When the arts complex Artisphere opened in 2010, it was envisioned as the savior of culture-starved Rosslyn, a dream space for emerging artists and a millennial-friendly hangout in the Concrete Canyon.
“I coined the line that we were proof that there was ‘life after 5’ in Rosslyn,” former Artisphere director Jose Ortiz said.
But after five years and more than $15 million in county funds, Artisphere is on life support. Arlington County is expected to vote to close the complex when it adopts its 2016 budget next week. County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended the closure, saying it would save the county about $2.5 million a year out of the proposed $1.156 billion budget. Artisphere’s last day would be June 30.
“It’s a business decision, to make sure that we are investing our money as wisely as we can,” Donnellan said.
But critics question the move, saying county officials were foolish to think that an arts venture could ever be self-sufficient. They say unrealistic expectations — for attendance and revenue — hurt the project, as did an unfocused artistic vision. Finally, they say Artisphere’s problematic location requires more time and better management to build an audience.
“Very few cultural centers are self-sustaining. Would the National Gallery close? Or libraries? It just seems ludicrous,” said Janet Kopenhaver, chair of the Arlington Commission for the Arts, who started a petition to keep the space open. “This is a benefit for our community. We deserve a vibrant arts community.”
The decision to close is costly. County officials must give Monday Properties a year’s notice to break a long-term lease. They estimate spending $1.3 million in 2016 to manage the shuttered facility. And although a last-minute plan by the leader of a local tech company, Modev, to take over the space has gained community support, it’s too short on details for officials to consider.
“I think [Artisphere] was doomed from the start in that it was looked at not as an investment in cultural activity and in revitalizing the nightlife of the area, but . . . as something that needed to make ends meet,” said Christopher Henley, artistic director emeritus of the Washington Shakespeare Company (now called WSC Avant Bard), Artisphere’s theater-in-residence for two seasons. “That made it a really difficult bar to beat.”
Artisphere opened in October 2010 after a $6.7 million, county-funded renovation of the space once occupied by the Newseum. The project was seen as a way to replace and consolidate other Arlington cultural venues, including the Ellipse, a former visual arts center in Ballston, and the Clark Street Playhouse, which was dismantled to make way for an office building. In 2010, The Washington Post described Artisphere as a “cultural potpourri,” hosting a number of high-profile exhibitions, including a traveling show of Frida Kahlo’s personal photographs, sound-art exhibition Fermata and Andy Warhol’s “Silver Clouds.”
“We were able to give artists, basically, sort of a dream space,” Artisphere visual arts curator Cynthia Connolly said. “It’s a lot of room to really show off who they are at that level of their career.”
All of this programming was designed to appeal to a younger demographic, Norma Kaplan, then head of the county’s cultural affairs division, told The Post in 2010. “They want to be participants, not be passive, and they want a place to go,” she said. “We’ll be open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. People can come and hang out without much planning.”
But Kaplan’s vision for Rosslyn’s cultural future may have been too rosy. In pitching the center to the county, Kaplan and a team of consultants painted what some say was an unrealistic picture of the arts center’s potential: Initial projections called for 300,000 visitors its first year, a figure that’s comparable to attendance at the smaller museums on the Mall. Instead, Artisphere attracted 90,000 visitors in its first 12 months.
“All of those numbers were so completely false,” said an employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Artisphere staff members have been prohibited from talking to the media. “[Kaplan] really promised Artisphere as all things to all people, which is really a recipe for disaster.”
Ortiz, the former Artisphere director who now is deputy director of the Bronx Museum, agreed that the center was in a tight spot from the beginning.
“One of the things I think was a problem with Artisphere was that everyone had different expectations of what it should look like, or what it should be like, or perform like,” he said.
Kaplan, who left Artisphere in its first year for an arts-management job in New Jersey, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
County officials also put pressure on Artisphere to become financially self-sufficient — a tall order for even the most bustling of arts centers.
“They were looking at it as a different model,” Ortiz said. “It’s not a model that I’m familiar with.”
