Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpLast week’s county board decision to ax the Artisphere means that Arlington’s in-flux Rosslyn neighborhood will lose the arts but retain the sphere.

The demise of the edgy-urbane arts palace, effective June 30 after four-and-a-half years of hemorrhaging $15 million of taxpayer money, is a victory for the recently surging movement toward fiscal restraint. But Rosslyn is left with a tough-to-rent-out dome-shaped white elephant.

I always harbored mixed feelings about Artisphere. Since it opened in October 2010 after a $6.7 million county investment, I felt duty-bound to include it as an option when scheduling my leisure time. Loved the Frieda Kahlo photos in the upstairs gallery, enjoyed a play about carnival magicians in its black box and grooved to a ‘20s-theme dance to benefit libraries held in the ballroom.

But I yawned at the Andy Warhol balloon display, the obscure South American music acts and those earnest artists-in-residence.

So I can’t argue with the county’s desire to save $2.3 million in support by acknowledging that the promises of high patronage and revenues were overblown. Some arts backers and boosters of enlivening Rosslyn’s night-time dead zone thought the project deserved more time. But the board, having felt in the past perhaps like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, decided the jig was up. It redirected $496,000 of the money saved to fund alternative arts and cultural programming countywide.

News coverage focused on how Artisphere was “doomed” from the start, with the Washington Post and ARLnow resurrecting thrilled quotes from Arlington officials in 2010, making them sound like builders of the Titanic calling the ship unsinkable.

But go back a bit further. The ambitious but odd domed building was brought into being beginning in 1991 at the behest of the Freedom Forum, following a decade of prosperity for the Gannett Co. after it launched USA Today in Arlington.

I was—and continue to be– a fan and visitor to the Newseum. After zoning accommodations from Arlington for a bridge and park, it opened up on the Rosslyn skyline in 1997. But in 2000, Newseum began planning its move to its current location on prestigious Pennsylvania Ave. (To add insult to Arlington, Gannett in 2001 decamped for McLean.)

You can’t blame the Freedom Forum for taking advantage of opportunities. “By moving to the District, we will significantly expand our programming, reach a much greater audience and deepen our impact,” said Freedom Forum and Newseum President Peter Prichard at the time.“We are grateful to Arlington County, particularly the community of Rosslyn, for hosting the Newseum in its first five years,” added then-executive director Joe Urschel. “In that time we have proven that both Arlington and the Newseum are powerful magnets for visitors to the national capital region.”

Yes and no. Now Arlington—which has eight years left on its lease for the Artisphere with Monday Properties—is now stuck with commitment to an irregular property that doesn’t lend itself to average office tenants.

The solution may come from Pete Erickson, an Arlingtonian who is CEO of Modev, which puts on conferences to promote digital technology. He and dozens of industry colleagues signed a letter the county board this month proposing that Artisphere be transformed into a technology center for professional gatherings. That dome, Erickson told me, sits over “an awesome speaking venue. There aren’t many like it around.”

* * *

In another harbinger of change in Rosslyn, Monday Properties is preparing to tear down the historic parking lot where famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward in the early 1970s met with his secret source “Deep Throat.” (Check out parking spot 32D at 1401 Wilson Blvd.)

Gregg Schwarz, a retired FBI special agent, told me he plans to show his out-of-town friends the site before the building—which is marked by a historic plaque that will be preserved in some form—comes down to make room for a residential-office complex. Schwarz possesses a highly unusual artifact germane to the site: an official FBI photo-portrait of Woodward’s confidant, the FBI’s then-No. 2 Mark Felt, signed by Woodward himself.