying options for sub-leasing Artisphere to a private company or a private-public partnership in the “arts, media, technology” space, or returning it to landlord Monday Properties, Donnellan said.
She called the recommendation “a repositioning, not a retreat.” County staff will be tasked with coming up with a new art plan for the county, one that reflects current fiscal realities.
“Smart communities know when to reevaluate decisions,” Donnellan said.
The 62,000 square foot facility opened with a flourish, at a cost of $6.7 million in October 2010. Optimistic projections of a quarter million annual visitors quickly crashed down to earth in 2011. Visitor revenue was 75 percent below expectations, and Artisphere’s in-house restaurant closed after just a few months in business.
Arlington Economic Development assumed control of Artisphere by the end of 2011, and began implementing a business plan that included shorter hours and actively renting the facility for non-art-related events. The changes were successful by some measures, but problems remained — the facility again went over budget in Fiscal Year 2013. Last month, County Board allocated $1.3 million in its annual budget close-out for Artisphere-related expenses next year.
Donnellan told reporters after her report that 20 part-time and 12 full-time staff work at Artisphere, and some may be able to continue working in other areas of the county, but there will be some who lose their jobs.
The County Board may officially decide to close Artisphere before its April budget motion, Vihstadt said, and Donnellan said she will soon begin discussions with Monday Properties about the space’s future.
This evening, Donnellan will ask the Board to approve a $5 million loan to another art center, Signature Theatre. She said the two recommendations are “business decisions” and should be looked at separately.