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Artists and city leaders express hopes and fears for Torpedo Factory future

The underlying idea behind last night’s (Monday) Agenda Alexandria discussion about the Torpedo Factory Art Center is that everyone involved wants the best for the facility. However, there are very divergent ideas about whether stagnation or change will kill the beloved Old Town art facility.

The panel discussion followed months of back-and-forth between city officials and artists over a suite of potential changes to the Torpedo Factory.

Diane Ruggiero, director of the Office of the Arts, and Stephanie Landrum, CEO and President of Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said the city’s goals are to revitalize the Torpedo Factory by adding new uses to the building that can help make it more financially viable. Landrum and Ruggiero also said they’re working at tying it in more closely with an in-development “arts district” planned for much of North Old Town.

“The Torpedo Factory is a catalyst and I don’t think anyone disagrees with that,” Landrum said. “The conversations we’re having are on how to make sure that continues forward and making sure the physical building that the city owns isn’t prohibiting that type of growth… For this building, we want it to be more vivid and vibrant — to build on the strength of Old Town and the experience.”

Landrum said the plans focus on making the building more accessible and orienting it toward more community interests.

“Discussions are about making the building more accessible and orienting it for the larger community, which has changed,” Landrum said. “We want to make sure people aren’t coming and hanging out at waterfront park or the restaurants and not coming to the Torpedo Factory because they don’t know what’s in there. It’s complicated, but I think everyone’s intent is aligned.”

For the artists, though, there’s a concern that trying to “fix” the Torpedo Factory could be what breaks it.

“My main concern is that I don’t want to lose what the focus of the Torpedo Factory is: open studios with working artists,” said Lisa Schumaier, an artist living in Del Ray. “It’s not looking at a fully formed building, it’s enjoying the craziness of a construction site, it’s that kind of a thing. There’s so much going on in the building that you can come in and see something started, a week or two later it’s in the middle, and a couple of months down the road it’s finished. I think that’s way more interesting to people than a gallery.”

Schumaier said proposals, like putting galleries into the first floor that showcase finished art, shows that city leaders driving the conversation sometimes misunderstand the fundamental appeal of the Torpedo Factory.

Torpedo Factory Art Center founder Marian Van Landingham said that some city discussion of financial viability of the project assumed a more expensive overhaul to the building than what she thinks it needs.

“When you’re talking about renovating the building and how much it will cost, to some degree there are things you think need to be done that don’t need to be done,” Landingham said. “This antique building, this very historic building by its age, and is perfect for the kind of use we put for it.”

There are repairs, like fixing up the restrooms, that Landingham said can be done without closing the art center for two years as is currently called for in city plans. Landrum and Ruggiero said that plans currently in development could see artists relocated to nearby artist gallery spaces being created. Landrum said through development the city is looking at tripling the total number of art spaces across North Old Town, all of which could help house artists if the artists are relocated during renovation.

Landingham argued that such a dispersal could kill the Torpedo Factory.

“I think the worst thing that could happen would be to disperse the artists for two years,” Landingham said. “A lot of them would never come back. It would never recover.”

That dispersal already happened in 1983, Landingham said, and while the Torpedo Factory did recover she said one of the main differences there were that half the artists could stay in the building as it was being renovated and the other half went to a former school building on Fort Hunt Road. But many of those that left never came back, Landingham said.

“If all the artists leave and you don’t have a continuum, you will kill the art center,” Landingham said, “and that may be the purpose for people who want it for real estate purposes.”

In December, the City Council voted to approve a series of guidelines for Torpedo Factory planning, and Ruggiero said her office is currently planning an involved public outreach process that will talk to various stakeholder groups throughout the city to discuss what they hope to see from the Torpedo Factory in the future.

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