Critics who long have argued that the Arlington County government talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to support for the performing arts need only look to October 2017 for what they might consider definitive proof.
That was the month that County Manager Mark Schwartz decided to take the cash – about $1.5 million – from a developer, rather than have that developer follow through on a long-agreed-upon black-box theater that would have anchored part of a new development adjacent to Central Library in Virginia Square.
The developer in 2012 had promised to build the shell of a 150-seat facility, then lease it back to the county government for 30 years (at $1 a year) as a home for the community’s myriad arts groups. Five years later, Schwartz decided it “simply [wasn’t] sustainable” for the county government to shoulder the roughly $3 million cost of fitting out the theater – and the perhaps millions more in operating subsidies to keep it going.
But it’s another election season in Arlington, and candidates vying for office say – as most usually do – they are supportive of finding a way to get something similar built.
“If we believe that Arlington is a world-class destination, then we’ve got to have this,” said Chanda Choun, who is challenging incumbent County Board member Takis Karantonis in the June 8 Democratic primary.
“I don’t like how we have lots of arts groups shuffling around various schools and whatever spaces are available,” Choun said.
Karantonis, who was first elected to office last year, said that he had been, as a private citizen, “particularly disappointed” about the decision to forgo the performing-arts space in Virginia Square. He suggested leaders work on the possibility of such a facility via a public-private partnership in the Pentagon City-Crystal City area known as National Landing, but acknowledged it could be a tough slog.
“It takes a lot of commitment,” Karantonis said, leaving unsaid the fact that advocacy groups for every worthy cause in a 50-mile radius seem to have their hands out looking for something from Amazon, which will occupy much of the National Landing corridor.
The two candidates addressed the issue at an online debate sponsored by Embracing Arlington Arts, an advocacy group. (To view the debate, see the Website at www.embracing-arlington-arts.org.)
Schwartz’s decision to scrap the black-box proposal in 2017 came at a time the county government was still smarting over the debacle of the Artisphere, a government-funded performing-arts venue in the former Newseum space in Rosslyn. The facility, highly touted by government staff and authorized with perhaps not quite sufficient vetting by the County Board, turned out to be a white elephant that bled red ink for several years before being shut down by chastened county leaders.
There have been other rough times in the county’s performing-arts arena over the years:
• In the same neighborhood, redevelopment pressures claimed the Rosslyn Spectrum theater, operated by the county government. The county’s partnership with Signature Theatre on a building in Shirlington (shared between the theater and a library) has proved problematic even before the pandemic hit.
• A proposal nearly two decades ago to place a cultural-arts center in the Courthouse area did receive some consideration, but died when plans for a major redevelopment of the corridor were abandoned.
Perhaps adding insult to injury for the local arts community: Fairfax County, once considered by Arlington elected officials and their acolytes as something of a cultural wasteland run by philistines uninterested in supporting the arts, seems to be bounding ahead of Arlington in that department.
As part of an agreement for Capital One to build its 470-foot-tall, 1-million-square-foot headquarters building in Tysons, the banking giant agreed to include a two-theater complex that includes a 1,600-seat main hall and a 300-seat black-box theater. It is just the latest addition to Fairfax’s performing-arts inventory.
Elsewhere in Northern Virginia, Alexandria and Prince William County have major performing venues connected to universities (Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University, respectively).
Given all that, who can blame arts boosters for circling back to the issue of Arlington leaders’ talking the talk but then failing to walk the walk?
“If we truly want Arlington to be an arts destination, then it’s essential that we have at least one quality, flexible performing-arts venue to accommodate several professional theater organizations, live-music events and other entertainment options,” said Janet Kopenhaver, who heads Embracing Arlington Arts.
But in five short words, she summed up the seminal question: “How do we get it?”