Since its unveiling in 2010, Rosslyn's Artisphere has had its critics. Certainly, it has had its fair share of fans too, but aparently not enough. With attendance numbers much lower than expected in its first year of operation, Artisphere has accrued an $800,000 deficit over the last fiscal year, and will likely do the same in the coming fiscal year, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
Rising from the ashes of the former Newseum, the brawny arts center hoped to make Arlington more than just a conglomerate of bars, restaurants and office buildings. With the District boasting so many museums and cultural attractions, County officials thought Artisphere would help attract the type of residents that would appreciate their "smart growth" agenda.
The Center now serves as an umbrella organization for several existing arts groups: Washington Shakespeare Company, the National Chamber Ensemble and non-profit Fashion Fights Poverty. The multi-story building also holds an array of small art galleries, a few performance spaces, a film room and a brand new restaurant and cafe.
Audrey Clement, a Green Party candidate running for a seat on the County Board, vocalized her Party's (and her) displeasure with Artisphere's insolvency at a recent Arlington County Board meeting.
But Clement has no problem with the building itself. "It's a beautiful structure," she says, "there's no doubt about that." Clement is simply unhappy with the amount of taxpayer dollars being tossed at Artisphere in order to keep the Center afloat.
She contends the deficit is larger than advertised, claiming County officials already accounted for what they anticipated to be a nearly $1 million loss, and, in actuality, Artisphere operated on a $1.6 million loss.
For Ms. Clement and the Arlington Green Party, the matter is less about math and more about principal. "This is not a matter of practicality, it's a matter of principle," says Clement. "This project was and is a risky venture, and only venture capitalists should be in the business of risky ventures, not county governments."
Clement, and many others for that matter, including Green Party chairman John Reeder, argue that the money allotted for Artisphere could be much better spent, and used to address more immediate problems like roads in need of paving, or education.
"These aren't just secondary streets that are a mess, these are main thoroughfares that need serious maintenance," says Clement.
And its not a problem that looks to disappear any time soon: Artisphere's operating costs are moving in one direction, while its revenue generation is been dipping slowly southward.
In fairness, it appears the County Board acknowledges the financial troubles of Artisphere. The County Manager has asked for involved Board Members as well as the Artisphere hierarchy to produce a revised business plan as soon as possible. County Vice-Chairman Mary Hynes has seconded this request.
The plan all along has been for the County to eventually forfeit operation of the venue to a non-profit organization. But even non-profits don't enjoy operating at a significant loss.
"Some people want to trash it all together, but I think that would be irresponsible," says Clement, who agrees the County needs to unload this entity, cut its losses, and get back to real priorities.
But Clement admits: "If there was someone out there willing to take control of this project, the County would have given it away all ready."
In the past, arts and cultural organizations and ventures such as Artisphere have been funded by corporate interests in search of a tax deduction, says Clement. But Clement thinks that as the tax code has become more and more favorable to large corporations wielding hefty profit margins, that there is less of a need to find various tax deductions, like the funding of the arts.
"I would guess that at the heart of the problem lies the IRS," says Clement, "but that, in all honesty, is purely speculation."
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