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Peter’s Take: Artisphere Lessons Learned: Part Two

by Peter Rousselot June 18, 2015 at 1:00 pm 0

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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 ARLnow.com.

In an April column, I outlined these lessons learned from Arlington’s Artisphere fiasco:

  • Arlington needs a new arts policy,
  • The new policy must reflect current fiscal realities,
  • Current fiscal realities require that core services should receive priority funding,
  • Taxpayer support for the arts should be based upon artistic merit (as determined by a qualified citizens advisory group), not based upon hard-to-quantify “economic development” potential.

On June 11, ARLnow.com published a revealing new story on the Artisphere based upon documents provided to ARLnow pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Arlington County government.

That story and the documents provide additional lessons about arts funding, Arlington County’s mismanagement, and what we should do moving forward.

The Artisphere’s Mission Was Muddled

This comment to the latest ARLnow story best captures the Artisphere’s muddled mission:

Artisphere never figured out if it wanted to be a mini-Kennedy Center or a mini-Torpedo Factory. Local artists and artisans were promised a gallery/shop where they could sell what they created. As the article pointed out, a popular local theater company was kicked out. If Artisphere had wanted more local attendance, it should have brought in more of the local arts community. Instead, it turned its back on us, trying to be something it never stood a chance of being.

We could argue endlessly whether the Artisphere should have focused on being a mini-Kennedy Center or a mini-Torpedo factory or something else. If public taxpayer dollars were not involved, this would be a decision strictly up to the private sector. If such a private-sector venture failed, then the private backers would suffer the financial loss. But if our tax dollars are involved, we should insist on a clear mission.

Arlington County Mismanaged The Artisphere

The Arlington County government compounded the risk posed by the Artisphere’s muddled mission by:

  • agreeing to an open-ended taxpayer subsidy arrangement supporting this costly facility,
  • prematurely launching the Artisphere before key hires (e.g., executive director, marketing director) were in place,
  • trying to rationalize the mounting red ink by seizing upon the Artisphere’s alleged economic development potential to boost Rosslyn.

The Way Forward

From the ashes of the Artisphere fiasco, we can move forward to an exciting and fiscally-sustainable future for the arts in Arlington. I disagree with those who say Arlington should stop all support for arts funding.

Arlington’s continued strong commitment of our tax dollars to support the arts should:

  • avoid future arrangements in which Arlington assumes fiscal responsibility to fund any and all losses of a facility housing artistic ventures,
  • emphasize targeted direct grants from Arlington to artists and arts groups,
  • recognize that funding for core services (e.g., schools, parks, roads) requires priority.

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