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ArlingtonBoosters of performing-arts center tout support of public

Boosters of performing-arts center tout support of public

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Just over a year after first floating the idea, an advocacy group continues its fact-finding effort to gauge the viability of a performing-arts center in Arlington – one that could rise with, or without, government support.

Embracing Arlington Arts on March 22 detailed results of a new community survey, part of the creation of a business plan to determine if a new arts center could succeed where others have faltered.

“We wanted to ascertain not only how often audience members would attend an in-person event this year, but also their likely patronage of a new venue,” said Janet Kopenhaver, the organization’s president.

More than 220 responses were received – not quite a full community sample, but a start – with nearly half of those responding saying they planned on attending performing- or cultural-arts events at least monthly this year.


More than 87 percent of respondents said they would “likely” or “very likely” attend performances at a community arts center, with just under 4 percent saying they were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to do so and the rest in the middle.

(See the report at www.embracing-arlington-arts.org.)

Kopenhaver noted that nearly 30 percent of those taking the survey were under age 50, “good news since we usually recognize arts patrons as retirees.”

“The hope is that the arts organizations are attracting younger patrons to their performances, and thus diversifying their audiences,” she said.
Planning for an arts center is nothing new in Arlington, but history has recorded a mixed bag of results:

• More than two decades ago, there was talk of a cultural center, perhaps on the large surface parking lot at Courthouse Plaza. It never quite got off the launch pad.

• The county government partnered with Signature Theatre on a combination library/theater in Shirlington. The effort has been a success in terms of bringing audiences to Signature productions, but the professional theater has struggled with finances.

• The Artisphere facility, run by the county government in Rosslyn opened with grandiose expectations but proved to be in the wrong location to attract patrons and bled red ink before it was, figuratively speaking, taken out behind the barn and put out of its misery.

• Another county-run theater space in Rosslyn (the Spectrum) fell victim to redevelopment.

• An agreement between a Virginia Square developer and the county government, which would have resulted in a black-box theater at a prime urban-corridor location, died when County Manager Mark Schwartz decided he’d rather take cash from the developer in lieu of the theater space. Schwartz cited the excessive projected cost of operating the facility.

When the idea for a community-run performance venue was floated last year, projections called for a facility of roughly 13,000 square feet. While there are some preliminary cost projections, financing the proposal remains a work in progress.

Asked then why this idea would succeed when the Artisphere had been such a (financial) debacle, Kopenhaver in 2021 said it was like comparing apples and oranges.

“Artisphere had a lot of problems that we are not going to have,” she 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.

Calls for a performing-arts center in 2021 came as the local arts community reeled from COVID and related shutdowns, which have forced organizations to reduce programming, downsize staff and, in some cases, go out of business. Since then, there have been some improvements, but many arts organizations remain far from a post-COVID renaissance.

Perhaps not surprisingly, candidates for elected office in Arlington have pronounced themselves in favor of the idea of a community cultural center.

A special election for County Board in 2020 found contenders all in favor of the idea, while the two contenders in the 2021 County Board Democratic primary for County Board also said they were positively disposed toward the idea.

What kind of support, if any, that will result in – or whether a private group would even want the county government’s direct involvement – is an open question.

County leaders’ default position when asked to support such private initiatives is usually to plead poverty.

At the moment, the county government also is being asked what role it would be willing to play in a major renovation of the Arlington Historical Museum, operated by the Arlington Historical Society and housed in the 19th-century Hume School overlooking Pentagon City.

The county government also may be asked to lend more support in finding a permanent home for the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, which lost its space to redevelopment and is currently, and temporarily, cohabitating with the Columbia Pike Partnership.

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