Artisphere seeks to regroup after flat first year


Exterior shot of the Artisphere. (Anice Hoachlander)
October 7, 2011

Artisphere will celebrate its first anniversary this weekend with music, a new video work and a Sunday afternoon open house. Behind the scenes at the Rosslyn arts space, however, the revelry is muted.

The Arlington County-funded arts center, which opened Oct. 10 last year in the Newseum’s former space, projected it would have 300,000 visitors in its first year. As of the end of last month, it had hosted about 90,000. And the venue for art, theater, film, music and more, whose build-out cost $6.7 million, had to request an additional $800,000 to supplement the $3 million appropriated for its first annual operating budget.

“Our original business plan had very aggressive projections,” says Executive Director Jose Ortiz, who arrived in January from the Harvard Art Museum, where he was deputy director. (He previously held a deputy post at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.) “In terms of those expectations, no, we didn’t make those.”

“One of the projections was that every performance was going to be at capacity,” he says. “For a brand-new facility, that’s impossible.”

Ortiz is enthusiastic about what Artisphere has achieved, which includes the recent “Photo 11” group show, film programs that range from arty documentaries to horror flicks, two sold-out appearances by folk singer Dar Williams, zydeco and salsa dances in the ballroom, and artist residencies at the Works in Progress gallery. But he says that a new business plan is being prepared. It should be ready to present to the Arlington County Board at the end of next month. “We are looking at every part of our operation,” he says.


Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys perform to a dancing crowd at Artisphere in Arlington. (Josh Sisk/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

One move that Ortiz is prepared to announce is the hiring of a new director of programming, Rosanna Ruscetti, formerly director of George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Her job is to make more things occur in a facility that’s considerably less bustling than its planners anticipated.

“The Artisphere as it was conceived never happened,” says Jon Palmer Claridge, who was in line to become the center’s first director but left six months before it opened.

“The original business plan was predicated on having this buzz of activity,” says the 20-year veteran of Arlington’s cultural affairs office, who opted to retire when it appeared that the venue would not fulfill its potential.

“We just wanted it to be a place where people are,” he says. “That’s why there’s the video wall and the Wi-Fi. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, let me see what my options are around the city,’ it was, ‘Oh, I’m at the Artisphere. What are my choices tonight here?’ So you have multiple gallery options and multiple theater options.”

This vision is not Claridge’s alone. “Before it opened, I said this is like a big, big D.C. space,” says Artisphere Visual Arts Director Cynthia Connolly, referring to the Seventh and E streets NW venue where she once worked. The venue, which closed in 1993, was known principally as an artists’ bar and punk-rock showcase, but it sometimes hosted jazz, performance art or films.

“I visualize this place as constantly being full of people coming here for different reasons and finding the other things that are happening,” she says. “It doesn’t happen all the time. It would be amazing if it was happening all the time.”

Claridge and another former Arlington arts employee, Norma Kaplan, agree that a major drawback of Artisphere at first was the lack of a restaurant. The county negotiated with Busboys and Poets but couldn’t come to terms. The bar/restaurant that operates in the facility has a limited menu, and it didn’t arrive until March, six months after Artisphere opened.

“I can’t put that kind of pressure on Busboys and Poets to say, ‘If they were here, this would have been really different,’ ” Ortiz says. “It could have been, yes. But we have to sort of stand on our own.”

Nonetheless, he says, “that piece of our business will more than likely change. We may have opportunities to engage other restaurateurs.”

Financial issues altered the center’s concept before it even opened, says Kaplan, former head of Arlington Cultural Affairs and now managing director of the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J.

“Some of the fixed costs for the center went up, which meant that some of the programming costs were cut,” she says. “So they couldn’t hire the same number of artists or have the same frequency of events. The programming costs were cut, but the ticket income wasn’t adjusted. You can’t cut one and not deal with the other.”

“Also, salaries were higher than projected,” she says. “Almost everybody who came in, came in higher. I think that was close to $130,000 of personnel costs that went up. So that again was cut from the programming, to make the budget be revenue-neutral. There’s only so much that can be absorbed that way.”

Despite the budgetary squeeze, Artisphere seems a pretty sweet deal for Arlington. “What the county got for the money it put into it was phenomenal,” Kaplan says. “It would cost, today, $60 million to build that center.”

Under the terms of its 15-year lease, Arlington owes no rent to Monday Properties, which owns the office building that contains Artisphere. The county does pay its landlord about $1 million a year for HVAC, electricity, cleaning and common-area upkeep.

The space, which the Newseum vacated in 2002, is a high-profile opportunity for Arlington’s arts division, which over the years has nurtured successes such as Signature Theatre. But it also presents challenges. The Artisphere “campus,” which includes a former cinema across the street called the Spectrum, has three theaters, but all are of similar size. The Black Box has 125 seats, the Dome, 220, and the Spectrum, 380.

“We don’t have a 1,500-seat auditorium,” Ortiz says. “There’s value in the intimacy, [but] it’s a bad thing not to have a 1,500-set theater to do performances of that level.”

There’s also aural competition between the Black Box and the adjoining ballroom. “Sound bleed means that you can’t have events going on in both of those venues at once,” says Chris Henley, artistic director of WSC Avant Bard (formerly the Washington Shakespeare Co.). “So they have to program the ballroom around our performance schedule.”

To reduce the conflict, Henley says, Artisphere’s management asked his company to use the Dome or the Spectrum, but those theaters have fixed seating and little backstage space, both of which are problematic for WSC Avant Bard’s work. Henley says that at least one production of the 2012-13 schedule will use the Dome or Spectrum.

The theater must also contend with Artisphere’s government-oriented schedule. “They’re closed on federal holidays, which is kind of counterintuitive if you’re running a place you want people to come to,” Henley says. “So we’ve had to move, for example, press nights that would occur on Presidents’ Day. It’s tough for us, because they won’t be open on the day after Thanksgiving, and we’d expect that to be one of our best-selling performances.”

Another difficulty is the building’s location. Rosslyn is accessible by Metrorail and buses, and Artisphere offers free parking at night and on weekends. But the neighborhood is known mostly for office space, not nightlife or architectural charm.

“I’m from New York, and it’s almost like the Brooklyn thing,” Ortiz says. “For some people, crossing the river is psychologically a humongous challenge. I love that it’s very close to the Metro. I’m a Metro rider myself.”

According to Artisphere’s marketing studies, 28 percent of its audience is from Arlington and 27 percent from Alexandria and Fairfax County. But 22 percent comes from the District, and 14 percent from Montgomery County.

“There are people who won’t go across a bridge if their life depended on it. And there are people who won’t go into town if their life depended on it,” Henley says. But he sees Rosslyn as a step up, since WSC Avant Bard used to perform at the Clark Street Playhouse in a warehouse district near Crystal City.

“Our audience loves Rosslyn,” he says. “They love the building.”

“We actually consider ourselves the closest theater to anything in Georgetown. If you live where Ellen Burstyn lived in ‘The Exorcist,’ we’re a 10-minute stroll across the bridge.”

Also across the bridge are the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage and the Smithsonian museums. Ortiz suggests that Artisphere will ultimately distinguish itself from those larger, better-established institutions by bringing patrons closer to the process of artistic creation. He cites a project in which Beauty Pill, a local band, recorded its new album in the Black Box theater, which can be viewed through windows on its upper level.

“If you want to see art, you can go to the Mall,” Ortiz says. “And you can see things and ask, ‘I wonder why they painted that?’ You can stop and think about it, or a scholar can tell you about it. But what an incredible treat to be able to just ask the artist, ‘Why did you do that?’ That helps us stand apart from other organizations in this area.”

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