Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Wherefore Artisphere?

The ambitious new dome-topped arts venue has for six months been hiding amid the glass canyons of Arlington’s forbidding mini-city of Rosslyn.

Wherefore Artisphere?

The ambitious new dome-topped arts venue has for six months been hiding amid the glass canyons of Arlington’s forbidding mini-city of Rosslyn.

Designed for “people and art to collide,” Artisphere is a public-private arts center with offerings for every taste from Shakespeare and opera, to county-based painters, to hip musicians (Saturday night featured surf rock by the Cuban Cowboys), to the just-ended show of costumes and dance under the theme “Art and Culture of the Mongolian People of Arlington.”

As a concept, fascinating. As a reality, Artisphere finds itself crosswise with the county board. Revenues reported in April were 75 percent below projections, a shortfall of some $800,000 that prompted the board to balk at a new cash infusion.

County board member Mary Hynes told me this eventuality occurred to her in 2008 when, with recession looming, the board warily approved a consolidated arts budget built around Artisphere. The idea was to add some human factor, nightlife and new revenue-generators to the mod complex that was the Newseum.

Studies show that each $1 appropriated means $7 in new revenue from consumer spending on meals, entertainment and parking, Hynes says. So it bothered her that Artisphere came in with the “gimees” instead of rethinking a management process that delayed key hiring and postponed the project’s online ticketing (it finally went live in February) and restaurant. (The “HERE” café bar, serving “comfort food with a Latino flavor,” opened in April.)

Hence the board for fiscal 2012 gave the Artisphere not the $800,000 it sought, but $500,000 contingent on having a new business plan ready for review by early July.

Annalisa Meyer, the Artisphere’s upbeat communications director, said the new plan is happening. “We had a longer-than-anticipated ramp-up period to build our program infrastructure,” she says. “It takes time to support new and emerging artists.”

The tour she gave me Saturday showed off a 21st-century edgy arts buffet that attempts to provide “stuff you can’t find elsewhere,” she says. Open 85 hours a week, Artisphere honors rich cultural heritage as well as new media – a video wall, shadow puppetry using opaque projectors, laminated photos on cafe tabletops, and free WiFi to attract Rosslynites for business meetings.

Much is avant-garde. A“transition gallery” shows how art is made. A bio- wall is made of live plants; cork floors and bamboo siding embrace sustainability, and the restaurant food is Virginia-grown. Visitors can roam between short films, auditorium lectures and passageway exhibits.

Event prices range from free, to pay-what-you-can, to $10-$15. Donations are up, Meyer notes. The ballroom rents out, and special donors pay to select inspirational quotes for display.

Signage needs to improve, she acknowledges, particularly the route from Metro. “Our goal is innovative and thought-provoking art.”

Arlington’s bet on Artisphere has brought out the political knives. Local GOP chairman Chris Berg called it “red meat in the November elections.” Also blasting away is Green Party candidate Audrey Clement.

Hynes says it’s an “unfortunate situation, but it has the potential to work if the Artisphere becomes more nimble.” If it offers esoteric dance and juried art shows but “people don’t know it exists,” then perhaps it should shift to more basic community attractions, she says.

But like true artists, Artisphere planners seem ready to take a risk. “Being an incubator to the arts,” says Meyer, “we expect scrutiny.”

Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com