Elliot C. Williams/WAMU/DCist
Artist Lisa Schumaier (right) and her assistant Karishma Singh work in their studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center.
Elliot C. Williams/WAMU/DCist
A set of three different proposals to renovate the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Alexandria has left some of the artists concerned about the future of their studios. Over the last two decades, the city has issued more than a dozen studies and started drafting plans to create a more sustainable and vibrant center. But artists who have worked at the waterfront building for years fear they'll be evicted if the City Council moves forward with the revitalization effort.
The proposals include a new cafe space on the first floor, a new glassblowing studio, and commercial space. One idea is to utilize the spacious rooftop deck for dining and events.
One artist, painter and engraver M. Alexander Gray, started a petition to oppose any possible changes to the building — especially one option that would completely gut the first floor, cutting studio space by 36%. The petition has gained more than 6,000 signatures.
Gray says as an artist, there's no place that compares to the factory's current model in terms of affordable rent and the opportunity to make a living as a creative. Artists pay below-market-rate rent that's subsidized by taxpayers and don't owe a commission to the city for anything they sell.
"I think there are artists that support change, but not what the city is proposing," Gray says. "The city is proposing to basically put every artist on the first floor out of business. Their plan clearly treats the artists as secondary. Their plan treats the artists as an obstacle to be swept aside."
The factory was built after WWI and was an actual torpedo factory during WWII. The complex expanded to 16 buildings in the Old Town area. In the 1950s, the factory was used as the Federal Records Center, storing top secret documents and even some dinosaur bones. The city bought the building from the federal government in 1969.
Artist and Alexandria-native Lisa Schumaier remembers throwing rocks at the factory's windows as a teen, and breaking in to skate and find weird knick-knacks with her friends. (She still has a manila envelope she found with the word "Secret" stamped in red across the top. It was empty.) In the early 1970s, Schumaier says artists started creeping into the building and using it as their own creative space. The Art League, a nonprofit that provides arts education in Old Town, helped convince the city to convert the old factory into an arts center in 1974. The Torpedo Factory's last major renovation was in the early '80s.
Management of the art center switched hands between the city and the artists until 2016, when the city took over temporarily — and then permanently in 2018. That year, the City Council asked the arts office to come up with a long-term plan to make the space more "vibrant."
Part of the artists' resistance is tied to nostalgia: Schumaier, for example, remembers her first pottery class at the art center, and now, she makes a living off of it. Her biggest fear, she says, is that the history and artistic integrity of the building will fade with any projects that change it.
"One of the things that is so important about this place is when I was a kid, I came in here and was mentored by artists in the building. They they let me know that the arts are important," says Schumaier. "I didn't do well in school. I was dyslexic. But in art, I felt like I was at home. I felt like I could succeed. And there were people in here that were similar."
Diane Ruggiero leads the city's Office of the Arts, which oversees the Torpedo Factory and other public arts programs. She says the city's proposed strategies are not official plans, but are more of a presentation of possible scenarios, and that any capital investment project would take years before any physical changes took place.
"We're not kicking out artists," Ruggiero says. "We're just trying to make an amazing arts center even more amazing than it currently is."
She also emphasizes that the factory already sees a lot of attrition of artists who leave for various reasons, and that a survey of about 800 people across Alexandria showed that people don't currently visit the space regularly, it hasn't evolved with the rest of the area, and that they want more family-friendly offerings at the factory. The current financial model of the art center is not sustainable in the long term, she says.
"When something breaks down in the building," she says, "that comes out of the city's capital budget and is paid for by the taxpayers of Alexandria."
In 2019, the arts office hired architecture firm SmithGroup to conduct a "study of the studies" — i.e. to condense all the reports on the center put out by various groups over the years. The pandemic delayed the process, but in June 2021, the City Council requested specific options for changing the building's financial model and structure, and gave the arts office until December — a process Ruggiero says typically takes at least 18 months.
With the shortened timeline, SmithGroup came up with three options, ranging from: the city making incremental renovations paid for entirely with public funds; the city creating a public-private partnership for a mixed-use building to generate more revenue; or a separate organization would run the building and lease space to the Office of the Arts, which would handle subleases for studio space.
"We want to maintain that arts focus, but we want to make sure it continues to be a thriving attraction, and that's going to require some change," Mayor Justin Wilson told NBC4. "Nobody's trying to kick out all the artists. Nobody's trying to make this a condo building. Nobody's doing that."
The City Council will review the proposals and take a vote on Dec. 14. However, the city's Waterfront Commission has asked for more time, slamming the arts office for what its members called a rushed process that didn't allow for enough public response to the plans.
Some commissioners say that the artists at Torpedo Factory have a reputation for being resistant to any changes. Even some artists admit to this.
"Having been a member of the Torpedo Factory in 2017, there was always 'Do not do anything, Do not change anything' kind of attitude," Commissioner Kristina Hagman said at a meeting last week, though she also expressed she believed the proposals need more public input. "I myself left the Torpedo Factory because it was a bit moribund."
At last week's meeting, the Waterfront Commission ultimately voted to send a letter to the City Council to voice their concerns about the project's timeline.
"The community at the Torpedo Factory is a bit up in arms, and if we rush this, there will be greater lack of trust," Hagman said. "We have to address this in some way, shape or form."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.