Latest Artisphere Financial Results a Mixed Bag

by ARLnow.com May 9, 2012 at 10:15 am 4,901 47 Comments

(Updated at 10:20 a.m.) The good news for Artisphere, the county’s struggling cultural center in Rosslyn, is that it just had a certified hit in the form of its month-long Frida Kahlo photo exhibit. The bad news is that it’s still falling short of meeting a number of financial goals laid out in a new business plan last year.

The Frida Kahlo exhibit, held from Feb. 23 to March 25, drew 13,119 visitors to Artisphere, according to a recently-released quarterly report. That’s well over three times the audience of Artisphere’s next most popular exhibit to date, a collection of Mongolian clothing, artifacts and art that drew 3,831 visitors over the course of a month and a half in the spring of 2011.

Though the Kahlo exhibit helped bring in visitors, Artisphere failed to capitalize in terms of catering and concession revenue. Artisphere has yet to find a “resident caterer” to pick up the slack left by the closing of the venue’s in-house bar/restaurant last year. As a result catering and concession income for the first three quarters of the financial year was only $24,170, compared to the prorated business plan goal of $63,188.

Artisphere is also falling short of meeting its goal for facility rental income — a key component of the new business plan. Rental income has brought in $214,752 through the third quarter, compared to the goal of $273,600. In a letter to County Manager Barbara Donnellan, the Arlington Economic Development (AED) officials now in charge of overseeing Artisphere predict that rental income will pick up in the fourth quarter and put Artisphere “only slightly under its projections” for the year.

Another disappointment is income from education programs — $17,540 compared to a Q3 goal of $46,800 — but Artisphere managers expect to make up some ground through revenue from summer camps.

Admission and ticket income, meanwhile, is only just short of its goal. Artisphere has collected $147,156 in visitor income compared to the Q3 goal of $149,987. When it first launched in 2010, however, Artisphere was expected to bring in $789,912 per year in admission and ticket income.

Artisphere has “seen many recent successes in its programming, bringing in very popular performers and events that have attracted significantly higher levels of ticket sales,” according to AED officials. That momentum may be difficult to maintain, though, following the sudden resignation of Artisphere’s Programming Director last month.

The biggest revenue bright spot for Artisphere so far has been donations and event sponsorships, both of which are expected to meet or exceed the goal for the year. Most of that income, however, came from a single source: the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

Other numbers are trending in a positive direction. Despite the fact that Artisphere’s operating hours have been more than cut in half, overall visitorship has been largely unaffected. And, partially as a result of the cut in hours, the “density of visitors” has increased from an average of 7 visitors per hour in December to 54 visitors per hour in March. Still, attendance at three of Artisphere’s five performance venues — the Dome theater, Spectrum theater and education lab — are well below expectations.

Artisphere expects to come close to meeting its $3.6 million expense budget for the year. As of March 2012, total revenue was $958,561. The deficit between expenses and revenue — projected at $2.3 million for the year — will be paid for by county taxpayers.

In introducing the Q3 report, AED officials wrote to Donnellan: “Although the Artisphere business plan was carefully considered and was conservative in many of its revenue projections, the first twelve months of operation under the new plan will be critical to determine the efficacy of many of those assumptions.”

  • PL25rd

    I’ve never been because their ticket prices are far too high! Why would a family (I’ll use two parents and a child as an example) pay $50 to spend two hours making sculpture from “found art” at the Artisphere this July, when the same family on the same dates can attend a FREE family program studying major works at the National Gallery of Art? Or, to use another example, why would a couple pay almost $60 to attend a Saturday evening jazz performance at the Artisphere, when for the same amount, you can attend a jazz performance at the Kennedy Center, or see a free concert on the Millenium Stage at the KC?

    • novasteve

      You’re obviously not an elitist, so you aren’t wanted there. It’s only for people who fly in private jets, and take limos who tell others they should give up their cars to save the world.

  • Ken

    More failures, this time from Economic Development. Time to find a non-profit without big overhead expenses that can run this facility

  • Elmer

    A suggestion for the financially struggling Artisphere:
    How about a good old fashioned tractor pull?

    It reinforces the trendy “Urban Agriculture” theme so popular with our county board and the backyard chicken proponents.

    Why I’d even pony up five bucks to see it myself.

