On Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center

If you’ve ever been to Alexandria, Virginia, chances are that you’ve walked down King Street to the beautiful Potomac River waterfront and explored the Torpedo Factory located where King Street meets the river. They’re in the local news:

“As its name suggests, the Torpedo Factory originally was used to construct bombs. But after World War II, the building was used for everything from storing dinosaur bones to Nazi war documents. In the 1970s, the Torpedo Factory was transformed into an art center where visitors could watch artisans in their studios and purchase original works. But Alexandria Councilman Rob Krupicka and others are calling for changes to the art center — longer hours, movie showings, maybe a coffeehouse or wine bar. Other ideas? Lifting the ban on the sale of art reproductions and establishing term limits for the studios to encourage artist turnover.”

Listen to Michael Pope on WAMU here (scroll down) and he also has an article in the Alexandria Gazette here.

A SENSE OF uncertainty is palpable among the artists at the Torpedo Factory, and opinions range from those who would like to see major changes to those who would prefer for things to stay the same. Whatever changes are suggested, many say the discussion has been driven by a sense that the Torpedo Factory just isn’t as exciting as it should be.

“You won’t find much particularly edgy work here,” said Joan Aldrich, who has a studio on the first floor. “If we see ourselves as a premiere art center, we should have some work here that’s new — that’s perhaps by definition offensive to some people.”

I am told by separate sources that the articles and the WAMU report contained a few inaccuracies that somewhat upset Councilman Krupicka, who is a supporter of the Factory.

What do I think about all this? This is a very complex situation, with many different angles and approaches, and deserves some thoughts on the subject(s) from a variety of perspectives. In fact, I submit that from a variety of senses and sensibilities and experiences.

I could submit an opinion from the Campello who is an artist, another different one from the Campello who is an art critic, another one from the Campello who is an art dealer, one more from the Campello who is an art collector and yet another one from the perspective of an arts marketeer.

No one at the Torpedo Factory has asked my opinion, and they do have some sort of task force working on ideas to re-invent that amazing place, but I want to express some opinions and start a public dialogue here for anyone else who has something to say on the subject.

After all, 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 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 owes a lot beyond just artistic output to the artists of the Factory, and the $3 million dollars a year that the city of Alexandria spends in subsidizing the Factory has been repaid a thousandth fold over the decades, not only is 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.

So the first thing that comes to my mind is that the bulk of the decision should be made by the Torpedo Factory artists themselves, and although I don’t know who is in this “task force”, I suspect that it is driven by the Torpedo Factory Artists Association (TFAA) members.

But with all due respect to many of my good friends in the TFAA, they also need to be careful that in their zeal to do a good thing, they become too myopic about their own environment and lack an outside view and sanity checker.

Most (not all) artists often make fatal assumptions when it comes to the business of art, and it seems to me that what makes a significant ingredient in this TF re-invention soup, is the business of running the TF as a complex tapestry of things.

That includes artistic presence, focus, business approach, artist turnover, genres, medias, diversity of businesses within the TF, etc.

“Some more divisive recommendations being floated would allow commercial reproduction prints to be sold and create term limits that would bring in a younger set of artists to the building,” writes Pope in the Gazette.

Let’s examine the issue of reproductions.

First of all a lesson in the misuse of the word “print”.

One word that has been hijacked from the art lexicon by the art merchants is the word “print”.

A print is a woodcut, or a linocut, or an intaglio etching, etc. It is created by the print maker, from beginning to printmaking. Anything else is a reproduction.

So if the original is a watercolor, or an oil, etc. and then you get digital copies of it, or four color separations, etc. all of those are reproductions of the original. However, it’s hard to sell something when you describe it as a reproduction, and thus why dealers and artists alike describe their reproductions are “prints”.

Giclees is a modern artsy way to describe a reproduction. Giclee is the French word for “spray” or “spurt.” It describes the Iris burst printers originally used to make the beautiful new digital reproductions that started appearing in the art world around 15 years ago.

Nothing pisses off a print maker faster than hearing a reproduction called a print.

Currently Section II of the TF Bylaws state in (D) that:

“Work created at the Art Center must be original as defined by Standards and Practices For Arts and Crafts in the House Rules. Such work is not to be competitive with local merchants.”

So the TF artists are not supposed to be selling reproductions of their artwork from their studios, and I understand that the membership will request to the Board of Directors that this section be deleted and thus allow artists to sell reproductions of their work.

