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As Alexandria looks to revamp the Torpedo Factory, artists fear they will be kicked out

Visitors chat with an artist at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Va., on Nov. 20. (Allison Shelley for The Washington Post)
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When the Torpedo Factory Art Center first opened in Alexandria more than 40 years ago, it was meant to stand apart from the museums across the river. Unlike the well-known D.C. institutions, the former munitions factory would allow visitors to engage with artists in their studios as they painted canvases or fired up a kiln.

Nearly half a century later, that vision has led to a heated debate over the future of the attraction — a 102-year-old, city-owned building that is in dire need of repairs, even as many still consider it a jewel on the Northern Virginia city’s waterfront.

As the Alexandria City Council is set to consider three sharply different visions on how to fund renovations and bring in more visitors, some of the artists at the Torpedo Factory fear they will be kicked out for good. And while the city contends that will not happen, several ideas on the table call for at least some studios to be converted to other uses.

“We’re being asked to step aside and basically sacrifice our livelihood and this institution in the name of development,” said M. Alexander Gray, 39, a painter and printmaker who shares a studio on the ground floor. “The message that the city is sending to the arts community is, you’re not as important as, you know, another restaurant.”

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Diane Ruggiero, who leads the city’s Office of the Arts, said that the ideas — including one that would put an eatery on the first floor — are merely “financing formulas.” They are meant to help lawmakers figure out how to secure a taxpayer-funded institution, she said, that has at times struggled to attract the local residents footing the bill.

“If you go in, it’s very quiet. Most of the studios aren’t open. There’s no new energy coming through,” she said. “We’re not kicking anyone out of their studios. We’re just trying to find the best way forward for an amazing art center to be more amazing.”

But the array of options on the table has fueled tensions over the future of the site. An online petition, drafted by Gray, pushing back on the city’s plans has drawn more than 6,600 signatures. Nearby landowners have erected a banner encouraging redevelopment and declaring the need for a “Torpedo Factory for All.” And ahead of a planned vote in December, a host of city commissions has pushed to delay any action.

At the core of the debate are questions about who gets to have a say in the future of the arts center: Should the Torpedo Factory keep giving longtime artist tenants low-cost studio space where they can keep working and selling creations? Or should it push ahead with lawmakers’ vision for more “vibrancy” — with family-friendly installations and greater diversity?

A push for change

Once known as the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station, the site — a cavernous structure overlooking the Potomac River — was used by the federal government to manufacture torpedoes during both world wars.

After Alexandria purchased it in 1969, Marian Van Landingham, who was the president of the local art league, proposed transforming the facility into studio spaces for working artists, a then-novel idea that would be replicated all over the region and beyond.

Artists were given the chance to work in studios below market rate, their rent subsidized by the city. They would keep any money they made from selling paintings or prints. Other additions rounded out the space: The Alexandria Art League opened a school, store and gallery on a mezzanine level, and the city’s archaeology museum also moved in.

But artists and city officials have repeatedly clashed over the Torpedo Factory and its place on the city’s once-neglected waterfront, with management of the arts center shifting since 1996 from the city to an association of artists to a nonprofit board appointed by city lawmakers.

After a fight over that board five years ago, Alexandria officials intentionally allowed the nonprofit’s existing lease to expire. Artists now pay rent directly to the city — about $16 per square foot, for space that is valued at about $34 per square foot at market rate.

Faced with frustrations and a big decision over the future of the space, the city hired the architecture firm SmithGroup to conduct a “study of the studies,” pulling together common themes from more than a dozen reports on the facility drafted since 2002.

But Mayor Justin Wilson (D) pointed in particular to a city-run survey of Alexandria residents, which found that many do not visit the Torpedo Factory and want more family-friendly installations in addition to the galleries and studios.

“Having increased visitation, bringing more people to the art, supporting the artists that are there is a goal,” he said. “To the extent there are things we can do to attract more people there to support the artists is a good thing.”

The future of the space has also collided with the realities of real estate and infrastructure. As Alexandria’s waterfront has transformed and the building gets older, utility costs and property values have only gone up: An estimated $13 million is needed over the next decade to keep the building running.

‘Killing the goose that lays the golden egg’

It is amid that backdrop that the City Council asked for specific ideas to re-envision what the building should look like and how it should run.

“This is a bunch of private businesses inside a taxpayer-owned and funded facility,” Wilson said. “We have a reasonable expectation that this facility is going to help us achieve the goals of the taxpayers.”

One concept drafted by SmithGroup would keep the facility more or less as is, with incremental improvements each year funded through the city’s capital budget. Another would replace artist studios on the first floor with a restaurant and interactive installations, such as a glass-blowing studio, meant to provide a steady source of revenue. A third option would bring in a developer to make structural changes and lease out added space to the city.

Alexandria officials have not released a breakdown of what those formulas would look like. Ruggiero noted that any changes would not be implemented until 2025 at the earliest.

Still, the second option in particular has drawn strong opposition from many artists — including Gray, who drafted the petition. He noted that it would displace him as well as about a third of all other artists.

“I like it here. I get a lot of good reception,” he said. “People respond well to my work. I don’t see why I should have to move somewhere else because I’m in the way of what they think is best.”

He acknowledged that the city is not out of line in pushing for some changes. Some artists, he noted, do not work in their studios as often as they are required to — even though that requirement has been suspended during the pandemic — and the artists do skew older and Whiter, he said.

But he said that the onus was on the city to bring in artists from other mediums or backgrounds — and that eliminating rent entirely would be the most straightforward way to make that happen.

Beyond that, however, some other artists say the city’s approach makes little sense and underscores a lack of respect for the artists. They point out that there are plenty of restaurants a few yards away on King Street, with some outdoor seating even abutting the back of the building.

“It’s like killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” said Charlene Nield, an acrylic artist whose third-floor studio overlooks the ferry terminal. “People come here because of the unique experience. This whole idea of remodeling and redoing the Torpedo Factory is not something that tourists or residents want.”

Other measures in recent months have also irked her and her some of peers on the third floor: The city turned one empty studio into a coronavirus vaccination clinic, which brought noise from children receiving their shots.

And when it took over managing leases from the art board, the city also took over the jurying process to pick newcomers for open studio space, leading to criticisms from some that diversity was being prioritized over a truly blind contest.

Before the pandemic, Nield noted, the Torpedo Factory was drawing in more than half a million people every year.

“If you took the artists out of here,” she asked, “why would people come?”