Exterior shot of the Artisphere. (Anice Hoachlander/ )
Artisphere will celebrate its first anniversary this weekend with music, a new video work and a Sunday afternoon open house. Behind the scenes at the Rosslyn arts space, however, the revelry is muted.
The Arlington County-funded arts center, which opened Oct. 10 last year in the Newseum’s former space, projected it would have 300,000 visitors in its first year. As of the end of last month, it had hosted about 90,000. And the venue for art, theater, film, music and more, whose build-out cost $6.7 million, had to request an additional $800,000 to supplement the $3 million appropriated for its first annual operating budget.
“Our original business plan had very aggressive projections,” says Executive Director Jose Ortiz, who arrived in January from the Harvard Art Museum, where he was deputy director. (He previously held a deputy post at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.) “In terms of those expectations, no, we didn’t make those.”
“One of the projections was that every performance was going to be at capacity,” he says. “For a brand-new facility, that’s impossible.”
Ortiz is enthusiastic about what Artisphere has achieved, which includes the recent “Photo 11” group show, film programs that range from arty documentaries to horror flicks, two sold-out appearances by folk singer Dar Williams, zydeco and salsa dances in the ballroom, and artist residencies at the Works in Progress gallery. But he says that a new business plan is being prepared. It should be ready to present to the Arlington County Board at the end of next month. “We are looking at every part of our operation,” he says.
One move that Ortiz is prepared to announce is the hiring of a new director of programming, Rosanna Ruscetti, formerly director of George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Her job is to make more things occur in a facility that’s considerably less bustling than its planners anticipated.
“The Artisphere as it was conceived never happened,” says Jon Palmer Claridge, who was in line to become the center’s first director but left six months before it opened.
“The original business plan was predicated on having this buzz of activity,” says the 20-year veteran of Arlington’s cultural affairs office, who opted to retire when it appeared that the venue would not fulfill its potential.
“We just wanted it to be a place where people are,” he says. “That’s why there’s the video wall and the Wi-Fi. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, let me see what my options are around the city,’ it was, ‘Oh, I’m at the Artisphere. What are my choices tonight here?’ So you have multiple gallery options and multiple theater options.”
This vision is not Claridge’s alone. “Before it opened, I said this is like a big, big D.C. space,” says Artisphere Visual Arts Director Cynthia Connolly, referring to the Seventh and E streets NW venue where she once worked. The venue, which closed in 1993, was known principally as an artists’ bar and punk-rock showcase, but it sometimes hosted jazz, performance art or films.
“I visualize this place as constantly being full of people coming here for different reasons and finding the other things that are happening,” she says. “It doesn’t happen all the time. It would be amazing if it was happening all the time.”
Claridge and another former Arlington arts employee, Norma Kaplan, agree that a major drawback of Artisphere at first was the lack of a restaurant. The county negotiated with Busboys and Poets but couldn’t come to terms. The bar/restaurant that operates in the facility has a limited menu, and it didn’t arrive until March, six months after Artisphere opened.
“I can’t put that kind of pressure on Busboys and Poets to say, ‘If they were here, this would have been really different,’ ” Ortiz says. “It could have been, yes. But we have to sort of stand on our own.”
Nonetheless, he says, “that piece of our business will more than likely change. We may have opportunities to engage other restaurateurs.”
Financial issues altered the center’s concept before it even opened, says Kaplan, former head of Arlington Cultural Affairs and now managing director of the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J.
“Some of the fixed costs for the center went up, which meant that some of the programming costs were cut,” she says. “So they couldn’t hire the same number of artists or have the same frequency of events. The programming costs were cut, but the ticket income wasn’t adjusted. You can’t cut one and not deal with the other.”
“Also, salaries were higher than projected,” she says. “Almost everybody who came in, came in higher. I think that was close to $130,000 of personnel costs that went up. So that again was cut from the programming, to make the budget be revenue-neutral. There’s only so much that can be absorbed that way.”