Our Man in Arlington

February 18, 2014 10:50 AM0 comments

clark-fcnpThat dome-shaped line-item in the county budget, better known as Artisphere, may have turned a corner.

Karen Vasquez, director of cultural affairs for Arlington, says the Rosslyn venue known for edgy artists, global music and administrative do-overs has boosted visitation and revenues and won “a lot of critical acclaim.”

Yes, Artisphere got off to a “shaky start” when it opened in 2010 without an executive director and unrealistic financial forecasts, Vasquez said. “But it took a step back and retooled, so the path ahead for bringing more people to Arlington is a good one.”

Her upbeat comments came Feb. 12 at the Committee of 100’s discussion of whether arts funding is “an expense or an investment.” The case was made for a government role in helping the arts do well and do good.

“STEAM not STEM” was the slogan of Attorney David Briggs, past member of the Virginia and Arlington arts commissions, bidding to add the arts to modern education’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. “The arts are not a monolith,” he said, but we all “benefit from their vitality as a civic catalyst, builder of relationships, purveyor of culture and driver of economics.”

Problem is “there’s no clear funding pattern – it’s a patchwork quilt,” Briggs said. Earned revenue supports barely a third of the typical arts organization, and both corporate and government support have declined.

Virginia funding plummeted in recent years from 82 cents per capita to 42 cents, he said, lower than that of West Virginia (62 cents) and North Carolina (72 cents), and far lower than Maryland’s $2.20 per capita and the District’s whopping $17.32. Arlington, Briggs said, manages a 90 cents per capita arts investment.

The value of dance, theater, music, painting – to seniors, disabled veterans, the mentally challenged – comes on top of the revenue generated for, say, restaurants in Shirlington by just the Signature Theatre, Briggs said.

Maggie Boland, Signature’s managing director, described how the spanking modern facility grew out of Arlington’s arts incubator program begun in 1990, graduating from space at Gunston Middle School to a “garage” on Four Mile Run to its spot as anchor tenant in hopping Shirlington.

The goal “was to see professional theater in Arlington,” which meant performers were paid, but the staff, at first, was not. Known for “producing large-scale musicals in intimate spaces” Signature – which won a Tony Award in 2009 – uses more than half its $7 million budget directly for shows, the remainder for staff and marketing. The recent production of “Miss Saigon” cost $750,000 for rights, an 18-member unionized cast and marketing of the risqué play.

County Manager Barbara Donnellan, who helped funnel a $250,000 grant for Signature last year, “is our landlord and a great advocate for the arts,” Boland said, stressing that Signature pays the community back by working with thousands of schoolchildren.

The county “gives money and lets audiences vote with their pocketbooks,” said Vasquez. The move of the arts from Parks and Recreation to Economic Development two years ago “was no accident,” she added. She cites $4 million in local revenue and 2,500 jobs the arts bring the county. The $200,000 annual “investment contributes to Arlington’s attractiveness as a place to live and work. Businesses go where the talent is,” she said. But if you believe the arts make better human beings, why tally the investment?

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