Artisphere opens in Rosslyn: A one-stop cultural center

By Lavanya Ramanathan and Stephanie Merry
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; WE24

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."

What to see: Two shows performed in repertory: "Richard III" and "Mary Stuart." The Shakespearean play will be set in a "Blade Runner"-like future, and many of the powerful male characters will be played by women. For "Mary Stuart," director Colin Hovde will take an equally experimental approach to the set design. Oct. 21 through Dec. 12. 800-494-8497. $25-$50. Pay-what-you-

can performances Oct. 21-24 and every Saturday matinee.

Visual arts and media

With three galleries and a video art and media program in the works, Artisphere is on a mission to live up to its name. The largest of the spaces for visual arts is the Terrace Gallery, a 4,000-square-foot space that will effectively replace the county's Ellipse Arts Center gallery in Ballston (staffers from Ellipse, including former director Cynthia Connolly, will curate art exhibitions at Artisphere). The Terrace Gallery will keep up the momentum of Ellipse's adventurous exhibitions; the first show is "Skateboarding Side Effects," featuring national artists who are skateboarders and whose art is imbued with skateboard culture.

The Mezz Gallery, overlooking the ballroom, will become a showcase for Arlington-based artists, each chosen by a prolific panel of jurists: Civilian Art Projects' director Jayme McLellan, artist Jefferson Pinder and artist-curator Al Miner. In the WIP Gallery, only in-progress artworks will be on display, shining a light on the creative process. Time it right and you can watch artists installing or even working on their pieces, or you can attend public critiques of works in progress.

What to see: The opening reception for "Skateboarding Side Effects," on Thursday from 6 to 11 p.m., features a curator and artist talk and a screening of the skateboarding film "Deathbowl to Downtown" (the reception is free; the film screening at 9 p.m. is pay what you can). From Nov. 6 to 13, the outdoor Central Space Park near Artisphere will play host to Fotoweek projections (free).

Cultural potpourri

As an all-encompassing cultural center, Artisphere will showcase more than the big three of art, music and theater. Literature and poetry fans can find an outlet thanks to a couple of monthly events: Local poet Holly Bass hosts an open-mike night every first Tuesday, and Sulu DC brings Asian American poets to the stage the third Saturday of the month. The globe that gives the building its distinctive shape happens to be an ideal 220-person film venue, featuring a slate of festivals that should please cinema fans. In November, the Rosebud Film Festival features innovative and experimental local filmmakers, and the Andean film festival, Ventana Andina 2010, arrives in December. Also in the Dome Theatre, the Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse will host occasional performances and talks by comedy writers. The buffet of artistic fare also extends to family-friendly puppetry courtesy of the month-long KidsEuro Festival and the annual benefit for Fashion Fights Poverty, which has its headquarters on the premises, featuring the colorful creations of Pakistani designer Nomi Ansari.

What to see: Fashion Fights Poverty benefit in the ballroom Oct. 15 ($100); Sulu DC in the Dome Oct. 16 ($10); KidsEuro Festival: "What Does Red Do on Thursday?" Oct. 30 (free); open mike with Holly Bass Nov. 2 (pay what you can).


The lineup of bands performing at Artisphere reads like an eclectic iPod playlist: Afropop ensemble Chopteeth and blues crooner Memphis Gold and the All Stars will inaugurate the ballroom with free concerts Sunday, and the center will pulse with weekday performances of salsa, Latin jazz, swing and rock by local and touring acts. The Rosslyn Spectrum, Synetic Theater's former home and now part of the Artisphere campus, will host the National Chamber Ensemble and occasional performances by the Alexandria Symphony. And the experimental music Sonic Circuits Festival will also establish a regular presence at Artisphere, in the Dome Theatre.

If one event speaks to the center's goal of drawing younger faces, it's the 11:01 Saturday Night series, late-night concerts that begin Oct. 16 with rising D.C. electronic act Bluebrain and Geologist of the band Animal Collective and continue with klezmer outfit Golem, electro-funk performers Fort Knox Five and fuzz punks the Death Set.

What to see: Opening night performances by Memphis Gold at 6 p.m. and Chopteeth at 9 p.m. Sunday (free). New York's La Excelencia kicks off Artisphere's "Salsa Tuesdays" in the ballroom Tuesday ($15-$20); Bluebrain with Geologist on Oct. 16 ($15); and the Speedy Tolliver Fiddle and Banjo Contest in the Dome Theatre on Oct. 24 (pay what you can). All tickets are available at the door.

If you go

Beginning next week, Artisphere's regular hours are Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-875-1100.

The Pink Line Project and Brightest Young Things "Burst" party is Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets ($20, includes beer and wine open bar) are available at Free buses will run from Dupont Circle. The free open houses are Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Monday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and feature performances by Washington Shakespeare Company, Memphis Gold and the All Stars, Chopteeth and Bowen McCauley Dance. Take note: Metro closures this weekend could disrupt your travel.

Plan accordingly.

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