Two Views on Artisphere

by ARLnow.com October 11, 2011 at 4:04 pm 3,669 39 Comments

Is Artisphere (1101 Wilson Blvd) a funky, welcoming arts venue that’s contributing to the vibrancy of Rosslyn? Or is it a disappointing, poorly-managed waste of taxpayer dollars?

Depends who you ask.

Artisphere turned one year old yesterday, but the young venue has yet to become a consistent draw or even a household name. Instead, scenes of young people having fun at an Artisphere birthday bash over the weekend contrast with the cold, hard numbers from a recent Washington Post article: attendance 70 percent below expectations, operating expenses more than 25 percent over budget. Although Arlington County taxpayers helped front Artisphere’s $6.7 million build-out cost, only 28 percent of visitors are actually from Arlington.

The libertarian Cato Institute, which has been critical of government subsidies for entertainment venues like sports stadiums, took aim at Artisphere in a recent blog post.

“Surprise! Arts Center Predictions Flawed,” Cato’s headline blared. The article blasted the projections made in Artisphere’s original business plan, including the assumption that every single performance at Artisphere would be sold out and at capacity.

A new business plan is expected to be presented to the Arlington County Board later this year.

Cato also criticized the fact that Artisphere was built while other county budgets were being cut.

“Maybe the next time Arlington County — or any other state or municipality — needs to cut its budget, it might think about cutting subsidies for money-losing venues before going after police officers, firefighters, and math teachers,” Cato’s David Boaz wrote.

The Washington City Paper, however, is taking a more optimistic view. The weekly agrees with Artisphere managers, county leaders and Rosslyn business boosters who say that Artisphere is an important step toward a revitalized Rosslyn — a Rosslyn that stays active even after 5:00.

“Artisphere, I think, deserves to succeed,” wrote Alex Baca for the paper’s Arts Desk blog. “Its programming nicely walks the line between avant-garde and accessible, and varies from film to installation art to performances. It’s a punch in the gut to Wilson Boulevard’s otherwise un-fun corporate landscape.”

“Two or three years from now… it’s very likely that someone will be able to credit Artisphere for the third-place-ification of Wilson Boulevard,” Baca concluded. “Artisphere might not be Rosslyn’s panacea, but it very well might be its catalyst.”

  • Jacob

    Why should taxpayers fund a high brow art center frequented by rich white people? If it’s so awesome why can’t it survive on its own?

    • AllenB

      While I question the wisdom of the expenditures on the Artisphere, I also question why it matters what race its patrons are?

    • V Dizzle

      Also, why can only rich people afford to go there? Events/Exhibits appear to range from free to moderate prices.

      • Flying Spaghetti Monster

        What constitutes “high brow” art? I guess the republicans have successfully depleted national educational standards down to the point where anything that isn’t a monster truck rally is considered high brow.

        • Mike

          Right. Forgot about those rigorous national education standards pre-2001.

      • Suburban Not Urban

        Pretty hard to make it go on it’s own – when you charge – FREE… – guess they lied when they said they intended to eventually get off taypayer life support.

        • V Dizzle

          Tough to charge for local artist exhibits..

    • Cookies

      Those dirty crackers!!!

  • Steve

    If you want a vital Rosslyn after 5PM, you need to lure bars and restaurants to Rosslyn. You wonder why downtown DC is dead after 5PM? It’s because there’s nothing to do there after work.

    • V Dizzle

      Rosslyn finally has store fronts to accomodate bars and restaurants, after decades of off street retail. My feeling is the economy issues hit at the wrong time for Rosslyn, and that things will pick up soon.

      • Aaron

        Rosslyn today is still an order of magnitude more lively now than it was after dark even in the early 00s (before the opening of Continental, Cafe Asia, Piola, etc.). The Chipotle at Wilson and Lynn served lunch only, Monday through Friday, for the first year of its existence. The economic “issues” may have caused the growth to level off a bit, but it’s not like it’s dangerous to walk around after dark anymore.

        • V Dizzle


  • Juke Jointer

    This is yet another white elephant for Arlington – like the white elephants to come (Columbia Pike streetcar) and white elephants that hopefully won’t come (natatorium by Potomac River.)

    Intentions were good, but Arlington needs to get down to basic government services, not promoting nightlife. That will take care of itself, particularly if county loosens up its regulations on bars.

