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Torpedo Factory Art Center plans draw concern from resident artists

The Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town (staff photo by James Cullum)

City-approved plans for the future of the Torpedo Factory Art Center are drawing serious concern from resident artists.

The Torpedo Factory Artists Association (TFAA) says it’s hopeful the plan will work, but that the city’s vibrancy initiative threatens to reduce rental space available to artists.

TFAA President Cindy Lowther says that the effort to make the art center more vibrant could “could result in a significant reduction in rental space available to visual artists.”

“This would change the character of the Art Center and risk damaging its hard-earned reputation,” Lowther wrote in an opinion piece published today on the TFAA Facebook page.

An estimated half-million people visit the Torpedo Factory on Alexandria’s waterfront every year, according to the city. The art center is home to more than 150 artists working in 82 studios.

In 2021, City Council unanimously endorsed the Action Plan for Vibrancy & Sustainability at Torpedo Factory Art Center. Council also directed the creation of a city-led task force (which includes two artist members) to direct implementation of the plan over the next five-to-ten years. In February, the city put out an open call for artists and announced a new governance structure for the art center. The city also announced three-year lease agreements for new resident artists.

Lowther said lease agreements should be five years instead of three. She also said that public plans to celebrate the art center’s 50th anniversary next year should be presented.

“We also appreciate his (City Manager Jim Parajon) and Council’s desire to fund and orchestrate a 50th anniversary celebration for the Art Center in 2024,” she wrote. ” Concerningly though, no planning process for this has been announced yet. If this is a perfunctory exercise rather than a full out effort by our City, it will miss a wonderful opportunity to introduce the Art Center to new visitors and energize tourism and the economy in Old Town.”

Mayor Justin Wilson wrote in his August newsletter that the discussion over the Torpedo Factory has been exhausted.

“Candidly, the future of the Torpedo Factory has been studied to death,” Wilson wrote. “We have used the divisiveness of this issue as an excuse to avoid making a decision on its future. Unfortunately, inaction is a decision in and of itself.”

Alexandria assumed “caretaker leadership” of the Torpedo Factory seven years ago, and Wilson wrote that the diversity of arts and artists is a priority.

“Since that time, the City provided leases to the existing artist tenants, and has been providing day to day management,” he wrote. “I am pleased we are now making decisions and creating a sustainable structure for the governance of the Factory so that it can flourish in the future.”

Lowther said that more artists need to be involved in the art center’s direction.

“The TFAA agrees that we need a diverse group of artists and more creative programming to increase the vibrancy of the Art Center,” she wrote. “At the same time, unless the new governing entity involves the resident artists/business owners in decisions over such issues as a five-year lease and a specialized marketing plan to promote the Torpedo Factory Art Center, its future will remain in jeopardy.”

The city’s action plan for the art center focuses on these principles:

Re-establish the Art Center’s Identity for a 21st Century Audience

  • Curate a roster of public events/programs to evaluate initiatives of varied offerings to include community favorites, family friendly, media worthy, and new artistic media that promote the core role of the arts in human-wellness and creative expression, as well as championing lifelong learning.
  • Expand the artist studio program to better reflect contemporary best practices, diversity, and public interaction.
  • Expand role and impact of Target Gallery, the Art Center’s critically acclaimed contemporary art gallery the promote the core role of art in human wellness as expressed in Action 1 above.
  • Establish new Art Center attributes towards a refined identity, maintaining an independent and unique marketing strategy and tools within the larger City framework.

Curate the Building, with a Focus on the First Floor, for Improved Visitor Experience and Artist/Studio Program

  • Re-design and evaluate first floor as a space to be a more exciting, interactive, hands on, accessible, and ever-changing experience for visitors.
  • Re-design and evaluate third floor to afford better use of space for a greater audience, more programs, and income potential.
  • Re-design and evaluate building to create opportunities for diversity and increasing the Art Centers role in Waterfront Small Area Plan.

Establish Policies and Procedures that Identify the Art Center as a High Performing Organization and Rebuild the Art Center’s Role as a Leader in the Country

  • Develop a clear and compelling Mission and Vision for the future of the Art Center.
  • Update the Art Center’s policies, procedures, and standards, to fit external facing direction and be in line with a 21st century Art Center and allow for Art Center to operate as an entrepreneurial and fundraising organization to ensure vibrancy and sustainability within the larger City framework.
  • Plan for the next five – ten years.

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