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Peter’s Take: We Need More Information on the Signature Theatre Bailout

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Peter RousselotLast week, ARLnow reported that the Arlington County Board had voted unanimously to provide a $250,000 financial bailout to the Signature Theatre in Shirlington.

Let’s reserve final judgment on this until the grant agreement between the county and Signature is made public. However, the facts made public so far raise serious questions about whether the county has the right standards regarding when it will provide public subsidies for the arts.

It certainly does not generate confidence when the County Manager tries to justify the bailout by saying, “Signature is thriving.” Any private organization that is thriving neither needs nor is entitled to a public bailout.

If there is a justification for this bailout, it must include the assumption that Signature is NOT thriving, but that there is a reasonable basis to believe it can return to financial health in a reasonable period of time. Why didn’t the County Manager say that?

Other aspects of the story also raise questions. As ARLnow further reported: “Signature Theatre has sole access rights and branding capability in its current space within a county owned building. It is responsible for the full costs of operating that facility, including real estate and business tangible taxes. Other county supported arts groups performing in county subsidized spaces are not required to pay taxes.”

Assuming this report is accurate:

  • What standards does the county apply in deciding which arts groups are granted the right to perform in county subsidized spaces — and for how long?
  • What standards does the county apply in deciding which arts groups performing in county subsidized spaces are required to pay taxes?
  • What standards does the county apply in deciding which arts groups performing in county subsidized spaces have sole branding capability?

As I have written previously, Arlington needs to develop a consistent framework for prioritizing and paying for its core services. There definitely is a place within such a framework for public support for the arts.

But, to generate sufficient public confidence, both the core services framework itself and the standards for providing public subsidies for the arts need to be carefully articulated and explained.

Arlington’s policy statement regarding public support for the arts is now 23 years old. A quarter-million-dollar Signature bailout, provided despite Arlington’s new financial realities suggests this is a good time for Arlington to click “refresh” on its public arts policy.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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Signature Theatre just released single tickets for all 33rd season productions, which highlights the organization’s long-time relationship with legendary composer Stephen Sondheim. Beginning with the musical adaptation of The Color Purple and irreverent No Place to Go, the season continues with three Sondheim musicals, the DC premieres of Off-Broadway hit Which Way to the Stage and Pulitzer Prize finalist Selling Kabul, the Tony Award®-winning rock musical Passing Strange, and return of Signature’s cabaret series honoring legendary artists.

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