Arlington's Artisphere: An unusual cultural center

The bar area and atrium take shape in the multi-level town-square section of Artisphere.
The bar area and atrium take shape in the multi-level town-square section of Artisphere. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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Friday, October 8, 2010

Nearly $6.7 million in interior renovations in nine months transformed the old Newseum building into Artisphere -- a pittance compared with, say, the $85 million and two years that went into remaking the National Museum of American History.

In the current economy, however, the investment is a clear sign that Arlington County has a deep interest in what happens under the arts center's dome. To ensure its success, the county snagged a rent-free deal for Artisphere for 15 years, and the Rosslyn Business Improvement District pledged

$1 million in start-up costs and $300,000 a year in support.

So why was the building empty for eight years?

According to site plans, the next tenant "had to be some sort of cultural amenity," says Norma Kaplan, chief of the county's cultural affairs division, which will run Artisphere for its first few years, after which it will become a private nonprofit entity. Museums were considered, as were theaters.

But only one idea stuck: an unusual space that could be both, plus a WiFi ready coffeehouse, a hub for ballroom dancing, a comedy club and a place to see spoken word, films and performances curated by groups that might otherwise find a home on U Street NW.

"It certainly isn't anything like a traditional cultural center," Kaplan says. Seven-day-a-week programming, a forthcoming restaurant and performances by indie bands at 11 p.m. -- all are designed to bring patrons into the space and keep them there not for just a couple of hours but perhaps for a whole night. (Artisphere hours extend to 2 a.m. on Saturdays and to 11 p.m. on weekdays.)

Some of the inspiration for the anything-goes mantra of Artisphere came from the building itself. "Because the space was so idiosyncratic," Kaplan says, "we had to come up with a program that might meet that space."

Another influence, plainly seen in myriad panel discussions, open-mike events and workshops planned for the center, was the region's burgeoning creative class.

"One of the incredibly encouraging things about younger people today is that they don't want to be a passive audience," says Kaplan. "They don't want to sit back and watch other creative people . . . they also are creative beings."

-- Lavanya Ramanathan

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