I’m torn a little by this.

On one hand, in theory it gives the general public an opportunity to acquire a signed reproduction of an original work, and in theory that cheaper more affordable art commodity offers the artist a new avenue of income. Those who can’t afford the original buy a signed poster reproduction, usually described as a “limited edition, signed and numbered print”.

Nearly everyone else does it, and locally in the Greater DC region, one of the top art galleries is also become nationally well-known as the print maker to the art stars, and in the last few years nearly all galleries, both regional and national now offer more affordable reproductions limited editions of their pricier, more popular artists.

I have done it myself in the past with some of my larger, more expensive original drawings.

On the other hand, allowing selling of reproductions does in some sense dilute the sense of art as an original commodity. And then we start getting into the 21st century argument of what is an “original” in digital artwork, and what about photographers with multiple editions, and photographers with open editions, and even true print makers who once they sell out of the original set of prints, decide to dig out the original plate and pump out a second set of prints or a second edition.

See how complicated this got really quick? Nothing in life is really simple.

But the artists have apparently already voted and will soon request that they be allowed to sell reproductions, so in this case, my opinions and the issues have been overtaken by events (OBE) as they say in military lingo.

Although the Board still has to vote on it, I think. But let’s file that for now.

What about bringing in a “younger set of artists” to the building?

For their own sake, I hope they mean “younger” to really mean in terms of artistic development and not just age. Otherwise expect lawsuits from the gray-haired artist who just finished his/her MFA at MICA at age 60.

But this idea does have some merit and deserves some critical thinking.

I am and have been for years a great supporter of the TF and its presence, but in my opinion their Achilles heel is in fact their greatest paradox in a sense, and it is their artistic refreshment rate. If it wasn’t for the terrific job that the Target Gallery (on the first floor of the TF) does with their national calls for artists, we’d rarely see a new name at the Factory.

Paradox because one of the greatest assets of the Factory is the continuous presence of some of their power artists such as Rosemary Feit Covey, BJ Anderson, Susan Makara and others. But because the turnover rate of artists retiring or leaving is so rare and slow, it takes a long time for a studio to become available, and new artists show up almost always through complex process of studio subletting, temporary subleasing, etc. Many of the artist tenants have been there since the very first day that the TF opened its doors to the public (in fact I curated a show of their work a few years ago).

Achilles heel because it is very difficult for a “new” artist to get a permanent space at the Factory. Once a year, the Torpedo Factory puts out a call for artists who wish to be considered for a studio space. Generally about 70-80 applicants enter the annual jury process and about six or seven are accepted. But “accepted” doesn’t mean that they get a space; rather it sort of means that they are in line for when a space becomes available.

Every time that I post the TF’s call for artists (there’s a fee involved), I get a flurry of emails from artists complaining about the process.

This needs new thinking and a new approach, for I am on the side of those who opine that new blood is always good for any artistic community endeavor.

As with any group effort, I am pretty sure that about 5% of the artist members of the Factory do 95% of the actual communal work to keep the Factory working. That 95% will be the, however, the most vocal opposed to any change that may put some studio space in jeopardy.

It has to happen.

Not that it will result in immediate improvement, nor in the way that the art critics around this town view the TF (traditional artwork only, whatever that means). Don’t expect Jessica Dawson or Blake Gopnik or any most of the art bloggers to suddenly put the TF in the same perspective as the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh or the Painted Bride in Philly, etc.

Even if Andrea Fraser decided to do her new naked nude museum/art center sex video at the TF or Shepard Fairey decided to move his studio to the TF tomorrow (and got accepted), the galvanized minds of many would be hard to convince that “change” has come to Old Town Alexandria’s first among equals.

But slowly and surely it would work, and here and there a new, “young” artist would push some of the traditional and well-known buttons that get artists and their art instant notoriety and press: sex, nudity, anti-Christian art, bodily fluids, flag desecration, anti-President, anti-Israel, pro-some anti-American dictator, etc. Some if not most of that is hackneyed recycled art in new wrapping, but among the set of “younger” artists would almost certainly be those with new ideas and new concepts and new vitality and energy, which after all is the essence of what I think the Factory thinks it needs.

And a warning to the politicians who subsidize the TF: be careful what you wish for. With new artists and new ideas will come some of what I described above, and then what will happen (as it always does) is that the ugly hand of censorship will rise and the politicians will get involved and demand censorship or the $3M yearly subsidy goes away.

