Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

Torpedo Factory: Status Quo is Not an Option

Vision and imagination were at the heart of a 1974 initiative to transform a World War I-era munitions facility on Alexandria’s waterfront into an innovative art center. Thanks to the leadership of Marian van Landingham, who served Alexandria in the House of Delegates for 24 years, and the late Mayor Charles Beatley Jr., the building was converted from a storehouse for federal documents to the nation’s first collection of publicly accessible working-artist studios under one roof.

The Torpedo Factory Art Center* was one of the first Old Town sites that I visited as a newcomer to Alexandria in 1985, and in subsequent years, it was on the to-do list I set out for out-of-town visitors. I have artwork from Torpedo Factory artists displayed in my home and have purchased one-of-a-kind pieces to give as gifts.

But as surveys of residents have shown, and as we’ve witnessed with our own eyes over the past decade, the Torpedo Factory needs a reboot. The building itself has not been renovated in nearly 40 years. Even before Covid, the art center was barely attracting enough visitors to justify its operating costs, and many of the studios were dark and unoccupied on higher-traffic weekend days. Much of Alexandria’s waterfront has undergone an exciting transformation that is bringing residents and visitors—and their disposable income—back to this important commercial district. The same vision and imagination that created the Torpedo Factory Art Center must now be brought to bear to revitalize it.

On December 14 the City Council will vote whether to maintain the current model of the Torpedo Factory (at a minimum cost to the city of $20 million for capital improvements) or to embrace a loftier aspiration for the Art Center as the hub and destination for all forms of artistic expression—performing arts as well as visual arts—and fully realize the Art Center’s potential as the crown jewel on Alexandria’s vibrant waterfront. The latter approach, with an estimated price tag of $41.5 million, would include more common areas available for demonstrations, workshops, concerts, and other performances; more family-friendly offerings; greater diversity among artists and art forms; and possibly a rooftop restaurant and bar.

Naturally, this approach would reduce the space devoted to individual artists’ studios—by about a third, according to city staff—though the amount of space devoted to all art uses in the building would remain the same. Some of the artists who rent studio space in the Torpedo Factory have perennially decried any changes to the facility, most recently circulating a misleading petition and even posting yard signs around town accusing the city of “kicking out” the artists.

The artists, in fact, do not have a lifetime right to heavily-subsidized studio space in one of the city’s most valuable parcels of real estate. The studio rental rate ($16.39 per square foot) is less than half the market rate for similar space in the city, and the aggregate value of the rent subsidy from the city to the artists is $610,000 per year. For a typical artist with a studio space of 500 square feet, that’s a $9,000 annual subsidy. One artist reportedly uses their studio as storage space for their artwork rather than as a creative space—a smart business move, given that a 300-square-foot studio costs $300 less per month than an equivalent-size unit at a storage facility near Whole Foods.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that artists should be charged a market rate for their studios. But we should also not minimize the financial support that the city is currently providing to Torpedo Factory artists. The rent subsidy constitutes a commitment of city resources just as much as spending does, and we should put the value of that subsidy into context with other city expenditures to promote the arts in our community.

In the latest round of program grants from the city’s Arts Commission, just $175,000 was allocated for distribution to ALL of the nonprofit arts organizations in the city. Let me underscore that point: The city is giving Torpedo Factory artists 3.5 times as much as it is giving all other nonprofit arts organizations. The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra (of which I am board president), will receive a grant of $5,000; that was down by half from the amount that we usually receive through the annual grant process (and as noted above, about half the value of the rent subsidy for one studio artist at the Torpedo Factory). That amount covers one-third of the ASO’s cost to present the Alexandria Birthday Celebration concert on the waterfront. So, on net, the ASO provides twice as much value to the city in the form of direct services as we receive in public support.

By comparison, in FY2021, the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra received $261,032 in general operating funds from Fairfax County, an amount representing 36% of their total revenues. The ASO’s $5,000 grant constitutes about 0.6% of our projected revenues for this year.

Just as our city’s elected officials and staff recognize their obligation to spend tax dollars wisely, my hope is that they also appreciate the positive economic impact that investing in the arts has on the city. For ASO’s upcoming holiday concert weekend, 65 professional musicians will be hired for a rehearsal and two performances. If just a quarter of ticket-holders combine a restaurant visit with the concert, that would be close to 300 meals purchased.

Reimagining the Torpedo Factory as a destination to celebrate all of the arts in Alexandria is not only a responsible budget decision, it’s also a small first step toward correcting the inequities that exist in our city’s support of its arts organizations.  

*Click here for links to the city’s “Action Plan for Vibrancy and Sustainability at the Torpedo Factory Art Center” and “A Study of the Studies: Themes and Recommendations for a Vibrant and Sustainable Torpedo Factory Art Center.”

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