Artisphere and Jim Byers
Artisphere and Jim Byers

Earlier this year, Rosslyn’s civic leaders were touting the Arlington neighborhood opposite Georgetown as “Manhattan on the Potomac.” And now with the brand new Artisphere—which will open this weekend with a series of galas advertised heavily to the District’s cultural classes—they may have their Lincoln Center.

But that leaves out a complicating factor: Back in the real Manhattan, plenty of folks now think of Lincoln Center as a mistake—a megaproject that segregated a dozen-plus performing-arts organizations into one facility, rather than allowing them to spur neighborhood activity all across town.

So why would Arlington County, which will operate Artisphere, open a similar “resident” arts center? After all, the gloomy towers of Rosslyn are a long way from those parts of Arlington where nightlife, arts, and culture have thrived for years without the help of a major facility.

Housed in the former Newseum, the hulking arts center will collect a number of existing organizations, like Washington Shakespeare Company, the National Chamber Ensemble, and the ethical-practices non-profit Fashion Fights Poverty; a constellation of new art galleries; performance spaces; a theater for art films; and a cafe. It’s a scrappy grouping in a building that hopes to have an informal, social feel. All of which, says Norma Kaplan, head of the county’s cultural affairs division, is intentional—and different from Lincoln Center.

Artisphere isn’t competing with, say, the Kennedy Center across the river, but is instead angling for a greener, hipper crowd. “Younger people are not really accessing cultural centers the way their parents did,” Kaplan says. “Artisphere needed to be a place where people could be, rather than a place where you buy tickets for a show two weeks in advance. The idea is you can come here and hang out.”

Artisphere’s audience aims will be evident on Saturday, when a gala hosted by the websites Brightest Young Things and the Pink Line Project should attract plenty of D.C.’s youngish, culture-consuming glitterati. You can see it in Artisphere’s literature, too, which contains reminders of the Rosslyn destination’s technological currency. “On a typical evening, you can finish up some work in the Wi-Fi cafe, take a break and view the exhibits in any of three galleries, then ‘tweet’ some friends to join you later for an experimental film in the Dome, or dance to regional and nationally-known live bands in the Ballroom,” reads a cringe-worthy description on Artisphere’s website.

Of course, the hub of the new, hip Rosslyn won’t be totally divorced from the neighborhood’s office-building image. Next week, Monday Properties is set to break ground at 1812 N. Moore St., which makes for an interesting coincidence: Artisphere wouldn’t exist without the soon-to-be constructed building, which when it’s complete in 2013 will be the tallest structure in the D.C. metro area.

Tim Helmig, the executive vice president and chief development officer of Monday Properties, says that when Monday submitted plans in 2007 to develop its ecofriendly skyscraper, part of the application’s approval was contingent on Monday giving back nearly $23 million to Rosslyn. As of yet, no tenants are signed for the 580,000 square-foot building. Monday owns nearly 30 percent of the commercial buildings in Rosslyn, including the former Newseum. Arlington officials and the developers decided an arts center made sense. “It aligned with the county’s efforts,” says Helmig. And so for Artisphere’s first 10 years, the county won’t pay rent. It’s a $1.6 million per-year value, says Helmig.

Artisphere isn’t cheap: Arlington County spent $6.7 million renovating the space (with help from grants and the Rosslyn Business Improvement District), and estimates a $3 million annual operating budget. But it’s a relative bargain, says Jim Byers, marketing director for Arlington Cultural Affairs (and a DJ on WPFW-FM). “To build a cultural center would normally be $65 to $80 million,” he says. He says Arlington County has needed a place like Artisphere for years, but the cost had been too prohibitive before. The county expects the space to generate $1.9 million in revenue and attract 250,000 visitors annually.

Artisphere has its detractors. One is John Reeder, the chairman of the Arlington Green Party, who isn’t so sure Monday Properties is doing Arlington County a favor; he thinks it’s the other way around. The Newseum “was a dog—nobody wanted it,” he says. “[Monday] couldn’t rent it. The county took it off their hands.” He doesn’t like that Arlington taxpayers footed the bill.

Plus, there’s the location. “I’ve lived in Arlington most of my life and Rosslyn is a business district,” Reeder says. “The Newseum was not a success in Rosslyn. It’s not a good place. There’s no parking, there aren’t restaurants.” Kaplan disagrees, noting the Metro accessibility of Artisphere. “When we started the arts program we were much more of a suburban community,” she says. As Arlington County became more urban, she says it made sense to create a center where people could access a variety of arts under one roof rather than driving from place to place.

Plans for a Busboys and Poets location there fell through. But bidding closed about three weeks ago for a restaurant for the site, which Kaplan says should open in the coming months.

Some organizations are leaving their current venues for Artisphere, among them Washington Shakespeare Company. Christopher Henley, WSC’s artistic director, says the company has been working with Arlington County for several years to find a successor to its Clark Street Playhouse, whose existence remains at the whim of developers. Two years ago, in a set of events that sounds downright Shakespearian, Clark Street was almost sold in a deal financed by Lehman Brothers. The sale never happened, because it was set to close the week Lehman Brothers collapsed. “It sounds like a joke,” Henley says.

Since then, WSC has considered a number of venues, including a site in Shirlington and the Signature Theatre’s former space, a renovated garage in Arlington. Artisphere won out, Henley says, due to “the synergy among the groups there, and anticipating increased revenue.” Henley’s hoping the anticipated revenue bump will offset the additional costs associated with the move: Though Black Box at Artisphere is WSC’s new performance space, the company will continue to use Clark Street for rehearsals and set building “for as long as we can.”

Arlington arts organizations that won’t be included in Artisphere’s big tent aren’t worried about the competition. Kevin Bradley, director of marketing and communications at the Signature Theatre in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood, views Artisphere with a sense of opportunity. Signature, he notes, is staging an opening-weekend performance at Artisphere.

But Signature is ostensibly also losing out: The Arlington-based company Bowen McCauley Dance has regularly performed at Signature, as recently as last weekend. But it doesn’t have any future performances scheduled there; instead, Bowen McCauley will be at Artisphere. Bradley doesn’t rule out the possibility of working with Bowen McCauley again.

Jeffry Cudlin, the director of exhibitions at the Arlington Arts Center, says several people have asked him if Artisphere “will suck all the oxygen out of the local arts scene.” Cudlin, also an art critic for Washington City Paper, says he doesn’t see Artisphere as a threat to AAC, a private, nonprofit organization that operates in an Arlington County-managed building near the Virginia Square Metro station.

Cudlin is even planning a joint show with Cynthia Connolly, Artisphere’s curator and director of visual arts. Half the show will open at the AAC in November, the other half at Artisphere in December. A bus will transport exhibitgoers between the venues.
“I feel like it’s an opportunity,” Cudlin says. “The more the merrier.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery