Arts Desk

Artispheric Ambitions: Did Arlington’s New Resident Arts Center Expect Too Much?

Tempting Fête: Many cool kids were at an opening party, but Artisphere has struggled with attendance.

When Artisphere opened in October, it was supposed to be a Kennedy Center for young people. And the night before it officially opened, at a boozy art party staged by Brightest Young Things and the Pink Line Project, you almost could’ve sworn that’s what it was: More than 1,000 people filled the new Rosslyn arts center, which brimmed with skateboarder films, balloon art, hip DJs, and, of course, free PBR. This was exactly how the project’s architects wanted to get it off the ground: Artisphere wasn’t just for consuming art. It was for hanging out.

But eight months later, as Artisphere approaches the end of its fiscal year, the resident arts center doesn’t look quite as magnetic as its administrators first expected.

It’s only attracted 48,169* visitors since October, well short of the 250,000 initially projected by Arlington Cultural Affairs, the agency that oversees Artisphere. And by the end of June it looks like it will only have brought in $174,202 in revenue from ticket sales and rental fees—less than a quarter of the initially expected $789,912.Compare those numbers to what Arlington is spending on the place. Artisphere—which occupies the space that once housed the Newseum—cost $6.7 million to renovate, and it has an annual operating budget of $3 million. Even with grants from the Rosslyn Business Improvement District and a cushy rent-free arrangement with the property owner, taxpayers are picking up a large chunk of Artisphere’s tab.

And so the county is taking a hard look at its investment. As first reported by ARLNow.com, by the end of this summer Artisphere’s staff and county officials will have crafted a revamped business plan they say they’ll implement immediately. Marketing and Communications Director Annalisa Meyer calls it a “course correct.” “You open the doors, and you love for everything to be sold out,” says Meyer. But “it takes time to develop audience. There’s been a longer-than-anticipated period to get to that point.”

Certainly, Artisphere’s programming has been diverse. It has also been fairly interesting. Its galleries have featured art inspired by skateboarding, comic books, and the darker, gorier recesses of photographer Victoria Gaitán’s imagination. The center has become a home for the area’s salsa and zydeco scenes. New Media Curator Ryan Holladay has brought in a slew of left-field music events, like this month’s experimental Queering Sound Festival. Its theaters have hosted repertory film series. And Artisphere has several resident companies: the avant-garde-minded Washington Shakespeare Company; UrbanArias, which stages new opera works; and the classical National Chamber Ensemble. In short, there’s been no lack of stuff to do at Artisphere, but much of that programming has had a niche appeal at best.

So is Artisphere too indie? Surprisingly, its organizers say no.

The idea for Artisphere has been in Arlington County’s pipeline for nearly a decade. The county’s cultural affairs department has a history of nurturing arts groups through what it calls the “arts incubator” model: helping organizations build audiences by offering them affordable, sometimes free, spaces for finite periods. A good example is Signature Theatre, which was founded in 1990 and for a time operated from a renovated auto garage. Now it has a handsome Shirlington location and is considered by Arlington Cultural Affairs to be one of the neighborhood’s economic drivers.

“Well-played arts activities can help make a place really vibrant,” says Arlington County Councilmember Mary Hynes. “That’s why we took the leap with Artisphere. It looked like a combination of fees and other kinds of rental income, plus the money the county was already spending on the arts, could come together and create this place.”

It’s now apparent that the county miscalculated. “What we’ve learned since [Artisphere] opened in October is that those were very optimistic projections of what fees, rentals, and revenues would do,” Hynes says.

The project was born of a partnership between Arlington County and the Rosslyn BID with an assist from landlord Monday Properties. This theoretically lent it a degree of stability—enough of one, anyway, that the initial business plan called for Artisphere to become a non-profit after three years.But a number of factors kept Artisphere from becoming the catalyst for culture its makers envisioned.

The heaviest hit was the lack of the Andy Shallal touch. The restaurateur was originally on board to open a Busboys & Poets location within Artisphere—a sure crowd-draw, maybe, because of the small chain’s wide-appealing creative-class vibe.But the deal fell through—Shallal wanted a street entrance to the restaurant that would’ve been impossible because of Artisphere’s layout—and the arts center was restaurantless on opening day. Until April, when HERE, a café operated by local restaurant group Barroso, opened, Artisphere wasn’t collecting rent on its restaurant space.