    • Flying Spaghetti Monster

      A vibrant arts venue/gallery is not “nightlife” – it’s culture. Culture should be encouraged.

      As for encouraging more bars, drunken frat boys and sorority girls rarely give anything to the collective culture. Chlamydia maybe.

      • Inkky

        Chlamydia – the gift that keeps on giving.

  • JimPB

    Perhaps two bits of perspective on Artisphere:

    — I’ve heard that in general a new business is doing wel lfinancially if it breaks even in its second year. True? If so, Artisphere not being in the black financially in its first year is not in itself so worrisome. Of more proper concern: What’s the direction for number of events and of attendees and of income (gross and net) ? Can Artisphere make it into the black financially in another year or two or three?

    — What proportion of cultural facilities and parks (woods and fields and water) “pay their way” in the marketplace?


    I’ve seen communities with only the facilities and settings that the marketplace would support. They were “poorer” for it. Not where I would choose to live.

    Bars can make for night life. But a substantial majority of the active adult population do not patronize bars and desire night life, too, albeit of a different sort, including for a not trivial number, attending and engaging in artistic and cultural events.

    • Mike

      Nice perspective. And I don’t mean that in a snarky way.

      One issue with the “paying their way” is that this benefits a tiny, tiny slice of Arlingtonians, as opposed to parks, of which many Arlingtonians across the demographic spectrum make use.

      And of course the issue of this use vs. the alternate uses of the money (including actually not spending the money).

    • 4Arl

      The business plan analysis included estimates of budget impacts for lower-than-forecast attendance- a 25% and 50% drop, though not 70%. It also included comparisons with some other facilities. For those interested, it’s at:

      On your concern about making it, I can only say that the quote in the Post article, “salaries were higher than projected,” in this economy, was a dead giveaway for me.

  • mickey644

    This is a good example of “representatives” not being concerned about “other peoples” money. Artisphere, street cars, etc. Try cutting taxes rather than spending everything you can. Try fixing the roads, some of which don’t appear to have been paved since the 1950’s. Wilson, from Clarendon to Seven Corners is but one of the many disasters. “Safest city” is due to poor roads, 30 mile and hour speed limits, and enough lights to keep the average speed under 15 mph! I have lost count of the chuck holes!

  • RosRes

    Artisphere did have a rough first year, but they are revamping their business plan. Its like any other start-up business, it will take some time for it to find its sea legs. In the mean time Arlington has gazillions of restaurants, bars, etc. I think it’s good to bring some affordable culture as well. As V Dizzle states, prices range from free to moderate. Also, Central Place would have been in place already if not for the downturn. I think that Artisphere going in prior to a lot of the redevelopment that is going on now has had an impact. Hopefully as Rosslyn continues to redevelop, Rosslyn will become a destination and more people will be drawn to Artisphere.

  • Insider

    Unfortunately, the County screwed this up big time when they lost Busboys and Poets. I was really hoping for a destination restaurant/cafe in that space and I’m sorry to say that the restaurant, stupidly named Here, is not a draw. Even the current restaurant has little chance of survival given the conditions imposed on them. Without that, the place is going to struggle.

    They’ll need world class exhibits and concerts, which cost more than they have. There have been some really good performances there, but not enough to turn the place into a regular draw.

    • Wildhair

      Busboys and Poets would have made a world of difference. Just one or two destination restaurants (Lost Dog?) would really liven up the area.

      As for the Artiphere itself, I’ve visited several times and seen a play and a couple movies, but it’s just not a place that I’d ever describe as “fun” or “lively.” They need to loosen up their business model and get some popular music and entertainment.

      I’ll give them about one more year before I write it off.

  • JM

    Arlington needs to work on marketing/publicity for Artisphere. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in Arlington. Arlington residents might come if they knew about it…

  • SamsontheCat

    My view of Artisphere is from visiting on sleepy weekday afternoons, the opening party, and another event.

    The “views” I got were of a handful of people walking through and looking at the art on the weekened or the place packed with the “young and hip” of the DC Metro drinking, making-out, and posing for iPhone pics…but not really taking notice of the art (why would you? the young and hip are here and they are far more attractive). So as a place for the young, hip, and oh-so bright young things amongst us to gather it’s a success. As an arts venue it flounders.

