Arts Center 'Arrives' in Lorton

Arts Center 'Arrives' in Lorton

Lorton Arts Foundation wins award, and Baryshnikov gets on board.

The last month has been an eventful one for the Lorton Arts Foundation, which is in the process of turning the 56-acre Occoquan Workhouse site, part of the former Lorton Prison grounds, into a huge arts compound. In mid-June, world-famous dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov agreed to sit on an advisory panel to the foundation’s board, as will concert pianist Pedja Muzigevic.

At Monday, July 9 Board of Supervisors meeting, the foundation was recognized for an award that the project won for Fairfax County from the National Association of Counties. The award was granted for the project’s vision and for its financing plan, which was worked out with the county.

"One of the things we think is most important about this project is our business partnership with the county," said Sharon Mason, executive arts director for the Lorton Arts Foundation. The county’s Department of Management and Budget, its Economic Development Authority and Wachovia Bank collaborated with the foundation to create a plan for the county to back the foundation in applying for bond financing. According to the plan, which won last year's Bond Buyer newspaper Southeast Regional Small Issue Deal of the Year, annual county support will be unnecessary after five years, and the foundation will be completely self-sufficient within 10 years, which is when the project is expected to be completed.

"It’s really doing a really nice thing for the area. It’s an outstanding arts center and program," said Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties, running down the list of features planned for the site, which sits at the corner of Ox and Lorton roads. The final plan calls for artist studios, an art gallery and exhibition space, a prison museum, theater and performing arts studios, a multipurpose events center, a visitor and community heritage center, an artist colony, an indoor/outdoor performance center, and administrative offices, as well as two upscale restaurants. Most of these will be created by renovating existing buildings.

Byers noted that the project would bring jobs and economic development to the area, as well as improving its quality of life, and that all of this was being accomplished on a site that is subject to "a bunch of different restrictions." Building on the site is subject to various restrictions because it is part of the D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District.

The complex will ultimately support itself through revenue raised by its education programs, theater ticket sales, art sales and fund raising, and by renting out studios, artist housing, the events center and the restaurant lots, Mason said. She said the foundation was also "very excited" about bringing Baryshnikov into the project. The dancer had taken a tour of the site in May, after hearing about the project from "a mutual friend," she said. Baryshnikov runs his own arts center in New York City. "We found there are many similarities between what he’s doing and what we’re doing, so it’s a nice fit," said Mason. Their common priorities, she said, include reaching out to schools and to under-served areas of the community.

Baryshnikov’s involvement will include collaborating on dance projects and taking dancers — particularly young people — on tour, said Mason. She said traditional dance classes would probably begin in late 2008 or early 2009, and the involvement of Baryshnikov and other professional dancers would come later.

THE FOUNDATION also recently began the process of bringing artists to the site. "Lots of things start happening, and they just start snowballing," said Mason. "It’s a very exciting time over here." The proposal for a complex of 40 housing/studio units for artists was recently approved, and the foundation is now working with an architect to design the neighborhood, which should be under construction in the next four or five months and completed by late 2008 or early 2009, said Mason.

Also, a call was just issued for visual artists to apply for space in the 64 artists’ studios, many of which can accommodate more than one artist, that are to be housed in existing buildings. In early October, a panel of jurors from around the country will review the applications and award space at the complex. "That’s the first step in populating our community here," said Mason.

In the spring, the foundation began providing a few education programs and exhibits on-site. With renovations underway at the Workhouse (which will retain its name), those classes are being temporarily moved to the nearby Shoppes of Lorton Valley, where the developer Edens & Avant has donated space. The programs, which will begin again in early August, include six-week courses and weekend workshops. The schedule should be posted shortly on the foundation’s Web site,

"Obviously, it’s arrived," said Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), of the planned arts complex. He was particularly excited about Baryshnikov’s involvement, which he said "sets the bar to a very high level for the future." Of Monday’s award, he said, "They demonstrated that they put together a package that’s viable, and it’s visionary."

Hyland said he expects the center to be a "gem," not just for Lorton but for the region.