Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

How better to humanize the glass canyons of Crystal City than with offerings of fine local art?

South Arlington’s office jumble that booms by day but fades to sterility in off-hours now hosts a gallery of home-grown art that sprung largely from private efforts.

Combine it with the Arlington’s newly approved post-BRAC economic investment strategy—which includes a streetcar line that will link to Alexandria— and Crystal City’s future appears warmer.

The Northern Virginia Art Center, launched in July by the 12-year-old nonprofit Arlington Artists Alliance, displays and sells a classy array of paintings, drawings, ceramics, sculpture, jewelry and art glass. It’s not easy to find the place in the underground of the Shops at 2100 Crystal Drive, but I came away impressed with the sophistication of the works, which sell at artist-set prices from $200 to $800 and up.

No artist sets to work expecting a steady paycheck, and it’s against the spirit to knock competing creators. But the juried artists who joined the alliance’s cooperative and show their stuff in Crystal City feel they achieved a breakthrough.

Arlington’s cultural affairs division, I’m told by Sandi Parker, one of the center’s three paid employees, zeroed out the Artists Alliance grants. That stands in contrast with the thousands in public funds shelled out for Rosslyn’s Artisphere, which combines working artists’ space with performance art, theater and national music acts.

Nor could the fledgling center take the advantage of assigned public space like that enjoyed by the more regionally focused Arlington Arts Center, housed in the historic Maury School on Wilson Boulevard. The alliance for years made do with renting space at the Arlington Arts Gallery and frame shop on Lee Highway and displays at Cassatt’s (Kiwi) Café and Gallery and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

But in 2012 they won space from the Crystal City Business Improvement District and the Vornado Charles E. Smith Company, and that has spelled the difference.

“It’s a great example of a partnership between a business community and a nonprofit,” says my friend Elise Ritter-Clough, a painter who has sold works at the center. “In an economy where art galleries are closing down at a fast pace, this one has turned out to be very successful.” An opening reception in September drew 473 guests. Sales average one or two per day.

Many of the artists are nationally known, though about 80 percent are from Arlington. (Others are from Alexandria and Falls Church, where, I can vouch, talent also resides.)

One proof of the quality and commitment of the artists, Parker says, is that they must each pay $300 every six months, spend four hours a month on the premises to answer questions, and give the center a 15 percent commission. To keep things fresh, each must change the works on display the first Monday of every month, and no work may be repeated in less than three months.

Buyers, Parker adds, are residents in nearby condos, convention-goers from Crystal City hotels and tourists from as far afield as Alaska. Employees of PBS come from upstairs, and neighboring restaurants in the Crystal City underground cater events. On Jan. 12-13, the Washington Wine Academy steered upwards of 1,000 by the center during its 1K wine walk (the beer walk is Jan. 26-27).

Without such action, Parker says, “this area would be a wasteland.”