Jon Palmer Claridge, who co-created Arlington County’s “arts incubator” model and drafted Artisphere’s business plan, says that loss was critical. “I can believe that the original business plan was sound, but it was based on the idea of Artisphere becoming the third place”—an urban-planning concept describing spaces where people spend time other than home and the workplace—“and that was contingent upon Busboys & Poets being an anchor....Artisphere as it was conceived, at least in my mind, has never existed.”

Claridge was slated to become the center’s executive director, but for reasons he says had nothing to do with Artisphere, he took an early-retirement offer from the county in March 2010.

Artisphere faced other setbacks, too. The county rushed to open the center on the presumably cool date of Oct. 10—10/10/10!—likely because it didn’t want to waste a single minute of its sweet lease (Artisphere doesn’t have to pay rent for 15 years). But as a result, key personnel weren’t working until after Artisphere’s opening date—Meyer started in November and Executive Director José Ortiz came on board in January. The center didn’t have a dedicated website or a consistent online ticketing system until January. Looking at the evidence, the high expectations seem foolish. Though the county cites a history of redevelopment and revitalization centered around off-beat arts centers—Signature in Shirlington and the Arlington Arts Center near the Virginia Square Metrorail stop—it seems far-fetched that the avant-garde-ish Artisphere could have breathed life into Rosslyn, an area that is largely commercial.

Putting aside Artisphere’s operational missteps, the county seems to have realized its revenue and attendance projections were overambitious. “What we see with Artisphere is more indicative of the fact that any kind of arts or cultural center is going to have a different kind of patronage than Pottery Barn or Barnes and Noble,” says Karen Vasquez, a representative of the county’s economic development department who serves on the task force rewriting Artisphere’s business plan. “Those are the generally accessible, easy kind of places, but a cultural center occupies a different niche, and maybe a smaller niche in terms of patronage.”

In many ways, Artisphere is an experiment in urbanism. Arlington Cultural Affairs envisioned it as a venue where patrons could bounce from restaurant to art gallery to movie theater. It was supposed to be Rosslyn’s third place.

“Third places” are the bars, cafés, restaurants, parks, bookstores, and venues that make neighborhoods more desirable. They’re places to hang out; you can socialize in a third place, or you can be alone. They contain an element of surprise: No matter how well you might know your preferred haunt, you can’t always control what will come of your time there. In urban-planning speak, they’re also appealing because they’re not rigidly defined. They satisfy a desire to occupy a space that doesn’t come with obligations. They don’t demand your presence; you choose to be there. In Arlington’s view, Rosslyn could use a third place—a spot for creative types to park themselves in their free time.

Artisphere’s caretakers say they hope not to make programming changes when they overhaul the venue’s plan this summer. They say ticket sales have increased month over month by an average of 27 percent, and that attendance is on a steady rise. And more people may be making Rosslyn their home soon. In the next few years, Monday Properties and JBG Properties are slated to build several apartment residences with ground-floor retail.

Arlington won’t share details of the in-progress business plan, but Vasquez says the task force is committed to preserving Artisphere’s original mission of injecting Rosslyn with more culture. On the table: improving signage and way-finding, and increasing corporate rentals. They’ll scale back their expectations. And they’ll wait for more people to move to the area. In the meantime, what that means for Artisphere’s hefty operating budget is unclear.

Still, Artisphere is only eight months old. Like any start-up, it needs time to grow. Christopher Henley, artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Company, says the company is happy with its residence at Artisphere. He’s been happy with attendance at his company’s productions, but even he urges patience. “There’s so much potential in this space that I can’t but believe it can be made to work if people are smart about it and stick to its mission and give it a little time to work and not expect miracles overnight,” he says. “The upside is incalculable.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

*Updated information from Artisphere, current as of June 17, 2011, counts the total number of visitors to the center since October 2010 as 73,300.

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  • rl

    Who the hell wants to hang out in the suburbs? You build studios where the artists are. You can't force it, and when you try you fail.

  • DL

    The programming is interesting and diverse and with that I think they've succeeded. We don't need any more staid institutions with high-brow programming for the suits. But the location is terrible. There's no street life, no street parking etc to create a milieu that might get people to casually walk in the door. Rather it is a destination and one needs to know the schedule and make plans to visit.

  • MB

    Don't be an idiot, RL. The Artisphere is closer to downtown than H Street, Cleveland Park, or most of what I'm thinking you would call Not the Burbs.

  • RN

    Location is definitely one of the issues with Artisphere. I've been there several times and its the type of place that you know you are specifically going there. It is so not a "lets go hang out in Rosslyn". MB - Artisphere is not at all close to down town. It isnt in the city, therefore, it is the burbs....

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