  • Thes

    Last month I was there and tried to buy a bottle of water at the bar. I was handed a cup of ice and directed to the water fountain. Another dollar lost for Artisphere…

    • Greg

      That’s what I don’t get about the Kahlo exhibit. They finally had a big success in terms of a high demand event, but gave away free admission and apparently had no food vendor.

    • South Awwlington

      It’s never going to be Newseum.

    • MC

      Yes the concession vendor pulled out, and with the scaled back hours it hasn’t been part of the plan to offer food/drink. It may make sense to have a pop-up, food truck type of food and drink offering for times when events will drive people. I think the Artisphere can think more tactically about capturing potential dollars when the opportunity is there.

  • Greg

    The BID money is basically tax revenue also. So 80% of this thing is funded by taxes.

    Not saying that is inherently wrong, but 1) it’s not what the community was told when Artisphere was being planned, and 2) I don’t see the community getting $2MM worth of use out of Artisphere. That money could be spent on other arts programs that are actually used by the community.

  • T.G.-E.O.-A

    When your results don’t meet your expectations, lower your expectations.

  • Lee-n-Glebe

    A “mixed bag” might be a bit of a stretch. I’d say at this point that a truly “mixed bag” of financial results would be a huge improvement.

  • Ashton Heights

    I love tractor pulls! We used to do those in the country all the time.

  • why

    does artisphere get so much coverage on here?

    • Patrick

      Because it has been so successful and everything the CB promised it would be.

    • Josh S

      Probably because it’s an easy target – it stretches the normal idea of what county tax dollars should be spent on, it’s a failure so far by most measures, and it can easily be painted as “elitist” or “liberal” or the like by those people who like to use those labels. (Of which there are plenty around here….)

      • CW

        In my experience, ARLnow often appears to intentionally choose stories that touch on issues that have proven to incite a lot of debate in the past. For example, anything that happens with the Artisphere gets a story. A lot of people have been whining about LEED lately, and then the story yesterday is titled to feature LEED (it could have just said that some buildings were going up). It’s clearly a bit of baiting to bring up the chatter and the page views, for which you can’t exactly blame a media provider operating in a pay-per-click world.

        • We report on stories that we think will be interesting to readers and/or important for readers to know.

          All of the advertising we sell is flat rate: based on the length of the campaign, not on pageviews or clicks.

        • Duh

          That is sort of like complaining about a restaurant that serves food that people actually like….

          Not to mention that Artisphere is a particularly apt metaphor for what is wrong with the governance of Arlington County.

      • South Awwlington

        Pave our roads.

        Add METRO stations entrances

        Add School Capacity

        Finish under grounding of utilities.

        I love visiting museums and especially the Smithsonian and the like but the County doesn’t need to have their own.

    • Corey

      Lots of pageviews in the ensuing comment thread.

  • Ashton Heights

    Btw, the only reason they had a lot of people at the photo exhibit is because it coincided with the county’s PLACE meetings, which included a free tour.

  • Patrick

    “The deficit between expenses and revenue — projected at $2.3 million for the year — will be paid for by county taxpayers.”

    Good thing the CB had the foresight to raise taxes to continue to fund this boondoggle.

    They should use the building for their proposed year round homeless shelter. It is closer to DC and will thus make it easier for all the bums from DC to find.

  • JB

    If the point of Artisphere is to make Arlington more of a destination for “high art” by drawing people from abroad, then it’s not successful so far.

    If the point of Artisphere is to be a welcoming and accessible place for county residents to enjoy art (i.e. having enough variety that even the common masses can enjoy it), then I think it’s failed there too. In that case, I’d say the tax dollars would be better spent trying to make Artisphere Arlington’s version of the Torpedo Factory in Old Town. Reinvent it to be an affordable gallery space for local artists to work and sell their wares, and an education center for adults and kids to learn about art, and it might actually be a place I’d be interested in dropping by once in awhile.

    • T.G.-E.O.-A

      So where did Jay Fissettes kissing contest rank on the event list?

    • KalashniKEV

      “I’d say the tax dollars would be better spent trying to make Artisphere Arlington’s version of the Torpedo Factory in Old Town…”

      More misguided thinking. If there was a demand for an Arlington version of Torpedo Factory, someone would make one and Profit. That might be one of your personal whims and desires, but that’s how we got in this terrible mess to begin with.

