Thursday, April 26, 2007

Torpedo Factory

Katherine Knight

The Torpedo Factory. I’ve been hearing about it from the moment I set foot in DC. At first it was ‘New artist in town? You must visit the Torpedo Factory! You’ll love it.’ Once I was renting studio space from an artist’s co-op in Takoma Park, visitors would say ‘these studios are nice, but have you been to the Torpedo Factory? Wow, now there’s a facility. The artists there are really something.’ Then, when I was teaching classes at a community center in southern Maryland my adult students would say ‘I used to take classes at the Torpedo Factory; the teachers there are really top notch. If it wasn’t for all the traffic on that bridge…’ I won’t pretend that this didn’t get really old, really fast. The final straw, though, came about a year ago when I heard a lengthy NPR segment expounding upon the many virtues of the Torpedo Factory- their talented artists, the good they did in the community, their lengthy history in Washington (it’s in ALEXANDRIA). That did it. What did these guys have that the rest of is didn’t? Hadn’t my studio been thriving in DC proper for over 20 years? (Yes, it had!) Wasn’t my community center doing good by offering cheap art classes to underprivileged kids who didn’t get art in school? (Yes, it was!) What made these guys so special? Fancy real-estate? I had had it. The Torpedo Factory was dead to me. They were my nemesis. I vowed never to set foot in the place.

Until today. I don’t know what came over me. Maybe, it’s because my first year of grad school is rapidly drawing to a close and I’m already freaking out about life after school. It is likely that I will remain in DC for a while, and if the Torpedo Factory really is the bee’s knees in DC, maybe it’s worth looking into. I could at least check it out. What harm could that do?

It pains me to admit that at first glance, everything I’d heard about the Torpedo Factory seemed to be true. It is beautiful. The first floor studios are huge, and each backs up to a two story window. A few of these windows look out over the Alexandria marina and the Potomac. It houses five separate galleries, the Art League school, 82 working studios, and over a hundred individual artists. The space is modern, open, and inviting. Plus it was surprisingly busy for 3:00 on a Tuesday afternoon.

I started to notice things, though, as I wandered around. Most of the studios are occupied by two artists if not more. This would be fine except that the majority of each studio is dominated by a large exhibition or display space, with a tiny or even miniscule functional workspace crammed in the back. In most cases, it would be impossible to fit more than one person into the workspace at a time. How do they get anything done? Do they organize shifts? Furthermore, all of these work spaces are pristine (even the ceramics!). Out of all the studios I visited, I saw not one mess to rival the mess in my studio on its cleanest day. It was at this moment that I noticed the most shocking thing of all: I was looking at all of this through glass. One entire wall of each studio -not the windows I mentioned earlier, but a wall facing the open interior of the building- is made of glass. You can go in your studio and shut the door, but there is always the possibility that someone will be looking over your shoulder. Many of the artists I saw were working on tiny collages or watercolors at the sort of desk appropriate to a CEO’s office. Others were working on easel paintings while chatting to friends or visitors over their shoulders. Remember that this building is open to the public and busy; even on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s like an artist petting zoo. The only people who seemed legitimately at home were the jewelers.

I cannot imagine being creative in such an oppressively clean, non-private environment. How is anyone able to actually connect with what they’re doing? I realize that disorganized privacy might be a particular neurosis of mine, so to this end I decided to question one of the artists about the Torpedo Factory lifestyle. Who knows; maybe the benefits outweigh the inconveniences. Finding someone to question proved to be difficult; not because the artists were rude or standoffish, but because I felt so bad about interrupting them. Finally, on the third floor, I encountered someone who seemed amenable to questioning. Laura Weaver Huff is a printmaker who has been a member of the Torpedo Factory since the 1970’s. She was able to answer all my questions.

The Torpedo Factory is a completely artist-run organization (there are no hired administrators). Each artist has to be juried in by a committee of artists/ teachers/ curators who are not affiliated with the Torpedo Factory. The selection process takes place once a year. There are many more admitted members than there are individual spaces. Admitted members who are not studio lease-holders are Associate members. They are allowed to sublet space, or a portion of a space, from full members, or to join a group and utilize a group studio (such as the Printmakers Inc). Artists who neither sublet nor join a group are put onto a waiting list, where they stay until a full member picks them for a sublet/group, or their number comes up. These individuals have to keep reapplying every year until they gain access to studio space.

This is where the conundrum begins. Each artist pays dues each month and rent, which is dependant on the square footage of the studio (or whatever you work out with your lease-holder, if you are subletting). The city of Alexandria subsidizes the rent because otherwise affording anything on the waterfront would be impossible. I did not ask specifically what the rent was like, but owing to the number of people squeezed into the studios I imagine that it is not inconsequential, even with the subsidy. In return for subsidizing some of its best property, the city requires that the Torpedo Factory do its part to ‘educate’ the public about the arts. This means that the studios are open to the public, and that the artists themselves are required to be there to keep their studios open during business hours between three and four days a week (the number of required hours per week increases with the number of artists subletting the studio- some artists expected to volunteer up to 30 hrs/week!). Thus the conundrum: who can afford it? The amount of volunteer hours would make it difficult-if not impossible- to have any kind of regular job, but who can afford the rent without a job? Laura Weaver Huff explained that there are basically two types of artists at the Torpedo Factory: Those who actually sell enough work to pay the rent, and those who are retired, are being supported by their spouses, or are otherwise wealthy enough to absorb the cost.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with the Torpedo Factory: it is a self-limiting system. To be a successful Torpedo Factory artist there is pressure to be commercially appealing; moreover to be commercially appealing to the type of consumer that is attracted to Old Town Alexandria (you can draw your own conclusions about this). Those artists who are exempt from the financial pressures must belong to a certain tax and often age bracket, and are also likely to produce a certain kind of art. Furthermore, the place itself, with its glass walls, tiny workspaces, and aestheticization of process, would drive away any artist unwilling of making their work in a living room-like setting. What that ultimately means is that at the Torpedo Factory you will find nice art. It is well crafted, pretty, and would look good on any wall, on any coffee table, or in any niche next to the telephone. It is comfortable. With one exception (Rosemary Feit-Covey’s dark prints) it is not challenging or thought provoking in any way.

I get the feeling, though, that the Torpedo Factory is fine with all of this. I don’t think they are bothered one bit by the fact that their self-limiting system keeps more ambitious, less conventional, or frankly younger artists out. In fact, they might even prefer it that way. There are benefits to working at the Torpedo Factory. A lot is done to promote and publicize the work of their artists. They have the opportunity to teach classes or workshops at the Art League School to supplement their income. And of course there is the prestige and attention that comes with being associated with such a highly visible organization. I find it frustrating that these resources and opportunities are being provided to a section of the art world that may not really need the help; namely the well-off, appropriate, and/or commercially viable. I do not deny that this section of the art world is as valid as any other, but wouldn’t these particular people be as successful in any other setting? The Torpedo Factory, in my mind, would be far more exciting if it provided space and opportunities for emerging artists, experimental artists, and people who were actually engaging in their work. Sadly this will never be; primarily because the Torpedo Factory has no interest in doing that, but also because the entire infrastructure, from the way the group is organized to the building’s design, would be unable to support such a change. The Torpedo Factory has sought out and filled a very specific niche, and there it will have to stay.

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