Alexandria’s decision this week to temporarily take over operation of the Torpedo Factory Art Center is intended to keep the artists in their studios while others figure out how to simplify the fractured management structure of the nationally renowned cultural attraction.
While the Northern Virginia art center’s 500,000 annual visitors should see little changes in how it operates, the city’s action provides assurance and stability to the artists and organizations who sublease space there.
“We want discussion about the future governing structure to continue. We are not predetermining it in any way,” said Deputy City Manager Emily Baker.
She said that the city, which owns the riverfront property in Old Town, is not trying to seize permanent control of the arts center.
“We recognize there needs to be some simplification of the structure to make it more effective, and we want to calm the fears of artists,” she added.
Artists and art patrons have been expressing concern about the future of the center since a consultant’s report in January excoriated how the Torpedo Factory is organized. The report called the management structure dysfunctional, citing distrust among those involved and a lack of diversity among the artists. It also described the center as “continually hampered by disruptive politics about the distribution of power and authority.”
The criticism was mostly aimed at the Torpedo Factory Art Center Board, a five-year-old group whose members are appointed by the City Council. The board was the clear loser in the city takeover.
Each board member represents a specific constituency — such as business owners, artists, patrons and the community at large — and city officials say the board has been unable to make decisions because of those competing interests. It was created after an earlier consultant’s report advised that the center needed to be run by a nonprofit board instead of the artists’ coalition that had run it since the 1970s.
“There’s a lot of conflict going on right now on the board,” Baker said. “It’s a challenge for decisions to get made, for basic management to get done.”
City officials indicate that the current board will probably be dissolved when or before a new independent board — likely to consist of people with experience on nonprofit agency boards — is created. The consultant’s report advised that the members should not be appointed by the City Council. Instead, it outlined a multi-step process for the current board to appoint people who would recruit and establish an independent board.
Artists at the Torpedo Center, who were alarmed this winter about its fate and about losing control of their workplace, have had a muted response to the latest development. Don Viehman, president of the artists’ association, said it helped that City Manager Mark Jinks met one-on-one with the association’s leaders on Wednesday to explain the changes and had letters hand-delivered to all the studios Wednesday and Thursday.
The letters emphasized that the city values the artists and the center.
“The message that came to us is we want to work with you and figure out a plan that will make the Torpedo Factory work,” Viehman said. He called the takeover “all-in-all, a good thing.”
The art center board’s executive committee held an hours-long meeting Thursday to discuss the development. Its members did not return repeated calls for comment.
Patricia Washington, who is a member of the art center’s board but not its executive committee, said a “growing group of citizens” support new visions for the Torpedo Factory, some of which will be offered at a meeting Wednesday evening there.
The building that houses the arts center is a former naval munitions plant and federal warehouse that was turned into working art studios by artists in the 1970s.
The city leases the property for about $370,000 a year, plus utilities, to the art center board, which subleases space to the Art League, a nonprofit group that runs a school, gallery, art-supply store and programs; a small Bread & Chocolate cafe; and the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association.
The artists’ association also subleases studios and galleries to artists and groups of artists. The city’s archaeology museum is also housed in the Torpedo Factory, but it does not pay rent to the city.
To keep the center operating smoothly, the city extended its lease with the current center board until Sept. 30, when the city will formally take over its operation. The center’s chief executive, Eric Wallner, and facilities workers will become city employees July 1.
The subleases held by artists and organizations are set to expire this summer. Under the new arrangement, those leases will be extended for 36 months.
The working group that is trying to come up with a new management structure is expected to submit a recommendation to Jinks this year. Jinks’s recommendation will go to the City Council, which will make the final decision.
Until then, Baker said, Wallner and the five or six other center employees will report to Diane Ruggiero, director of the city’s arts office. Wallner and Ruggiero are members of the current Torpedo Factory Art Center Board.