News & Politics

The Artisphere Is Closing. Who Should You Blame?

Photograph by Randy Santos

When Arlington County officials shuttered Artisphere, the five-year-old arts center in Rosslyn, they pointed to the $2.3 million they would save taxpayers next year. “It was a business decision as opposed to a decision about the county’s commitment to the arts,” deputy county manager Carol Mitten says. “We couldn’t wait for Artisphere to support itself.”

There’s no doubt the closure will hit artists hard. Holly Bass—a poet and performance artist who staged video performances, exhibited her photos, and taught creative writing at Artisphere—regrets the loss. “You have this beautiful, fully equipped space that welcomed national and international artists as well as local and regional artists,” Bass says. “That’s very rare.” But for her, it’s not about the money.

Across the Potomac, Bass has benefited from generous funding. In the past year, with a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, she taught performance in South Africa, went to Paris to produce a photo series exploring race and exploitation, and brought a French choreographer to perform at the Kennedy Center.

Besides its grants and purchases of local art to display in city-owned buildings, the District—which has nearly doubled its arts funding in five years—has invested in innovative public-art projects, such as a recent one that wrapped ten recycling trucks in designs by local artists. In Maryland, the Prince George’s County towns of Hyattsville, North Brentwood, Brentwood, and Mount Rainier have turned a two-mile strip of Route 1 into the Gateway Arts District, which sponsors events and helps artists find studio space.

Not that the local creative community waits around for handouts. As a mixed-media artist who has shown here for a decade, I know that local artists donate countless hours to pull off events like Artomatic, a free monthlong event that occurs every 12 to 18 months, filling empty buildings with artwork and performances.

Even a little support pays off. While teaching in France, DC native Ariana Austin experienced Nuit Blanche, a happening that fills vacant lots and other nontraditional spots around Paris with art for one night each year. Though she had no background in arts programming, Austin wanted to bring the event home, so in 2011 she recreated the arts extravaganza with a $15,000 grant from the District’s arts commission. Last September, more than 30,000 people attended Art All Night. (Austin now heads French Thomas Creative, an arts-event company that plans programs year-round.)

“We’re all being asked to grow,” says Lisa Richards Toney, interim director of the DC arts commission. “It’s an exciting time.”

Meanwhile, there’s one less reason for anyone to go to Rosslyn. “It sent a detrimental message,” says Janet Kopenhaver, chair of the Arlington Commission for the Arts, which lobbied to keep Artisphere alive. “When you close our only cultural center near the Metro, it says something.”

Brendan L. Smith is a DC journalist and mixed-media artist.

This article appears in our July 2015 issue of Washingtonian.