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Looking Back: The Early Promise of Artisphere

(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.

In the four-and-a-half years since it opened in the former Newseum space, on 10/10/10, Artisphere has attracted both fervent critics and impassioned supporters.

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.

“Here promises to be a modern and exciting addition to Rosslyn’s daytime dining, happy hour and nightlife scene,” said a press release at the time. “Patrons will now be able to grab a bit or enjoy a drink before, after or during their adventure in Artisphere’s 62,000 square foot cultural campus. Artisphere’s focus on being a less formal arts space includes welcoming patrons to take a drink from the bar and wander through its galleries and performance venues.”

With the cafe opening six months after Artisphere itself opened, the idea of Artisphere as a WiFi-enabled community gathering place with food and drink never was unable to gain traction. Here, which was named in a Washington Post contest, would struggle to gain business while tucked inside Artisphere with no street signage. It closed a few months later, on Nov. 30, and no replacement was ever found.

In the years since Here closed, numerous restaurants and cafes have opened in Rosslyn and picked up the slack — finding success and helping with at least one of Artisphere’s goals: keeping and attracting crowds of workers and residents in Rosslyn after working hours.

Below are scans of original documents from the more optimistic days of Artisphere, in which the vision for the cultural revitalization of Rosslyn and cutting-edge arts leadership on the part of Arlington County was still fresh.

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