In February, a friend and I went to a theatrical performance at Artisphere in Rosslyn, but we didn’t watch the actors. Instead, we watched their shadows against the hand-drawn elements that created a cinematic backdrop with the use of old-school overhead projection. The performance, Lula del Ray, was an original coming-of-age story that followed a young girl living in a trailer, isolated with her single mother.
When Lula packed her suitcase and ran away to the city to find the singing duo of her obsessed fandom, viewers followed the silhouetted drama across the interior of Artisphere’s planetarium-like dome, periodically returning to the choreography of the actors and musicians below. Written and performed by Chicago-based Manual Cinema, the story has no dialogue. In addition to the overhead projectors, the action unfolds before the audience via shadow puppetry, actors in silhouette, live music, and sound effects.
My friend and I were joined by Artisphere’s current (and now final) artist-in-residence Elsabé Dixon, whose “living environment” installation of silkworm cocoons and their detritus was just downstairs. At the end of Lula del Ray, the three of us sat slack-jawed, barely able to utter an intelligent appraisal other than “amazing.” Each of its members is under 30, but Manual Cinema has already received awards from around the world, even performing to standing ovations at a festival in Tehran. We were able to see the company for $20 in Arlington.
The Lula del Ray performances sold out, as many recent Artisphere events have. My first experience watching a performance at Artisphere was a Halloween screening of the 1922 silent film classic Nosferatu, projected above a live band playing jazz, classical, klezmer, and tango in Artisphere’s Dome Theatre. Again, the house was packed.
The exhibitions in Artisphere’s gallery space have presented curatorial concepts that are cutting-edge and intellectually engaging yet accessible to a wide audience, featuring new processes by artists from around the world. Last summer’s ambitious “Fermata” series felt right at home in the recent surge of interest in (and attention to) sound art installation. More recently, “Think with Your Hands,” an app-based collaboration between artists and software developers that brought flat images to animated life, attracted grade school field trips populated by legions of new gallery-goers ready with their iPads. These have been among the best exhibitions in an area that’s surprisingly short on contemporary art venues.
At Lula del Ray, the audience’s palpable excitement about the performance contrasted sharply with the dark cloud hanging over Artisphere. In December, Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended that the county close the center; its fate was finally sealed in April. When the current fiscal year ends on June 30, so will Artisphere.
What went wrong? If Artisphere had been judged on the quality of its programming, the enthusiasm of its attending audiences, and its steadily growing numbers, it would be here to stay. But in her closure announcement, Donnellan focused on Artisphere’s current and future dependence on taxpayer support. “In the current fiscal environment,” she said, “I cannot advise we continue.” Artisphere had not met the county’s financial or attendance goals, and that came with a consequence: the withdrawal of the funds taxpayers contribute to the venue’s operation. Donnellan did not plead poverty or say that Arlington was unable to fund Artisphere; instead, she emphasized that the venue was “money-losing.”
It’s not uncommon for a public cultural center, if it has become too much a financial burden for the local economy to bear, to be deemed an extraneous service and shut down. Still, Artisphere’s success was not measured by the visual and performing arts programming it has provided but by quantitative outcomes weighed against faulty and unrealistic projections. A publicly funded cultural center tasked with servicing the community should not be evaluated according to its revenue-generating abilities. Arlington County is treating Artisphere like an amusement park or corporate movie theater rather than the only accessible, common space of cultural identity in a large, diverse, resource-rich county.
Discussion of an arts center for Arlington County began under the tenure of former Cultural Affairs Director Norma Kaplan. The Cultural Affairs office works with county artists and organizations to help facilitate cultural offerings around Arlington, so centralizing its efforts into a single location made sense. When the Newseum relocated from Rosslyn to the District in 2008, the building owner, Monday Properties, leased the space to Arlington County rent-free. It seemed like a golden opportunity for the county: The cultural center would likely draw new businesses and residents to one of the area’s most uninteresting corners. Its potential to help revitalize Rosslyn (a sterile, concrete-and-glass wasteland) was an attractive element of the plan to the county and Rosslyn Business Improvement District from its inception.
“For years, the county has struggled unsuccessfully to find an appropriate replacement for the Newseum that would serve as a draw to Rosslyn, to enliven the street life, and to complement the next generation of Rosslyn development,” a board agenda from June 2009 stated. “The… space offers an extremely rare opportunity to meet several county objectives in a highly cost-effective manner.”
