Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

The Art of Possibility, Part 1

In the book The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander, a family therapist, and Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the authors invite the reader to transform their perspective on limitations, obstacles and seemingly intractable problems. When we look at the facts in front of us as they are now, rather than dwelling on what could have been or what should have been, we can better recognize the open spaces of possibility. People who search for what’s possible can in turn lead others into breaking out of the impossible (“We’ve never done it that way before!” “That didn’t work the last time we tried it!”) and into the possible.

I recalled this book as I applied (against the advice of family and friends) to be a member of the Torpedo Factory Art Center Stakeholder Task Force. To my surprise, I was one of the four community members chosen to serve at large—meaning we don’t represent a particular group or constituency. The Task Force has had one organizational meeting, and will be holding meetings over the next several months to consider recommendations for programming, facilities, governance, marketing and branding for this landmark at the foot of King Street.

At the organizational meeting on September 12, City Manager Jim Parajon laid down the two “non-negotiable” starting points for our work: 1. the City is not selling the Art Center; and 2. the building will remain an art center. Since then I’ve been reaching out to city residents via social media, email and in-person meetings to solicit their ideas for how to make the Torpedo Factory a more vibrant and sustainable centerpiece of the Alexandria waterfront.

Thoughtful comments and suggestions from a wide range of community members lead me to pose three questions that will be guiding my thinking as the Task Force performs its work:

Is it essential that artists be present in their studios? TFAC is touted as the nation’s longest continually operated community of publicly accessible artists’ studios. That suggests that artists should be available to show visitors their creative process and to answer questions about their craft. On more than one occasion, I’ve headed to the Torpedo Factory for a Saturday morning outing and found many studios dark and empty. One experience is merely an anecdote, but I have been disquieted by how many others have had the same experience. Lack of activity in the studios is consistently one of the chief concerns about the Torpedo Factory that community members have shared with me, and one of the reasons why the Torpedo Factory is perceived to lack vibrancy.

  • What are the best ways to encourage artists to be present in their studios?

  • Should hobbyists who prefer to dabble in their art when the spirit moves continue to occupy studio spaces?

  • Could it be a chicken and egg problem—or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Visitors stop going because artists aren’t there, and artists don’t see the value of being present if visitors aren’t there.

Is the highest and best use of TFAC exclusively visual arts, or should the range of artistic expression be broadened to include performing arts? If taxpayers are investing tens of millions of dollars in the TFAC’s much-needed and long-overdue renovation (the city has tentatively put a price tag of $40 million on the renovation) then would the city be better served by transforming the TFAC into an art center that showcases all of the art forms in our city, not just visual arts, in order to have a wider appeal and draw more visitors?

What does success look like? More visitors and their credit-card spending? Yes, of course. But an alternative definition of success is more expansive and less quantifiable: Everchanging offerings that are new and different for frequent visitors. A visitor experience that is more interactive and less like a museum. Artists that mirror the diversity of our community, and creative expressions that are diverse, innovative, and experimental.

Don’t believe predictions that the Task Force has failed before we’ve even started our work. I am optimistic that the Task Force can set aside perceptions of past failures and grievances—along with the “us-vs.-them” dichotomy that has festered between the artists and the city for so many years—and gather the facts and focus on the possible rather than the impossible.

A group of new artists, selected during the recent rejurying process, will be opening spruced-up studios on November 1. Consider stopping by to welcome them, check out their work and the work of the existing artists.

In addition, please share your list of possibilities to me at portcitynotebook@gmail.com. What other questions should I have in mind as the Task Force proceeds? How would you define success for the TFAC? What would move you to visit? Let me know your thoughts.

What will success look like to you?
Send your ideas to

Categories: Uncategorized