Arlington County set to open expansive cultural center, the Artisphere, in October

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010

Arlington County plans to open the Artisphere, an expansive cultural center, in October. It will include three art galleries, two theaters and a 4,000-square-foot ballroom.

On Thursday afternoon officials led a tour through the roughed-out spaces, which were piled high with boxes of acoustical tile, plastic buckets of vinyl paint and wheels of steel wires. Standing in what will be a black-box theater, Norma Kaplan, chief of the county's cultural affairs division, described the lighting grid and the curtain system for the flexible space. "We are down to the finishes. And we are still on track for Oct. 10," she said of the whole project.

That sounded optimistic. But the building on Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn, the former home of the Newseum, has not undergone major structural alterations. It's the insides that needed reconfiguration.

Kaplan promised something new, not only in the use of the space, but in the clientele the Artisphere hopes to attract. "We have a large younger demographic in the region," Kaplan said, referring to 20-to-45-year-olds. "They want to be participants, not be passive, and they want a place to go. We'll be open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. People can come and hang out without much planning."

The hard-hat preview included a walk-through of the darkened 220-seat Dome Theatre, a space for concerts and films; a 4,000-square-foot Terrace Gallery, with room for exhibitions, seating with drinks and snacks as well as an overlook into the ballroom; and a semi-circular Wi-Fi Town Square, with a two-story video wall and a tiny stage for music and poetry readings. The tour included the exterior terrace, with its view of the Rosslyn skyscrapers and peek-a-boo glimpses of Washington.

Built into the programming, Kaplan said, will be opportunities for interaction with the artists. "We are trying to attract audiences that normally don't come into a cultural center," she said. One idea is to have late-night dances, with regional bands, on the weekends.

The ballroom will have regular nights for salsa, swing and social dance, and Kaplan said she expected it to draw a crowd. "There will be live music 90 percent of the time. Dance is very popular in this area, but there aren't a lot of ballrooms," she said, describing the retractable bandstand as a "Murphy bed stage" in what is believed to be the second-largest dance floor in the area after Glen Echo Park.

Places to eat and drink are placed around the three levels. Part of the town square will be a catered cafe, with additional bar and lounge areas. A walk-around section, above the ballroom, will have access to food and bar service, as well as to the exterior terrace.

The 125-seat black box will be the new base for the Washington Shakespeare Company, the avant-garde classical company, which Kaplan said will stage 32 weeks of programming there. Across the street, the 387-seat Spectrum Theatre will be programmed under the Artisphere umbrella, bringing the whole project 62,000 square feet.

In addition to the Washington Shakespeare Company, the center will be home to Bowen McCauley Dance, which is choreographing a new piece for Artisphere's opening weekend, and the National Chamber Ensemble. The Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse and Alexandria Symphony will program some events there. The building also includes space for the Artisans Center of Virginia, a craft organization.

The county approved the conversion of the building last year and construction started in January. Construction, financed by the county, is $6.7 million. The Rosslyn Business Improvement District provided $1 million for program development and is contributing $300,000 to the annual budget of about $3.1 million. The remainder will be made up by ticket sales and contributions.

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