Arlington rushed to open Artisphere on the gimmicky date of 10/10/10, but did so without an executive director, communications director, website, or ticketing system.
Unfortunately, Rosslyn is still a soulless business district. If you drive there, you’re apt to get lost in its Byzantine layout. The county didn’t originally intend for Artisphere to single-handedly revitalize Rosslyn—it was part of a broader vision to enliven the area with new businesses and venues.
But when Rosslyn’s economy, particularly the real estate market, experienced a downturn, local development projects were delayed. On Wilson Boulevard, just a block from Artisphere, a large mixed-use residential and commercial construction project was slated to be finished in 2010, the same year Artisphere opened; it just recently broke ground. Even though Artisphere is the lone wolf in culturally depressed Rosslyn, the County Board expected its attendance numbers to arrive at or about 250,000 people in the first year. Donnellan now calls that goal “simply unattainable.” “In fact,” she says by email, “other more established cultural institutions in the region would have been hard-pressed to deliver that level of visitors.” She notes that the Shakespeare Theatre Company, a nationally recognized theater company with a yearly operating budget of about $17 million, attracts about 120,000 people a year.
Artisphere’s first-year attendance numbers fell short of the goal by about 75 percent. Still, 55,000 visitors in its first year—in a place like Rosslyn, at the height of the Great Recession—is pretty impressive. Given that a number of visual and performing art centers around the country folded during the economic downturn, the expectations demanded of Artisphere in attendance numbers, revenue, and Rosslyn revitalization were heady, indeed.
After realizing that the first-year goals went beyond all reasonable expectation, the county formed an advisory committee and took measures to boost Artisphere’s image and revenue, including a successful program to rent the facility to outside groups. And in the time since its rocky first two full years (2011 and 2012), Artisphere attendance has steadily increased, reporting 11 percent growth in its last full year. According to Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, Artisphere presents a unique challenge as both a visual and performing arts center. It’s a much more complicated program to manage than one or the other would be, especially with a small staff of 12 full-time and 20 part-time employees. Bell calls Artisphere’s initial attendance projections “unreasonable” but says its recent numbers—more than 71,000 visitors from summer 2013 to 2014—indicate promising growth for a still-new organization.
Unrealistic expectations and an out-of-the-way setting with no foot traffic would spell disaster for just about any public institution. A fickle budget that shifted from year to year stifled Artisphere’s ambitions and didn’t account for its problematic facility. In December, current County Board Chair Mary Hynes told the Washington Post that Artisphere had been placed in a building “not well-suited for an art center.”
“Artisphere has a number of really interesting spaces—the dome, the black box, the ballroom, the Bijou Theatre,” she told me recently. “[However,] it was impossible to run multiple simultaneous events because sounds from one event traveled and disrupted another.”
Facilities managers can’t close off spaces that aren’t in use, whether for a day or a month, leading to unnecessarily high climate control and lighting costs. From a design standpoint, the space visitors first encounter when entering Artisphere still looks and feels like an office lobby: Common areas between the galleries and performance spaces are cluttered with tables and chairs that serve no aesthetic and little functional purpose. And yet, given the skeletal facilities left behind by the Newseum, the county spent $6.7 million to renovate lighting, sound, and acoustic systems, replace 60,000 square feet of flooring, and build out new walls for art exhibition spaces.
So if Artisphere’s facility is rent-free and it receives millions a year from Arlington County, how did the project still go over budget?
In fiscal year 2014, the venue’s total operating budget comprised $2,381,347 from the county plus $1,259,206 in revenue, which includes an annual $300,000 donation from the Rosslyn BID. The county went over the $2.2 million allotted in its budget for Artisphere by $181,347. (That’s a marked improvement from the 2013 overage of $687,368, the result of additional renovations to the heating and lighting system.)
The $3.6 million covers all of the organization’s expenses, including $1.2 million per year in utilities and maintenance alone. Donnellan says the annual costs to maintain the roughly 60,000-square-foot facility includes things the public may never consider, like “taxes and building charges from the property owner for elevators [and] common areas.” The remaining $2.4 million paid employee salaries and programming expenses, including marketing, managing equipment and facilities for performances, mounting exhibitions, hosting artists, and staging live events.
