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Torpedo Factory Celebrates 30 Years

Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center celebrated its 30th birthday with an international conference and a dazzling gala last weekend.

The conference has been in the works for three years. It was called the Unconventional Convention: On Starting and Operating a Visual Art Center. It was sponsored by The Alliance for the Advancement of Community Visual Art Centers with associate sponsorship by Americans for the Arts, Partners for Livable Communities, The National League of Cities, The Friends of the Torpedo Factory Art Center and Home and Design Magazine.

“I wanted to do something really special to celebrate our 30th anniversary and thought a conference would be the way to do that,” said Delegate Marian Van Landingham (D-46) who is credited with founding the Art Center.

“I thought it was important to share our experiences with other groups from around the country who are interested in developing art centers of their own. We have come a long way in 30 years and have learned many valuable lessons that we can share with others.”

The Art Center was founded in 1974 by a group of artists who saw the need for a center for visual arts.

“We had seen craftsmen work successfully in full view of the public in such places as Williamsburg,” Van Landingham said. “However, we had never seen it done with visuals arts and weren’t even sure it would work for the artist or for the general public but we thought it would.”

At the same time the artists were considering this idea, the city was deciding what to do about the Torpedo Factory. The federal government had operated the facility as a munitions plant in both World War I and II and then it had served as a home for Nazi war records. After the war records were returned to Germany, the facility became a storage place for the General Services Administration.

“The buildings didn’t really have any historic significance because they were built in the 20th century,” Van Landingham said. “Therefore, many people in the city wanted to tear them down and create open space on the waterfront.”

That might have happened but for the building itself. The walls were constructed to withstand accidental detonation of munitions. “The city finally realized that tearing down the building would be as costly as keeping it,” Van Landingham said.

WITH THE SUPPORT of the city to the tune of about $140,000 and a group of dedicated artists, the Torpedo Factory became an art center.

“The idea was to have juried galleries and studios where artists could work,” Van Landingham said. “Also, those artists had to contribute a lot of manual labor such as painting the building and maintaining it. We just didn’t have much money for those kinds of things.”

The Art Center now has five galleries and 84 studios that house 165 artists. The Art League also operates a school for artists that serves nearly 2,000 students. The Art Center is also home to the city’s archaeology museum. In addition, the Art Center is an important part of the city’s economic development.

“In the 1960s when I first lived in Alexandria, the waterfront was not a desirable place to be,” said Robert McNulty, chair, Partners for Livable Communities. “The Art Center has served as the anchor for the redevelopment of the waterfront. Centers such as this advance a multiple benefit environment including economic leverage, branding and recognition for the community.”

Alexandria Councilman Paul Smedberg agreed. “The Art Center is a wonderful example of what a group of residents can do when they work together to advance a positive idea,” he said. “The Art Center has become a vital economic engine that drives our tourism. Thousands of visitors come to Alexandria each year to visit the Art Center.”

Andra Patterson, president of the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, explained how the Art Center works saying, “As the city is our landlord and we, the TFAA the lessee on the master lease, we in turn rent out studios to juried artists. Those studio spaces can be single artist or group studios. We also have five galleries, two workshops and a major art school renting from us.

"The TFAA has total management over the internal workings of the building. The city manages part of the physical plant – the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, the elevator, exterior doors and windows, the fire alarm system, flood gates, etc. This is all worked out in each five-year master lease between the TFAA and the city…

“Our income derives from artist dues, rent from artists for studio space, sales from the information desk, commission on sales from the Target Gallery. We also rent out the building after five in the evening for all kinds of special events and a good portion of our budget derives from that program,” she said.

Van Landingham described it as similar to a condominium association. “Everything is dependent on the personalities of the members,” she said. “Sometimes things work more smoothly than others.”

ARTISTS ARE SELECTED by independent juries. “Members of the juries have nothing to do with the Art Center,” Van Landingham said. “We encourage them to select artists whose work is equal to or better than that which is already represented here because we want to continue to get better.”

Van Landingham was pleased with the first ever convention. “Most of the participants felt that it was helpful,” she said. “It was good for us because we wanted to dos something other than throwing a really good party, which, by the way, we did as well,” she said.

The party included aerial dancers in addition to good food and good company. “It really was spectacular,” Van Landingham said.

Mayor William D. Euille attended the gala. “It was very well attended and everyone talked about the wonderful conference,” he said. “I was pleased to present a proclamation on the 30th birthday and to wish them well for the future.”

For more information about the Art Center’s programs, call 703- 838-4565.