When it comes to a performing-arts facility in Arlington, can a local advocacy organization succeed where the Arlington County government failed?
The organization in question – Embracing Arlington Arts – thinks it is up to the task.
As part of its recently adopted strategic plan, the organization plans to use the coming three years to build community support for a performing-arts venue that would include a black-box theater and ancillary classroom and office space. Efforts would also be made to identify a site and start raising funds.
If this sounds somewhat like the county government’s Artisphere misadventure – more on that later – there are some key differences, said Janet Kopenhaver, who heads Embracing Arlington Arts.
“Artisphere had a lot of problems that we are not going to have,” Kopenhaver said. “The original business plan was way out of reach and not sustainable. Our model is totally different. We will have a nonprofit manage it and have it serve as a home for several theater groups who will partner with us.”
Compared to Artisphere, “we are envisioning a much smaller facility . . . so expenses will be lower, as well as needed staff,” she said.
Its initial planning calls for a facility of roughly 13,000 square feet. While there are some preliminary cost projections, they are not yet being released by the arts-advocacy organization.
“We are currently in the middle of writing a formal business plan that will spell out in more specific detail the breakdown of income and expenses for the first five years,” Kopenhaver said. “We anticipate that although the first couple of years will be very lean, we can meet the ongoing costs of the venue.”
The revenue and expense projections for operating costs do not require any local-government funding, she said, although the business plan does anticipate corporate donors and “lead” individual donors.
(See the three-year strategic plan at www.embracing-arlington-arts.org.)
Arlington County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti said that while the county’s budget and staff resources have been stretched owing to public-health conditions, there is nothing preventing the government from assisting in efforts that bubbled up from the community.
“The county’s ability to partner in non-financial ways with citizen-led efforts is perhaps as strong as ever, with the addition of online engagement,” he told the Sun Gazette. “In that spirit, we are and will be open to working with groups like Embracing Arlington Arts and others in the effort for a performing-arts center. In fact, we welcome the opportunity to do so and look forward to it as we emerge from the pandemic.”
Calls for a performing-arts center come as the local arts community continues to reel from COVID and related shutdowns, which have forced organizations to reduce programming, downsize staff and, in some cases, go out of business. Advocates for the arts say that a serious community commitment could help pave the way for a post-COVID rebirth.
For those who did not live through the five-year life-cycle of the Artisphere, here is a primer on how it went from a purported golden goose to a dead duck.
In order to obtain space in Rosslyn formerly occupied by the Newseum, the Arlington government gave density incentives for a nearby project. The Artisphere opened to self-congratulatory fanfare in 2010.
Right from the start, however, there were signs of pending trouble, and just five years later, following a sea of red ink and an ocean of recriminations, the county government cut its losses and shuttered the facility, which had managed to lose vastly more taxpayer money than expected while drawing only a fraction of the projected crowds.
But to arts advocates like Kopenhaver, the ignominious end came perhaps just a little prematurely.
“Unfortunately, when the county pulled the plug on Artisphere it was just starting to really take off – the crowds were getting bigger and more shows selling out,” she said.
In addition to the Artisphere, the nearby Rosslyn Spectrum performing-arts facility fell victim to redevelopment around the same time, and a longstanding government proposal for a black-box theater in Virginia Square remained on life-support for years before the plug was pulled.
An earlier proposal to put a cultural-arts center in the Courthouse area was kicked around for years, but never gained traction.
Last summer, when there was a three-candidate campaign for the County Board seat left vacant by the death of Erik Gutshall, contenders were quizzed on the practicality of an arts center.
Perhaps not surprisingly, all three candidates in the special election said they looked favorably on the matter. But talk, as they say, is cheap, and the county government is likely to plead poverty should a proposal for a government-operated facility be made.