A decade ago this coming October, Arlington government leaders and those in the arts and business community turned out for a three day bacchanalia to celebrate the opening of the Artisphere arts compound in Rosslyn.
Right from the start, however, there were signs of pending trouble, and five years later, following a sea of red ink and an ocean of recriminations, the county government cut its losses and shuttered the facility, which had managed to lose vastly more taxpayer money than expected while drawing only a fraction of the projected crowds.
That cautionary tale aside, candidates in the July 7 County Board special election said that the concept of a performing-arts center should not be dismissed out of hand.
“We need at least one quality, flexible performing-arts space,” said Susan Cunningham, an independent running for the seat left vacant by the death of Erik Gutshall.
Cunningham joined Democrat Takis Karantonis and Republican Bob Cambridge in answering questions submitted by Embracing Arlington Arts, an advocacy organization. (The group traditionally holds a candidate forum, but that was scrapped this time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Development of an arts complex has been an aspiration of some in the community for more than half a century. Prior to the Artisphere debacle, a proposal had been made to locate a performing-arts center in the Courthouse area.
Perhaps not surprisingly, all three candidates in the special election said they looked favorably on the possibility of an arts center.
“We need to look strategically,” Karantonis said, “and be willing to move quickly should the right parcel of land become available.”
Exactly where the county government would find the cash, at least right now, remains an open question. County Manager Mark Schwartz has slashed his capital-spending plan for at least a year and possibly longer. County leaders have been encouraged by some to acquire a large tract currently for sale on Wilson Boulevard, but seem to have no inclination.
Cambridge suggested the county government work in tandem with property owners, pointing to a similar effort undertaken by his son in Philadelphia.
“If we can get that kind of support going in Arlington, the county would get a bigger bang for the dollars,” he said.
But that’s exactly how the Artisphere project started out. The county government initially was approached by a developer, willing to offer up space formerly occupied by the Newseum in exchange for increased density on another project in Rosslyn.
The county government took the deal and patted itself on the back for doing so – until it became evident that staff projections for attendance and revenue bore no relation to reality.
In 2015, County Manager Barbara Donnellan embarked on an effort to cut losses in pricey government operations. The Artisphere was shuttered.
In comments to the arts group, Karantonis said arts should be part of the DNA of a community’s development from the beginning, not shoehorned in as an afterthought.
“When the arts are part of the planning, the corridors or places begin to more quickly thrive,” he said, pointing to efforts in the District of Columbia.
Karantonis noted that the only place this has been done in Arlington occurred in Shirlington, where Signature Theatre was a centerpiece of the redevelopment occurring there two decades ago. Arts boosters hope to turn the entire Shirlington/Four Mile Run corridor into an arts district, although there have been questions whether that would mean the removal of service businesses that long have called South Four Mile Run Drive home.
Cunningham told the arts group that Arlington needed to do better with promoting the county as an arts destination both to residents of the region and those coming in as tourists.
Looking back over the past quarter-century, there have been ups and downs in the Arlington arts scene. In addition to the Artisphere, the nearby Rosslyn Spectrum performing-arts facility fell victim to redevelopment, and a plan for a black-box theater in Virginia Square remained on life-support before apparently dying for good.
A number theater troupes that had called Arlington home (including Keegan Theatre and Teatro de la Luna) decamped for other locales, while others (American Century Theater and Classika Theatre) folded up operations. Signature has enjoyed a strong run of critical and audience success, but overexpansion caused a financial crisis that saw the non-profit having to be rescued by the county government.
• • •
Find the questions to, and answers from, candidates at https://embracing-arlington-arts.org under “Breaking News.”