Artisphere Turns Two, But It Hasn’t Matured Just Yet
Arlington’s Artisphere turns two this weekend. But is it a happy birthday?
Despite critical acclaim for some of the art center's programming, it’s still difficult to determine how sustainable Artisphere's model is. Nearly a year after amending its business plan, Arlington taxpayers may be on the hook for a projected $2.3 million deficit.
Executive Director Jose Ortiz says he is proud of Artisphere's “incredibly diverse programming." But his team is still struggling to attract consistent turnout and break even, let alone make a profit. That's despite a generally favorable public perception of Artisphere: Readers of the Washington Post Express named Artisphere “best arts center” in 2011, and City Paper readers named it "best new venue" that same year. Ortiz and program director Josh Stoltzfus—who stepped up in August after the previous program director left after only six months—are both confident that with time they can turn things around.
Under its revamped business plan, Artisphere closed its doors to the public Mondays and Tuesdays, and aimed to boost attendance, private rentals, and family programs. Its lack of an in-house restaurant was supposed to be mitigated by hiring caterers for public programs. (Its former in-house dining room, HERE, decided not to renew its contract with Artisphere in November.) But judging from Artisphere's public calendar, programming is light through the end of the year. There are only two ticketed music events scheduled for October. Private rentals, too, are below expectations, according to third-quarter statistics it released to the City Paper.
When I asked Ortiz whether concert-booking options were now limited for financial reasons, he said that he’s comfortable with Artisphere’s budget. “Everyone wants more money but our budget allows us to program for the hours we are open," he says. What about competition from new venues, like The Hamilton and Howard Theatre? “I think there’s enough talent out there to fill all of these place and then some,” he says.
Ortiz and Stolzfus both express pride in the June 2011 residency by local indie-rock group Beauty Pill. The two Chickfactor-curated shows in April of this year were a success, too, drawing a large and relatively unwrinkled crowd. Yet, no rock bands are scheduled to play the venue this fall, and it's weak on programming for a young demo. Stolzfus, who previously worked at Wolf Trap and the highly regarded Columbia Festival of the Arts, says Artisphere strives to target “different demographics—both in terms of age and culturally as well.” (Adding the Maracuyeah Collective DJs to Saturday night's bill is a step in the right direction.)
Visual arts seems to have the most consistent presence at Artisphere. Its massively popular Frida Kahlo exhibit, on view between February and March this year, was a boon, drawing more than 13,000 attendees, most of them new to the venue. But its ongoing exhibit, the Cynthia Connolly-curated “Beyond the Parking Lot," doesn't have the same star power—Ortiz says that it's attracting mostly knowledgeable art followers.
With its hours, location, and funding, Artisphere doesn't aspire to compete with the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. It's not making a go at the nightclub crowd, either. But the Frida Kahlo exhibit showed that people are perfectly happy to go Rosslyn—corporate-flavored though it may be—if there's something there to entice them. The big hurdle for Artisphere continues to be programming that captures new audiences, retains existing ones, and quiets Arlington taxpayers concerned about the bottom line.