BY PHIL HUTINET
This summer, New York’s Junior Senator Kirsten Gillibrand ignited a firestorm of anger from Arlington County residents. In her political autobiography titled Off The Sidelines she writes “We lived in a soulless suburb” referring to Arlington, Virginia where she and her husband first resided when they came to the DC area.
Several months later, on December 17, Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan has asked that the Arlington County Board close Artisphere, the county’s largest arts institution and arguably a large part of its cultural soul. Says Donnellan, “[Artisphere] hasn’t lived up to the projections made in our initial business plan.”
What factors have led to Donnellan’s recommendation?
In 2009, New York-based Webb Management Services and Arlington County projected 250,000 people would visit Artisphere annually. While attendance has increased every year since Artisphere opened in 2010, it has never reached even half of the predicted levels. In 2013, 64,000 people attended various events at Artisphere and in 2014, over 71,000 people have visited the county-run institution.
Revenues for Artisphere have increased steadily over the years but the institution still requires county funding to subsist (see below). Arlington County has free use of the 60,000 square foot space owned by Monday Properties which was once the site of the Newseum.
- Total Net Tax Support
Ultimately, tax supported funding for Artisphere has placed the organization on the budgetary chopping block. According to Mary Curtius of Arlington County’s Community Media Relations, the county had sought to keep Total Net Tax Support for Artisphere at or below $2 million. In 2014 Total Net Tax Support exceeded the $2 million ceiling by $381,000 and in 2015 it will exceed it by $246,000.
- Economic Factors
Currently, Arlington County has the largest office vacancy rate in the area at 21% county-wide and at 30% in the densely populated Rosslyn neighborhood according to the Washington Post. The Federal Government’s Defense Base Closure and Realignment, also known as BRAC, has compounded the vacancy rate as the military has shed thousands of defense industry jobs in Arlington. Lastly, according to Curtius, a recent baby-boom in the county has strained the school system requiring further expenditures to accommodate increasing enrollment.
Despite proposing the closure of the county-run Artisphere, Donnellan claims, “We remain committed to our efforts to revitalize Rosslyn.” In an era when communities throughout the country and especially in the DC area have used arts and culture to successfully revitalize neighborhoods, Donnellan’s recommendation to close the county’s most vital cultural asset is both shocking and remarkably short-sighted. Paradoxically, the county has agreed to lend Signature Theater $5 million at 1% over 19 years, according to Curtius. However, Donnellan has not proposed a single solution to address Artisphere’s financial shortfalls.
If Artisphere’s budget shortfall is $246,000 for Fiscal Year 2015, then this figure is not impressive compared to the overall county budget. Moreover, attendance has increased and so have revenues. Has Donnellan considered the economic impact of the institution’s closure to Arlington County as a whole? If she and Arlington County seek to revitalize Rosslyn and fill up the vacant office towers, how will Artiphere’s closure affect this goal? How many restaurant tables will remain unseated without events at Artisphere? How many retailers will lose revenue from people who would have visited the art space and made purchases? How many organizations will look at Rosslyn, see no cultural amenities or worse, see a dying suburban center, and decide to lease office space elsewhere?
The competitive nature of the DC region’s numerous suburban city-centers like Rosslyn requires the presence of a cultural anchor like Artisphere to preserve their economic vitality by attracting and retaining businesses and residents while generating revenues from visitors in the form of tourism. Futhermore, places like Artisphere help create local identity. Regional agencies like the DC Office of Planning have successful used “creative placemaking” to help create neighborhood identity and drive revitalization. Artipshere has provided a strong identity to Arlington County this decade and acts as strong complement to Arlington’s dynamic public arts program and other cultural facilities like the Arlington Arts Center.
Hopefully, Arlington County’s Board will ignore Donnellan’s recommendation lest they lend credence to Gillibrand’s hyperbole and further exacerbate the county’s economic woes.