Now, with the county set to close Artisphere just over four years after opening, it doesn’t appear that the problem is attendance numbers or revenue, which are steadily rising. The problem doesn’t even seem to be last year’s overage. Instead, the county seems to take issue with the allotment of any money whatsoever to Artisphere. This past year, Arlington County projected a more than $24 million budget gap for fiscal year 2016; the $2.2 million in proposed funding for Artisphere immediately went on the chopping block. But Arlington County’s annual budget is $1 billion. That’s like taking $1,000 to the racetrack, losing $24 in bets, and demanding your friend pay you back for the $2.20 coffee you bought her on the way to the track in an effort to recoup.
Artisphere’s closure is symptomatic of a much larger political view of culture in which the arts are important to community building, but funding them is not; art is valued, but using public money to support artists or organizations is suspect. This particular stance of fiscal conservatives has been around at least since Ronald Reagan sought to defund the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981.
During this past election cycle, John Vihstadt—a former Republican running as an Independent—pulled off a surprising upset when he was elected to the board of liberal-leaning Arlington County. One of his campaign platforms was nixing the Arlington streetcar project, which would have run along Columbia Pike; he also eyed “money-losing” Artisphere. “I think the county manager made a cold, calculated, and reality-based decision that the Artisphere would not be successful without a large continuing subsidy,” he told the Washington Post after the announcement. “I was concerned about the Artisphere all along.” Vihstadt harbors a hard-nosed approach to public funding of capital projects, particularly ones he deems high-cost (the streetcar) or unnecessary (an arts center).
The American Alliance of Museums attempts to quantify the impact of arts and culture in U.S. communities. Based on attendance numbers and operating hours of its member museums and cultural institutions across the country, AAM estimates that activity in U.S. cultural centers accounts for 1 million hours of intellectual engagement per week. The cultural tourism those institutions support is 6.5 times higher than that of all major league sports. Think about it: When tourists visit New York, do they go to a Knicks game, or a Broadway show and the Met? (The same can be said for D.C., where the Nats vs. National Gallery decision is a no-brainer for most out-of-town visitors.)
When cultural institutions disappear, their employees aren’t the only ones out of a job. The local economy suffers as restaurants, hotels, parking garages, and retail outlets lose business both from audiences and from the arts organizations themselves, which pay market rates for goods and services. The cultural industry has long been overlooked as an economically sustainable investment that not only strengthens the quality of life in communities but boosts their economies, too.
According to a report from Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit that studies the relationship between the arts and local economies, the Great Recession had a measurable financial impact on the arts that was comparable to most other industries. The year Artisphere officially opened was the same year nonprofit art and cultural organizations began to slowly turn around. But revenues, particularly in ticket sales, were still below pre-recession averages.
Artisphere’s exhibitions are free to the public, and performance tickets are priced lower than most other venues in the area (usually between $10 and $20). Its modest ticket revenues either got absorbed by or barely offset event operating costs, which include compensating and accommodating the artists, according to one Artisphere employee. If Artisphere had aligned its ticket rates with its expenses, perhaps it wouldn’t have been criticized as “money-losing,” but it certainly wouldn’t have been an accessible community art center.
As an arm of the county and its cultural affairs office, Artisphere could not conduct fundraising, which hampered its ability to recoup some expenses. After Artisphere’s first birthday, the county’s advisory committee recommended a separate 501c3 organization to conduct fundraising on Artisphere’s behalf. The Arlington Foundation for Arts and Innovation was then established in 2013 and has helped to financially bolster Artisphere as well as support other cultural activities in the county. But in the less than two years since its inception, the organization didn’t collect enough tax-deductible contributions or adequately develop strategic fundraising plans in time to significantly help Artisphere.
When the county announced its intention to close Artisphere, Hynes told the Post that she considered the board’s decision “a repositioning, not a retreat,” which led some local arts patrons to wonder if the cultural center might be relocated or reconceptualized at a later date. Michelle Isabelle-Stark, director of Arlington’s cultural affairs office, quashed that hope. “Since the County Manager Barbara Donnellan has announced her recommendation to close Artisphere and that relocation is not an option she intends to support, there is little that our cultural affairs department will be doing to explore a relocation option,” she told me.
The recent rally among arts patrons, citizens, and an advertising campaign to save the Detroit Institute of Arts provides a creative model Artisphere’s supporters could look to. The DIA serves one of the most economically depressed areas in the nation; no other U.S. city is in such dire need of revitalization. Facing catastrophic budget cuts in 2012, the DIA appealed to its three surrounding counties, whose residents voted in favor of a 0.2 percent property tax hike (an average of $20 per household per year) to raise as much as $23 million annually for the DIA’s operating budget. Voters in the greater Detroit area, who comprise 79 percent of the DIA’s annual visitors, will receive free admission in exchange.
