Local Commentary

Our Main in Alington

A new battle is looming in the sacred halls of the Arlington County Board.

No, it is not about taxes. That issue has already been resolved this year, with reasonably satisfying results for Arlington homeowners who have suffered less from the region’s general decline in residential property values than others.

This time we are dealing with the broad category of art and culture, a subject that can generate even greater passion than taxing and spending, at least in Arlington.

At issue is the future use of the Newseum space in Roslyn that was vacated when the Newseum was moved to its new location on Pennsylvania Avenue within sight of the U.S. Capitol, arguably its most prolific source of artifacts.

The old space has remained vacant for almost six years, except for occasional exhibits such as the recent spectacular “Bodies: The Exhibition,” which exhibited everything you might want to know about the human body, and a lot you didn’t want to know.

Now, the county has acquired use of the space for at least ten years in return for approval of a major mixed-use development in the heart of Roslyn. The County Board has asked the county staff to engage in the long process of deciding how to best use the space. The county is now in the process of reaching out to museums and cultural organizations in the area.

The County Board will make the final decision.

And, of course, there will be intense community involvement – in the grand tradition of the Arlington Way.

Recent suggestions that the Corcoran Gallery of Art may be interested in the space has caused many Arlington advocates for the development of a multi-use local cultural center to reiterate their strong support of a center that would incorporate theater space, a concert hall, and exhibit facilities to be used by Arlington cultural organizations. As Stephen Luchter, President of Arlington Citizens for the Arts, wrote in a recent letter to the Arlington Sun Gazette: “Many of our theater, dance, and music groups struggle to find suitable performance space. The county is woefully short of visual arts exhibition spaces as well as support spaces for arts groups and artists, and some currently available spaces .. will be lost in the near future.”

Arlington arts groups have been pressing for a major cultural center for almost as long as I have lived in Arlington (40+ years). We have come close, but never quite made it. While the county has done reasonably well in some areas, it still needs the kind of space envisioned by the Arlington Citizens for the Arts.

The rub is that even with the space provided by the developers, a great deal of money is needed to run such a multi-faceted operation. Operating expenses alone will run in excess of $500,000 a year – before the inner space for an exhibition is outfitted, a play is produced, or a concert is tagged. Any group making a specific recommendation must also present a viable plan of paying for it.

I fervently hope that our goal of a major Arlington cultural center devoted to local cultural organizations can finally become a reality. It will be well worth the expense.

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