In November 2011, a year after opening, Artisphere retooled its business plan, beefing up rental business at the expense of the arts, slashing hours and hosting fewer programs. The number of events declined from a high of 490 in Artisphere’s second year to 141 in 2014, according to annual reports. Ticket revenue took only a slight hit, while rental and catering income rose 50 percent, to nearly $700,000 last year. But it was unlikely to grow significantly more, as Artisphere seems to have maxed out its capacity for rental events, having hosted 250 in each of the past two years.
Artisphere’s fundraising arm, the Arlington Foundation for Arts and Innovation, is another question mark. The foundation was started by Rosslyn Business Improvement District board Chair Peter Greenwald, who is the senior adviser of Penzance, an investment company that is redeveloping a prominent tract on Wilson Boulevard. The foundation received its nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax designation in May 2013, but its 2014 annual report listed no officers or board members. Funds raised through personal donations, such as a texting campaign, will be used “on behalf on the arts and innovation within the county” if Artisphere closes, Greenwald said. But he said he could not remember how much money the organization has.
Finances aside, critics said Artisphere’s programming lacked focus, something that a county task force studying the center acknowledged in 2011: “Originally billed as an ‘Arts Space for Everyone,’ the Artisphere strove to be free from the constraints of a singular vision, performance type or audience. However, the unintended consequence of the individual interpretations that arose from such branding has been confusion over what exactly Artisphere is supposed to be, and for whom,” the report said.
There also were many variables outside organizers’ control.
The building, to start with, has its flaws. It is huge — 62,000 square feet — so meeting the basic operating needs of heat, air conditioning and electricity has cost the county $1 million a year. Because of sound bleed between rooms, Artisphere hasn’t been able to host simultaneous events in the black box theater and in the ballroom, and that has curtailed both lucrative rentals and ticketed shows.
“The building is such that it had its own limitations in what it could generate,” said Donnellan, the county manager. “I don’t know if it could have done better.”
Then there is the location: Artisphere is only blocks from the Rosslyn Metro and is supported by adequate signage, but there is little in the neighborhood to encourage people to stick around after work. Artisphere tried to attract restaurant tenants, but a deal with Busboys and Poets fell through and a Latin-inspired restaurant, Here, closed after seven months.
“There was no street access; it was invisible,” Ortiz said of Here, which was on the second floor. “I think a combination of all of those things resulted in it not being successful.”
As its rental business grew, Artisphere dismissed its theater-in-residence — WSC Avant Bard, then known as the Washington Shakespeare Company — when its needs conflicted with those of rental clients. Henley, the group’s artistic director emeritus, said that he tried to compromise with the center but that officials were unyielding.
“I’m still really bitter about the way they handled it with us. They really drop-kicked us and really gave us no soft landing,” he said. “They kicked us out halfway through the season.”
Artisphere spokesman Barry Halvorson declined to comment for this story.
Musician Chad Clark, whose band Beauty Pill participated in a 2011 residency at Artisphere and will perform there April 30 through May 2, said he feels protective of the cultural center. He thinks Artisphere could have succeeded with a longer runway and more support from the county.
“You try to do this very high-end, innovative artistic experiment in Rosslyn, of all places, and you have to give it time,” he said.
But more time and money may have never resulted in the place-making effect that officials envisioned for Rosslyn and Artisphere. Jayme McLellan, director of the D.C. commercial art gallery Civilian Art Projects, said the arts space seemed disconnected and could have taken cues from revenue-generating models at arts organizations across the country.
“I think the expectation was that if you build it, they will come,” said McLellan, who served as a juror for Artisphere’s first-year exhibitions. “You have to make them come. You have to get strategic about how they come, and what they’ll do when they’re there.”
There may be a future for Artisphere, but in a different sector: Modev chief executive Pete Erickson sees the space as a perfect incubator for tech innovation.
“A lot of what tech events are is knowledge-sharing and connection with thought leaders, and these are great venues for that,” said Erickson, who has rented space in Artisphere for 10 events. He said the building is “very conducive to collaboration and networking.”
Though some local bloggers have latched onto Erickson’s plan as a way to “save” Artisphere, his idea would only keep the building active. Artisphere’s staff members and programming would still be terminated, and although Erickson pledges that arts programming would be part of his plan, there’s no guarantee.
“The arts are a big part of technology,” he said. “How that all plays together . . . that remains to be seen.”
Peggy McGlone contributed to this report.