It never hurts to ask – the worst anyone can say is “no” – and an advocate for performing-arts venues brought up the subject of a new performing-arts facility on the Arlington campus of George Mason University during a June 10 community forum looking at facilities planning for the university’s campuses.
“Arlington has its own diverse cultural arts organizations, but [a lack of] space/venues has forced them further away,” noted Tina Worden, a 1989 Mason graduate who has a child who is an incoming freshman, making a play for an additional use on the Arlington campus.
“Has any consideration been given to a including a professional/theatrical or dance performance venue to share with community organizations?” Worden asked.
The response she received wasn’t exactly “no,” but it didn’t suggest such a facility currently stood atop anyone’s to-do list.
“I have not been part of any of those conversationd to date, but I can certainly ask around. I can certainly see how that might be appealing,” said Gregory Janks, a Boston-based consultant leading the master-planning process for Mason’s major campuses.
If such a facility materializes – and who is to say “never”? – it would wind up not far down the street from an unrealized arts center.
The developer of a parcel adjacent to Central Library 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, however, County Manager Mark 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. He nixed the project, to the howls of some arts activists.
Schwartz’s decision to scrap the black-box proposal in 2017 came at a time when 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 as the Artisphere, 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) 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.
While George Mason officials are mulling a significant “re-imagining” of the Fairfax campus, and the possibility of adding a medical school to their Prince William (“Sci/Tech”) campus, development plans for the Arlington campus are of the “stay-the-course” variety, Janks said.
The Arlington campus, which dates to the late 1970s and is located in the Virginia Square neighborhood, includes mostly graduate courses in public policy, law and business, and is expected to see an increased emphasis on engineering and computer-science programs with the opening, in 2025, of the planned 400,000-square-foot Institute of Digital InnovAtion as part of a public-private partnership.