      Return the space to the market and an appropriate business will eventually take hold.

      • Eponymous Coward

        Agreed that Arlington’s efforts seem to be exactly that: a thus far unsuccessful and expensive effort recreate something akin to the Torpedo Factory.

        However, the “free-market solves everything” notion doesn’t apply well to the Torpedo Factory, which is a non-profit 501(c)(3) created by the City of Alexandria. There *was* in fact great demand for an art center (what became the Torpedo Factory), but it required a visionary local government willing to bet on a derelict structure, and a non-profit board with good management skills. Not someone out to make a buck.

        Cultural enrichment activities are traditionally recognized by economists as “public goods” likely to be under-provided by the free market.

        • Josh S

          Well said.

    • South Awwlington

      I like the torpedo factory idea but Arlington doesn’t do anything “like” anyone else…no. You have that reversed. We ARE THE trendsetters.

      • KalashniKEV

        (especially when it comes to spending millions of taxpayer dollars on the personal boondoggles of local politicians)

    • bobco85

      While it doesn’t possess the charm of the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria, we do have the Arlington Arts Center.

  • MinA

    Since the taxpayers are funding this project, why don’t we kill two birds with one stone and use it to house the homeless so we don’t have to pay twice for really bad ideas.

  • KalashniKEV

    Mixed Bag???

    More like… Body Bag!!!

  • novasteve

    Why not add “Tavern” to the name of Artisphere, maybe that will get more people in given that’s the trend these days?

    • WeiQiang


  • (another) Greg

    What this demands is an international dance competition!

  • G::TheNativeArlingtonian

    Break it down! Its going to be a crunking good time here soon!

    Another fail.

  • Ironically

    I went to Artisphere about 3 weeks ago to see what it was all about. What I found to be a problem, ironically, was the lack of art. Huge, cavernous spaces with hardly any artwork.

    They definitely need to find a different niche to set it apart from the free museums in DC, or it will continue to do poorly.

  • JB

    That’s not my whims and desires – that’s my opinion – all I was saying is that *I* personally would not have any heartburn if my tax dollars were used for a purpose more along the lines of what the Torpedo Factory is, if they were going to be used for arts at all – support of local artists and making art education widely available to a community and kids. That is of course if a given community values such a thing and wants tax dollars used for that – which is up to the community.

    Sorry if that threatens your delicate sensibilities Kev. You really come off as a know it all bully sometimes in these comment threads, and usually the loudest person in the room is the dumbest.

    • KalashniKEV

      I’m sure *you* wouldn’t mind a publicly funded Torpedo Factory…. someone else might not mind a publicly funded Sports Team. Another person might want a publicly funded Skate Park…

      We avoid the moral dilemma of misusing public funds in pursuit of personal boondoggles by only using public funds in an appropriate manner.

      • WeiQiang

        Can we agree that my definition of “appropriate” will be universally accepted?

      • Josh S

        Gosh, Kev – why can’t you get that there is no fundamental, bedrock, purely objective definition of “appropriate?” And without one, your argument that this or that use of public funds is immoral just doesn’t contribute much.

      • Arlingtonian

        Ar;ington already has a publicly funded skate park (actually a skateboard park). It’s on Wilson Blvd, near the top of the hill southwest of Four Mile Run. Sombody must have wanted it.

      • JB

        You’re right, how dare tax funds be used for anything but roads or bridges without your approval.

  • Larry

    Good news – one of the crumbling streets in my neighborhood will be paved this year. Bad news – there are a dozen other crumbling streets in my neighborhood that won’t. Reason? County lacks funds.

  • MC

    I am hoping the Artisphere will be able to find a good director of programming to replace the one who left. The Kahlo exhibit was an inspired choice — we need to make sure the next programming director has that kind of vision.

  • charles

    This County badly needs a real Progressive successor to Giveaway Jay, aka Gourmet Jay, aka Gentrification Jay Fisette on the County Board.

  • Friend of Sphere

    The money Arlington County has pumped into the Sphere has been a wonderful investment for the Arlington community. In the short time the sphere has been operating it has touched the lives of so many Arlingtonians with its fine programs and exhibits.

    There is simply too much negativity on this site so critical of efforts to make art and cultural exhibits, performances, and activities to a wider audience.


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