    I appreciate the avante-garde flavor of the Artisphere and they have had some good exhibits, but from a perspective of drawing people in, some more “accessable” art might be in order. I see more people lingering about the gift shop looking at the locally made textiles and ceramics than sitting in front of the displays upstairs.

  • MC

    The Cato Institute’s rant is silly – it compares governments subsidizing profit-making major-league sports stadiums that are getting tax holidays for teams and that enjoy built-in profits through their anti-trust immunity with not-for-profit cultural venues like the Artisphere that rely primarily on private funding (in the Artisphere case, from Rossyln property owners.) A classic example of Libertarians blinded by ideological zealotry. Cato might as well criticize homeless shelters for failing to make a profit and criticizing local governments for trying to help.

  • Fresia

    The Artisphere isn’t even a County owned asset. It is a rented space AND tax payers funded the interior renovations, rent, staff, operating costs, and activities. Ultimately, the Artisphere is not financially viable and a bad investment in these rough economic times. The Artisphere is at the mercy of its landlord. It may be a catalyst for Rosslyn but there are other catalysts that the County could encourage or support that is less of a drain on tax payers.

  • KR

    I live in Rosslyn and have yet to visit Artisphere. I’ve known about it since it opened, and I’m on their email list. But nothing they’ve ever advertised has appealed to me, compared to other options nearby. Artisphere would probably succeed almost anywhere except where its currently located. Why go there when world-famous art museums are 4 more metro stops away? And a world-famous performing arts center is on the other side of the river? The problem is that the demand for what it’s offering is already being fulfilled (better) by these other venues. What Rosslyn needs is a bookstore, cafes, restaurants, a nice grocery store and the other things that make a neighborhood (i.e., the things people go to Clarendon for). I often wonder about Rosslyn BID.

    • Inkky

      Yeah, some of the BID’s events and other plans to draw crouds are just weird. It’s like they’re just going through the motions.

  • Inkky

    @Jacob – very poor, non-white person over here, and I love Artisphere. Do I wish it was a little closer to the working class Pike? Sure. Do I wish the county would invest more in working class neighborhoods instead of razing them & building condos? Of course. But that’s a different debate. Back to Artisphere:

    Forget the art; sometimes I just go there to eat. And, in a weird paradox, I go there to be alone. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it’s nearly always empty. I can’t decide if I want this place to succeed or keep failing. ;P

    • Jacob’s ladder

      That is SO emo.

      “i go there to be alone.” <– for the win!

      • CW

        Sometimes you just need to be able to hear yourself cry, ya know?

  • Sally Plain And Tall

    Artisphere needs to lease some of its space to a real restaurant, coffee shop, and bar that is integrated into the museum, something of a caliber than will attract patrons of its own accord and not simply serve as a “snack bar.” This would bring in revenue and create a much-needed social space in the area that isn’t driven by one-off events. As it currently stands, the museum is not likely to be a regular destination (more than once a year) for anyone.

  • Homunculus

    Why don’t they ever host any performers that more than 50 people want to see? Like Wolf Trap or the Strathmore do? I mean, zydeco? OK, it’s pleasant enough, but how many people are going to shell out $30 and deal with parking or Metro to go to a zydeco concert?

    BTW, is the Rosslyn Spectrum still there and in business?

    • Aaron

      Yes. The only time I’ve actually patronized the Artisphere was for a scheduled event that was re-located to the Spectrum instead.

  • u

    Artispher sucks. OK. Someone said it. It’s a gargantuan waste of taxpayer-dollars, disguised as a nod to local artistry. C’mon.

    • Rossi

      Agree! How did this idea gain traction among County leaders? Wasn’t there any staff that read the proposal and checked the numbers? Isn’t there an Economic Department that could do that?

      • Me Too

        Apparently not. If the Newseum didn’t stay who thought the Artisphere would make it?

  • K1P2

    The felted wool hats can be made by beginners and yet the “artisan” charges over $150 for each of them. Absolutely absurd to the point of obscenity.

  • MomOfTeens

    The biggest problem and most outrageous thing about Artisphere that although they are using Arlingtonians’ tax dollars to fund it, they don’t support or feature Arlington artists. Because of course, why feature talented artists in your own town when you can get artists from New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston….


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