The tax covered most of the operating budget of a large museum with a collection of over 65,000 works. But Detroit is an atypical case. When the Michigan city declared bankruptcy, creditors salivated over emergency management planners’ quick-and-dirty recommendation to send the DIA collection—which the city has owned since 1919—to the auction houses in order to raise funds. Faced with a new crisis, the DIA launched a second remarkable fundraising drive in 2013 and has since drawn $800 million from major corporations and philanthropists. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder recognized the museum’s efforts and, in response, shored up the depleted city pensions the sale would have offset.
As federal funding for the arts continues to shrink, local governments will need to decide not only what the arts mean in the lives of their taxpayers but formulate a new vision of collaboration with cultural institutions. It’s ironic that Artisphere’s overarching value to the Arlington County Board lay in its ability to attract residents and businesses to Rosslyn: It shows that the board recognizes that arts and culture are a vital part of the fabric of a desirable community, while neglecting to understand or support the financial needs of organizations and artists who enhance the lives of that community every day. According to the board, that wasn’t worth the $2.3 million it expects to save by closing Artisphere.
Investors and government entities are often keen to revitalize areas using cultural spaces and artist-run projects, only to raise the rents once the arts have served to make these areas more attractive. CulturalDC is a nonprofit that helps businesses and arts organizations collaborate to revitalize areas in exchange for more affordable spaces for artists. The arts “define the cultural and economic vibrancy of a city,” says CulturalDC Director Juanita Hardy. “It is critical that we build an inclusive city that has accessible art. This means communities that incorporate art spaces and systems that ensure their sustainability. All of us play a role in making this happen: artists, art organizations, developers, property owners, the government, and community.”
Hardy notes that most of the greatest cities in the world are made so by their arts and culture. Last year’s dissolution of the Corcoran gained national attention because it was alarming to see an institution with such history fold in our capital city. More recently, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser withdrew her support from a plan to turn the historic Franklin School building into a contemporary art center. With Artisphere on its way out, two major public exhibition spaces for contemporary art have closed within the last two years, with no concentrated, substantial efforts to replace them. While the Hirshhorn stages compelling contemporary exhibitions, it’s also a collecting institution with accompanying stewardship responsibilities. Under the long shadow of the additional free Smithsonian art museums, there seems to be no space for the active, long-term support of a center for the art and activities of living artists—one that focuses on rotating exhibitions in support of new curation and the work of artists who contribute a much-needed dialogue within the passionate political climate of D.C.
In Minneapolis, there is the Walker Art Center; in Cincinnati, the Center for Contemporary Art; and near the border of Vermont in a town called North Adams is the renowned Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. That there is no dedicated contemporary art center or museum in the D.C. area is lamentable, but it speaks plainly to the lack of political understanding of the important dialogue that visual artists create. In D.C., it seems as though an artist has proven her value if she’s dead and in a museum; if she’s still making work, the verdict is out, and so is the funding.
According to José Ortiz, who resigned as Artisphere’s director in February, what “went wrong” with Artisphere was “not a matter of losing money, [but] a matter of meeting the expenses.” In a cultural center’s mission, it is essential to articulate the difference between “money-making” and creating a long-term, sustainable, realistic operating model in concert with local government so that the institution can focus on its essential programming responsibilities for their community.
The Arlington County Board and its planning committee for Artisphere did not adequately prepare for the venue’s operating expenses. While its closure will put money back in the county’s annual budget, that money was an investment not just in Artisphere, but in the people of Arlington who had access to a trailblazing cultural center in the region. Last year alone, Artisphere worked with 216 artists (more than half from the D.C. area) and presented 141 programmed events despite a limited staff and budget.
On April 22, the Arlington County Board made its decision official and voted to close Artisphere. Just under $500,000 will be redirected toward arts and cultural programming around the county, thus ending its five-year experiment with a centralized visual and performing arts center. Some politicians perceive the arts as a dispensable luxury, which disavows the important educational and sociological roles they play in how we interpret our world. An evening at Artisphere, as with many such institutions dedicated to the work of living artists, will find people from all ages and backgrounds. Art bridges a community in a way that nothing else can, and that alone is worth the price tag.