BY CHRISTINA STURDIVANT
The Alexandria, VA waterfront, overlooking the Potomac River, is a premier destination for DC metro area residents and tourists alike. Over the past 50 years, it has evolved through strategic planning by the city government as well as advocacy efforts by residents who have taken part in shaping their town into a place they are proud to call home.
In 2011, the City of Alexandria Department of Zoning and Planning Committee released a report detailing the growth and pending developments to the waterfront. In June 2014, the town celebrated the 40th anniversary of one of the city’s most prime tourist destinations, the Torpedo Factory Art Center, which is at the center of the development plans.
“Whether you’ve strolled through on a date, had your wedding bands made or bought your child’s first ornament here, the Torpedo Factory is a cultural highlight of the region and a source of local pride,” says Eric Wallner, Chief Executive Officer of the Torpedo Factory.
As a part of the anniversary celebration, the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery was transformed into a community library to archive and share the history of the creative space. Throughout the year, Target Gallery hosts 12 exhibitions by local, national and international artists. Also popular is the factory’s hands-on family event, Arts Safari. While all programming is completely free to the public, the factory brings in over $16 million dollars from half a million visitors on a yearly basis.
An integral part of the factory’s success depends on its artists who rent studio and gallery spaces to exhibit their work for public consumption.
For the past 17 years, Marsha Staiger has learned to master her art while entertaining visitors from across the country at her Torpedo Factory studio.
“Being creative is sometimes dissolving into your head a little bit and when people come and talk to you, you have to wake up a little bit and talk to them,” says Staiger.
Not only does working in the Torpedo Factory provide direct access to the public, it is also a steppingstone for artists, some of whom also display their work with The Art League.
“It’s a nice progression for artists and its well supported,” Staiger says.
Rachel Kerwin, another member artist and secretary of the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, progressed her artistry when she was commissioned to paint a mural for the anniversary celebration.
Coloring Outside the Lines welcomes guests at the waterfront entrance of the factory, depicting a detailed portrait of the venue’s exterior and a more abstract interpretation of the creativity that lives within.
The mural’s unveiling was attended by Mayor William D. Euille and other city leaders to acknowledge the approximate 200 hours Kerwin dedicated to the 436 square foot piece.
In an age and economy where nothing is certain for artists, whether retaining steady incomes, obtaining reasonably priced workspaces or the security of space that won’t be uprooted by more profitable projects, concerns remain.
“Everybody worries every now and then, especially with all of the crashes in 2009,” says Staiger. “You’re never sure as an artist when you’re in a recession and art work isn’t top on everybody’s list.”
In the past few years, the Torpedo Factory’s board was restructured to provide intensive oversight and management of the facility. According to the report by City of Alexandria Department of Zoning and Planning Committee, the Torpedo Factory’s board is exploring the possibility of direct entry to the space from the Torpedo Factory Arcade in order to ignite the revitalization of commercial space within the building.
Indoor renovations will complement efforts that will take place along the building’s perimeter to include public art installations, outdoor vending and structural updates to older furnishings.
Considering additions that will increase visits from tourists as well as profit for stakeholders, both Kerwin and Staiger are hopeful that the center will go on to connect artists to greater opportunities to create, display and enjoy their work.
“I believe the strength of those benefits, the preservation of the site’s history and the support of our local government would outweigh any challenge and I believe prioritizing the arts—and practicing artists—is the best use of this space,” says Kerwin.