This will of course, bring instant worldwide press to the TF: “Torpedo Factory artist censored by Alexandria Town Council!” the headlines will shout.

But enough nonsense; how can the TF refresh their artists base on a more regular schedule/rotation?

The easiest way would be to make a certain number of studios available on a resident base, so that visiting artists could have the studio space for a year or two and then rotate (maybe they already do this, I’m not sure). Some of these residencies should be made available to recent MFA graduates, perhaps some should be made available to genres currently not represented at the Factory, such as the 60-year-old genre of video art.

Perhaps another, and harsher way would be to have an established procedure where current artists are re-examined on a yearly or biannual, or whatever time frame to re-evaluate their performance and artistic qualifications for having a permanent presence at the Factory. In a sense like the academic community does for their tenure track faculty.

Produce or be gone, or in this case, show us what you are doing, other than painting the same painting over and over again and selling it off to the tourists.

Awright, awright… so I’ve rambled enough and only touched the surface of this complex issue; expect more as I dig out more information and more ideas. This is the surface of the artberg and some of the above ideas and perceptions may be off base, but they’re my opinion… so far. I’d like to hear your opinions and constructive criticism. Send me an email (to lenny@lennycampello.com) and I will publish them here and start some sort of dialogue.

To the TFAA: I will also gladly ramble in person with any/all of you if you want my input ad hoc as it comes across.

More later… stay tuned.

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  1. August 10, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    bj anderson Said,

    Very interesting article on the TF. I’m away for 2 months and am well aware of what is going on since I’m on the Board of Directors there. You have an interesting take on what’s going on. Although I’ve not met you I’m aware of who you are and I’d like to say thanks for the compliment. At least I took it that way.
    bj anderson

  2. August 12, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    Lenny Said,

    Hi BJ,

    It’s a very well-deserved and well-earned compliment!


  3. October 6, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    P Bryan Said,

    A good analysis of some of the pressing issues of the Torpedo Factory. As a former (sub-leasing)member of a cooperative gallery at TFAC, I would like to address the limited hours of the TFAC. My understanding has always been that the TFAA members decide the opening hours. If I were considering City of Alexandria funding to the TF, I would be asking, in exchange for funding, for opening hours convenient to the public as well as the artists. In my experience, many actual and potential visitors to the TF are those in the city on business. I often met people rushing in after a day of meetings, trying to cram in a visit between 4/4:30 and 5 PM, when the TF closes. They could not get there earlier, but were surely interested in staying later, and getting beyong the 1st floor. Alas, the doors are locked at 5 PM. Many of my sales took place in this rushed time context, and I was on the 1st floor. I do know that sales have been terrible at the TF in recent years. The quality of the work, and a more competitive arts/retail environment are not the only factors. The TF is simply not open late enough for the working public (resident and visitors) to visit. I believe later weekday hours, and some of the other changes you suggest, are critical for the TF to continue being relevant to the City of Alexandria’s revitalization.

  4. January 21, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

    Rosemary Luckett Said,

    It seems to me like City Council critics of the Torpedo Factory Art Center are under the assumption that making and selling art is like any other retail business; that if the doors are left open, drinks sold on the premises, and lots of “events” are planned, the public will haul on in there and spend some substantial cash.
    Cash that translates into more sales tax revenue coming back to city coffers ostensibly to offset rent subsidies to artists. These artists have got to be better at markieting. They ought to start paying their way no matter if their main goal is education. Add a complex calendar of special extraneous events to plan and execute, and artist don’t have time to focus, let alone get some serious artwork going. But some manage it and do fine work besides.
    Sure, some long time artists should have been recycled out of their spaces long ago. But be careful what you ask for city folks, because an injection of new younger artists would be the kick in the pants the Art Center and the city needs…but, like you say, censorship might not be far behind. For sure controversial art isn’t likely to boost sales.
    I commend the TFAA artists (this organization includes ALL the artists plus non-resident associates) who are busting their butts to keep the Torpedo Factory alive and well. It may be a little more lively now, but entertaining the populace by events and holiday parties is not necessarily a sign of wellness; rather just a succumbing to the notion of art as “entertainment. ” People milling around looking for a visual “pretty” for an hour before picking up a $20 souvenir (maybe) and heading out the door to dine at one of the pricey restaurants up King Street. Food for the belly wins out over food for the soul these days.

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