Artisphere opens in Rosslyn: A one-stop cultural center

After a $6.7 million renovation that lasted less than a year, Rosslyn's long-vacant former Newseum building will re-open Oct. 10, 2010, as Artisphere, Arlington County's bold experiment in creating a cultural center.
By Lavanya Ramanathan and Stephanie Merry
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010

When the Newseum decamped from Rosslyn eight years ago, it left behind a modern building with a broadcast studio, a beckoning silver dome and a mind-boggling 54,000 square feet of space.

To describe it in real-estate terms, it had character. It was move-in ready. And sitting on Wilson Boulevard with the Metro a block away, and with Georgetown within walking distance, it certainly had location.

Yet, for the better part of a decade, no one seemed to know quite what to do with it.

The solution, it turned out, was as quirky as the space, a futuristic-looking structure nestled between staid office buildings. Called Artisphere, it is Arlington's trailblazing new cultural center -- a home not just to visual art, but to esoteric discussions, edgy theater, performance art, ballroom dance and music ranging from classical to punk.

If all goes right, Artisphere, which opens Saturday with three days of parties and performances, could transform 9-to-5 Rosslyn the way arts centers have revamped the cultural topography of other area neighborhoods. It was Source and Studio Theatre and galleries, after all, that led the way when 14th Street NW was littered with liquor stores and carryouts, and Atlas Performing Arts Center was the trailblazing anchor for the now bustling H Street NE corridor.

The hope is that Arlington's new hip, art-filled living room -- where something is afoot seven days a week -- can revive the northeastern tip of the county, known for not much more than high-rise office buildings and fast-food fare. Now, with Artisphere, Rosslyn will be home to such diverse tenants as Washington Shakespeare Company, performance group Sulu DC, Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse and Fashion Fights Poverty.

"We're not an ivory-tower institution," says Chris Williams, Artisphere's interim programming director. "I really hope that as we start to fill in the building and the program grows, that people start to feel that they can just live there, that they can live as artists and as arts patrons in that space."

Move-in day is Saturday, with a ticketed preview bash sponsored by Pink Line Project and Brightest Young Things, two groups that can draw the 20- and 30-somethings who Artisphere boosters hope will frequent the space for years. Then at free open houses on Sunday and Monday, the public will get its first peek at the three theater spaces, a WiFi-ready "town square," 4,000-square-foot ballroom and three galleries.

Will there be something for you? Most likely. Discover all that it has to offer with our guide to Artisphere.


The conception of Artisphere was particularly opportune for Washington Shakespeare Company. Out of nowhere -- or more accurately, out of the Newseum's broadcast studio -- a black-box theater was created just when the company was in an increasingly frantic need of a new home. For 10 years, Arlington County had been trying to find WSC a replacement for the crumbling Clark Street Playhouse, a big box of a theater that almost collapsed under the weight of last winter's snowmageddon. And now, voila.

The 21-year-old company, known for its edgy, imaginative takes on classic plays ("Macbeth" in the nude, for example), is the resident company of the 125-seat black box. And although the space is a little smaller than Clark Street, the location is a boon for a group once stationed "on the wrong side of the tracks in Crystal City," as Artistic Director Christopher Henley puts it. The theater's location within a cultural center brings an influx of artistically minded people to the company's doorstep.

Still, Rosslyn isn't exactly known for its arts scene. "It gets a little ghost town-y at night," Henley says. But that doesn't concern the man who performed in the first production at Source in the 1980s, when "there was no reason to go past 16th Street." Henley says he has witnessed the transformative effects of theater and art on a neighborhood, and he's optimistic about the future of Arlington: "There's an opportunity for Rosslyn to become a cultural and night-life destination."

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