Torpedo Factory Art Center a Ghost Town, Artists Haunted by Rent Payments

Update 10:40 p.m. — City Spokesperson Craig Fifer noted that the city has offered deferred payment of certain businesses taxes until June 30 and offered 12-month payment plans after that, which is the same offer available to the artists. Fifer also said that rent is paid to the city because the city owns and manages the building, with management resumed in 2016. 

Artists can still access their studios and derive value from having a place to work, make online sales, and store their supplies and art.  Because some artists derive more income from walk-in sales than others, it would not make sense to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to studio rent. We notified each of our 119 leaseholders on March 31 that they could request rent relief with just a simple email, and only eight so far have done so.

Fifer also noted that the 35% reduction in rent at Workhouse brings it close to the Torpedo Factory — about $21 and $16 per square foot, respectively — with no deferral or payment plan options.

Earlier: With the Torpedo Factory Art Center closed to the public, local artists are left not only figuring out how to pay their bills but how to maintain rent at an art space they can’t access.

“I’m one of the people who closed,” said Estelle Vernon, a jeweler who worked in a four-person studio for a number of years. “All four of us are high risk. My studio closed as of 13th or 14th of March. I pulled out my things there. I did have to go back over a week later when I realized all the bills are there and then had to pay them.”

Vernon said her business has come to a halt, and she isn’t alone. Several artists said their primary income — showing art at galleries and at the Torpedo Factory — has come to a standstill.

“It’s affecting us all terribly,” Vernon said. “All of our shows are canceled. It’s put a lot of us out of business unless you really have a strong presence online.”

While some at the Torpedo Factory work there as a passion after retiring from other careers, for many artists their art is a primary income.

“I don’t do a lot of shows because the Torpedo Factory affords me an audience,” said ceramic artist Lori Katz. “Right now, I am completely without income and I expect to be without income for many months as the Torpedo Factory is closed down. I have shows that were scheduled for spring which are canceled and two art fairs that are canceled. I have work in two gallery shows — which are up but nobody can see them. I’m probably no different than anyone at the Torpedo Factory, but this is how I make a living.”

Vernon’s online presence  is functional, but by her own admission lacks some of the usual online bells and whistles. There’s no online shop, so customers still have to contact her for purchases. Katz said she’s been paying more attention to her Instagram account and her website now, hoping art patrons will adapt to that as quickly as the artists.

Meanwhile, artists at the Torpedo Factory are still being charged rent for their spaces. Artists at the facility do have the option of letting the director of the center know that they can’t pay their rent, in which case fines will be waived and a payment schedule will be set up. Katz said that’s some help, but like the city government, many artists said they’re expecting substantial income decreases over the next year that will make paying rent back from the pandemic months impossible.

“We are still being charged rent,” Katz said. “I personally have contacted Mayor Justin Wilson asking that we get some sort of rent release. The Workhouse Art Center in Lorton has given artists a 35% discount on rent. It’s something… The city owns the building and is talking about giving rent breaks to residents and small businesses, but they’re our landlord so it would be nice if they extended a break to us.”

It’s hard not to see some lingering resentments from the city’s acquisition of the Torpedo Factory in 2016, a move that sat uneasily with many of the center’s artists at the time.

“[The city] emails to remind me that I need to continue to pay my rent which is [two-thirds] of my social security check. Good that the check comes in the 26 of each month,” Marsha Staiger, an artist at the Torpedo Factory, wrote to ALXnow. “Rent is due on the first of the month. I pay directly to the city because they do not consider the [Torpedo Factory Artists Association] a proper association. Even though for 43 years built and managed the Torpedo Factory in too many capacities to name here. I could ask to not pay my rent and would be allowed not to pay NOW but would be expected to pay in scheduled amounts the total after June 10.”

Vernon said the writing was on the wall early on in the pandemic, with both at-risk artists and the community vacating the building before the stay at home order came down the pipeline.

“When I went in to get my tools, it was a ghost town,” Vernon said. “I’m guessing if someone is going in and working, either they’re not taking it seriously or they’re not in a category that is higher risk or living with people who are higher risk.”

“My last day at the factory when the COVID-19 alarm was already rung, there were not too many people and I was painting,” said Staiger. “Two ladies came in and as we talked, I found out about their lives as they found out about mine. This exchange is how the last 25 years have been in my studio.”

Greg Knott, a former TFAA board member, said that kind of personal interaction can’t be replicated online for Torpedo Factory artists.

“The Torpedo Factory isn’t known for its killer sales, but it was great for comradery,” Knott said. “The best thing about it was the artist community. It was able to say, ‘I’m having trouble doing this,’ and getting advice. It was artists helping artists, but it was so organic.”

Meanwhile, many artists said they’re continuing to work at home.

Ann Pickett, a Torpedo Factory artist, said there are several things locals can do to help artists through the pandemic.

  • Most obvious is to purchase art or commission work.
  • Shop locally first. With all this time in-home, you may be making plans to redecorate or purchase a new home, add an outdoor living space or a new garden, all offer opportunities for new art, think about local artists before jumping online to shop.
  • Share our work on social media. Follow local artists, visit their websites or instagram and share their work on social media

Vernon, who previously worked as a clinical audiologist at the National Institute of Health, warned that the situation likely won’t be fully safe for at-risk artists until there’s an effective vaccine.

“The big thing is people need to listen and take this seriously,” Vernon said. “You’re not doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for everybody else.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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