Thirteen longtime artists in residence at the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Alexandria will have to vacate their studios by the end of the summer as the result of a new process for awarding studio leases, a situation that is once again creating conflict between the building's artist tenants and the city.
The conflict stems from the Alexandria City Council's Torpedo Factory vibrancy plan, a long term plan to revitalize the arts center, which has housed artists since 1974 and been run by the city's Office of the Arts since 2016. The city had hopes to add a restaurant and new art spaces like a glassblowing studio to help attract more visitors. But the proposed concepts faced intense criticism from artists who claim the changes would cut nearly 40% of the building's studio space.
Last fall, artists circulated a petition that received over 9,000 signatures — enough signatures to seemingly hold off the overhaul, as the council decided not to approve any of the renovation proposals in December.
Meanwhile, Alexandria is proceeding with other parts of the initiative, including the new application process launched this spring to determine which artists can rent studio space.
Artists at the three-story Torpedo Factory rent studios at a subsidized rate, making it one of the most attractive and unique arts spaces in the region. The new application process, called a jurying process, requires nearly all artists currently renting space there to have their work re-assessed by the jury panel. (The only exceptions are a group called the “founding artists,” a handful of people who have worked in and sold their pieces from Torpedo since it opened.)
For this round of jurying, which lasted from March to early July, 78 artists applied, 24 of of them existing Torpedo Factory artists. More than half of those 24 were not offered a studio space, according to the city's report. In all, 26 artists — 15 of them new to Torpedo — were offered space in 22 available studio spaces. Nineteen of the recipients received solo studios and the others will be in shared studios.
Applicants who weren't given a lease became eligible to sublease a studio if one becomes available. The rest of the Torpedo Factory artists will have to be re-juried over the next two years in order of the last time they underwent a jurying process.
One of the departing artists who DCist encountered at Torpedo Factory declined to speak, but was visibly emotional when asked about the jurying situation. Our other attempts to interview artists who are leaving have thus far been unsuccessful.
The inside of the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria. Elliot Williams / DCist
Applicants who weren't offered a lease were offered a free, one-year professional development program from Art Hero LLC to help them prepare to reapply for another studio, said Diane Ruggiero, who leads Alexandria's Office of the Arts.
While sculptor Lisa Schumaier won't have to re-jury until next year, she says it has been disheartening to watch as other artists she's known since 2004, when she joined the Torpedo Factory, prepare to pack up their studios. She says the process lacked transparency and artists who were unsure of the requirements would have benefited from workshops where they could ask questions about the application.
Schumaier says she and other artists are not opposed to re-jurying to prevent stagnation, but the change in requirements felt abrupt. “It's not fair to have it be one criteria for almost 50 years, and then switch it,” says Schumaier.
The city says it kept the process transparent by hosting four public forums before they developed the application, and allowing the public to attend presentations the artists were required to give in the final phase of the process. The jury panel of curators, professors, and practicing artists all had local ties and held equity as a key value in its judging process.
Ruggiero tells DCist that conversations with artists about the selection process for studio space began before the pandemic.
She added that the previous jurying process was run by the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association, the nonprofit that founded the arts center, and that artists had to jury for membership into the association before they could become eligible for a studio, if one became available. The goal of the new jurying process, Ruggiero said, was to equitably provide studio space and transition the building into a more modernized center.
Artists raised other issues with the jurying process, though, such as what they say is an unusual requirement that artists already sharing studio space be evaluated together.
“It's grossly unfair … you have to apply as a brand, basically,” says M. Alexander Gray, a painter and engraver who started the petition and has been openly critical of the arts office. “I have applied and been accepted to dozens of juried exhibitions around the country. I have never heard of anything like that.”
But Ruggiero said it also didn't make sense for the Office of the Arts to dictate which artists should share space. “We do not want to play matchmaker,” Ruggiero says. “The best person to decide who that artists should be matched up with is that artist.”
The future of the Torpedo Factory is murky at best, as the city looks for ways to get approval for and fund its “vibrancy” plan. Some local leaders have suggested the city create a new public real estate entity to oversee the Torpedo Factory and some arts-centric developments in Old Town North. That entity could in turn receive bonds from the Industrial Development Authority of Alexandria, a public authority appointed by the City Council that provides low-interest loans to entities investing in the city, ALX Now reported in March.
Last month, the City Council also announced it would appoint two community members to join a 20-person Torpedo Factory Art Center Stakeholder Task Force, with a public application going that was due in June. The task force is supposed to meet for up to a year and weigh in on the arts center's future.
The artists say they welcome change — depending on how it's introduced.
“You want that in your community, you want somebody coming in doing new stuff,” Schumaier adds. “So I think re-jurying in general is a really good idea. I just think it could have been done better.”
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