Arts Desk

Arlington’s Plan to Save Artisphere: Rent It Out

It's been a rough week for Artisphere.

Yesterday, Washington Business Journal reported that HERE Café, the arts center's restaurant, wouldn't be renewing its contract. Today, ARLNow has the details of a revised business plan that will be presented to the Arlington County Board this afternoon; it "will suggest slashing Artisphere’s hours, shuttering its restaurant and retail store, and generating more revenue via corporate event rentals." The need for a new business plan—or, as Artisphere's spokesperson Annalisa Meyer called it, a "course correct"—was established back in June, when Artisphere's attendance numbers weren't quite what its staff, or Arlington County, had projected.

But the course correct won't be a panacea. Per ARLNow:

Even if the plan is implemented, however, the task force expects Artisphere to burn through more than $2.3 million in taxpayer funds in financial year 2012 and another $1.6 million in financial year 2013. If the new plan is shelved, Artisphere will require nearly $2.7 million in taxpayer support in FY 2012, the task force said. The one-year-old venue’s original business plan projected only $739,975 in county taxpayer support in FY 2012.

I've been a booster of Artisphere in the past. I think its mission of being a third place—not just an arts and cultural center—is a noble one. If Artisphere were capturing foot traffic (and in particular, the foot traffic of those young, creative types), that'd be a great thing for Wilson Boulevard, which is otherwise a dead zone of corporate infrastructure.

But that's the problem. It doesn't matter that Artisphere is two blocks from the Metro, or offers free parking, or has a Capital Bikeshare station nearby. It doesn't matter that there's wi-fi and places to set up shop with a laptop. I'd even go so far as to say that it doesn't really matter that the programming isn't as populist as the National Museum of American History (ARLNow's commenters seem to be particularly offended by an exhibit dedicated to hand-crafted harmonicas). People go to Rosslyn to work, not to hang out. One year of Artisphere wasn't likely to, and clearly hasn't, challenged that status quo.

The new business plan undermines quite a bit of the third-place atmosphere that Artisphere has attempted to create. Hours would be slashed from seven days and 85 hours a week to five days and 40 hours a week. A resident caterer would replace the restaurant, and would only serve food during scheduled performances and privately booked gigs. And Artisphere would devote resources to improving its event-rental business.

Arlington County seems doggedly committed to proving their investment worthwhile regardless of its form (nowhere has there been mention of shuttering Artisphere); the above suggestions are obviously devised with the intent of making money. If Artisphere can't get the casual foot traffic it needs to be a successful public arts-and-culture-and-drop-in-and-hang-out space, why shouldn't it become, essentially, a party-planning business?

Wilson Boulevard is full of office buildings. What's another one?

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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