Give ‘Em A Break!

By F. Lennox Campello

Give ‘Em A Break!

According to the 2019 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, Alexandria is the second friendliest city in America – immediately following Savannah, Georgia and just above Boulder, Colorado. Yay!

And as I’ve noted many times before, the Torpedo Factory is the anchor to Alexandria’s “scene”, not only as its main attraction, but also as the crown jewel to the DMV’s art tapestry, and easily one of the key visual art places in the entire nation. Yay!

And amidst the many personal disturbances, social shock, and financial distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Alexandria is (as we used to say in the Navy) trying to “screw the pooch” by being remarkably thick when adjusting their stance as the rather “new” landlord of the Factory. Booo!

Here’s the issue: The Torpedo Factory, just like every other art space, art museum, art gallery and anything where people go to gather and view and buy art, has closed as ordered by Virginia’s governor. And yet, the City, which is the landlord to the many artists who rent studio space from the building, has NOT waived rent charges while the building is closed and not available to the artists!

Let me clarify… as an artist from the Factory tells me: “The city said they would waive rent for now but we’d have to pay it back, and they will work with us on a payment plan.” It sounds to me like the city will eventually want artists to pay back the rent accrued while the building was closed.

In fact, as much as artists and galleries and museums are struggling right now, what the City of Alexandria needs to do right now, is to do whatever it takes to ensure that when the Torpedo Factory reopens its doors, that all artists return to their studios and go on being Alexandria’s main tourist draw.

It is obvious to the most casual observer that unless the studio rents for the COVID-19 period are waived completely, a significant number of artists will be forced to close their studios and never return, especially when faced with the specter of significant financial issues already taking place because of this worldwide pandemic.

Before this nasty virus escaped from Wuhan and infected the planet, the city (as the building’s landlord) had already faced some valid criticism for its management of the Factory. The same source tells me that “there was one studio empty for months because they couldn’t fill it… I know of at least two studios that will be empty soon… Under the watch of the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association that never happened. Never. Ever. Maybe the city needs to reconsider allowing a thriving artist association to manage the studios again…”

The point is that apparently the city struggled with renting an empty studio prior to Covidian times – this is a shock to me, as historically those studios are highly sought-after and have dozens of applicants whenever one becomes available. And… if the city struggled to rent a studio when times were good – what’s gonna happen during the slow rebuild after the Coronavirulization of America ends? And there are lots of empty studios because artists couldn’t afford the back rent?

I asked the City of Alexandria for comment on the issue and Mr. Craig T. Fifer, the Director of Alexandria’s Office of Communications & Public Information was gracious enough to respond:

“The Torpedo Factory Art Center is closed to the public, but not to artists. Artists can still access their studios and derive value from having a place to work, make online and curbside sales, and store their supplies and art.  Because some artists derive more or less income from walk-in sales than others, it would not make sense to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to studio rent. We notified each of our 119 leaseholders on March 31 that they could request rent relief with just a simple email, and only 16 so far have done so. We have also made extensive business assistance information available on our website at alexandriava.gov/Coronavirus (the direct link for the business info is growalx.com/business).

Many other art centers are still charging normal rent, or a discount with no deferral or payment plan. We are offering case-by-case consideration of rent relief with the potential to defer 100% of rent through June 30 and then begin a 12-month payment plan after that. This is the same offer we have provided for certain tax payments for businesses citywide.”

I realize that I am biased on the subject, but in my opinion someone in the City administration skipped ECON 101 in college: The Factory is a cash cow for the City, and its return from the Covidian Age must be nurtured, not sabotaged. Based on a City-funded study in 2010, the Torpedo Factory generates $16.2 million annually in direct visitor spending for the City of Alexandria. That was 10 years ago!

And unlike your “average” Alexandria business, the city owes the Factory a HUGE cultural debt! The Torpedo Factory was and is a labor of love by a visionary few who took out truckloads of garbage out of an abandoned building decades ago and converted it into one of the great art center locations in the nation and the key to the entire revitalization of Old Town Alexandria. The city and the region owe a lot beyond just artistic output to the artists of the Factory. The tax dollars that the City of Alexandria spends each year in subsidizing the Factory has been repaid a thousandth fold over the decades, not only in peripheral income associated with the Factory, but also in the immeasurable way in which the TF kindled and started a complete urban renewal in Old Town Alexandria a few decades back.

The answer is clear: No rent while the building is closed.

Follow Lenny by tapping into “Daily Campello Art News” at http://dcartnews.blogspot.com.

“One of the Internet’s earliest and most popular visual arts blogs – focusing on the Greater Washington, DC area visual arts scene with art news from all over the world. Nearly five million visits!”

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