A New Direction for Artisphere

Publicly funded cultural arts center will get a chief financial officer.

will cut back on the hours it’s open to the public and rely more on business, social and other event rentals as part of a larger effort to move the cultural arts center toward financial stability.

A revised business plan for Artisphere, located in the former Newseum space in Rosslyn, was presented to the Arlington County Board on Tuesday.

It calls on the facility to rely on a resident caterer rather than a full-service restaurant, eliminates a retail shop and moves toward establishing a nonprofit corporation to raise funds for the endeavor.

Artisphere received $2.1 million in taxpayer dollars from Arlington County in its first year of operation – about 65 percent of its budget. It’s expected to need $2.3 million this year, and about $1.6 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

That $1.6 million subsidy is a full $1 million less than originally forecast, County Manager Barbara Donnellan said.

Donnellan told the county board that Artisphere had too much going for it to be abandoned. The center already has received critical acclaim and several non-ticket-based revenue streams exist that have not yet been tapped, she said.

“It was too early to tell if it would be successful,” she said. “The potential of the Artisphere outweighed the cost and the risk of operating additional years.”

. Some critics balk at publicly funded arts centers, and others see it as a black hole that takes money away from more essential services.

"The rat hole is no longer a bottomless pit," resident Robert Atkins said late Tuesday, when addressing the board about the county budget. "Some improvement has been made."

Still, Atkins challenged the validity of the figures used to draw up the revised plan -- estimates Donnellan earlier called conservative.

Following a months-long review by Donnellan’s team, the county is moving Artisphere from under the auspices of the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department to Arlington Economic Development, or AED.

AED will report financial, attendance and other information to the county board quarterly. The new buisness plan also calls for Artisphere to hire a chief financial officer.

“While the message isn’t all gayness and light, it does show us a way forward, and for that I am grateful. For me, Artisphere represents this 20-year promise that’s been to Arlington for a cultural center,” Board member Mary Hynes said.

“We need time to make it work. But if you can’t, we need to say that, too.”

Part of Artisphere’s problem has been its configuration of space – while there are several venues within the facility, no one stage can attract a crowd of more than a few hundred people.

It also will look more into film festivals and family programming to attract broader audiences.

Donnellan said “trips and falls” could be expected as the county gets things squared away.

Board member Jay Fisette cautioned that the center not become an Arlington-only facility.

“It’s good, it’s OK, to continue to focus on local arts and organizations,” Fisette said. “But if we do that at the expense of losing the broader regional audience and identity, then the long-term goal may not be reached.”

Artisphere also receives $300,000 annually from the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, or BID, said Executive Director Cecilia Cassidy.

"We're very positive that Artisphere has great potential -- otherwise, we would've never supported it in the first place," Cassidy said in a brief interview. "Of course, when tax dolalrs are involved, you want to be cautious."

She added: "It will succeed. There's no question in my mind."

This article was updated late Tuesday to include comments from Atkins and Cassidy.


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