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Arts-advocacy group wants county's support, but not its cash

Embracing Arlington Arts says it has a willing partner to get venue built

An advocacy group aiming to create a community performance venue in Arlington says local-government backing of the concept will be needed to make it work, but local-government funds will not.

“We have identified an investor/finance partner that is seeking a cultural project [in the Washington area], which also includes housing units,” said Janet Kopenhaver, who heads Embracing Arlington Arts, in a recent letter to supporters.

But without a sign that the county government will support the effort, “the risk is becoming greater” that the partner will bypass the county and search elsewhere, Kopenhaver said.

“We are asking county leaders to offer guidance and assistance – we are NOT asking them for funds,” she said, asking the public to contact elected officials in support of the effort.

Embracing Arlington Arts in 2022 laid out a plan for a venue that it estimated would cost about $10 million to build and, based on its business model, require a modest annual subsidy to operate. But early optimism that a site could be found quickly and construction started by late 2023 or early 2024 did not bear fruit.

Boosters of the proposal are well aware of the pitfalls moving forward without having a fiscally responsible plan in place. They need only look to the county government’s efforts at the Artisphere, a venue that for a time occupied space in Rosslyn earlier used by the Newseum.

The government’s Artisphere business model was based on what turned out to be wildly overoptimistic expectations. Under real-world operations,  the off-the-beaten-path venue bled cash until officials in 2015 put the facility and taxpayers out of their collective misery and shut it down.

“This is not another Artisphere,” Kopenhaver said in her letter to supporters.The proposed venue “can be managed by a third-party non-profit organization, and expenses paid through rental income and some fund-raising.”

The Artisphere fiasco, plus the county government’s experiences with Signature Theatre – which has required several infusions of taxpayer cash to maintain its Shirlington performance space – may have soured the government on supporting even private efforts at promoting the arts. It’s a backing away that would have shocked Arlingtonians of decades gone by, a time when the county government was doing all it could to put the county on the performing-arts map.

Even proposals that at first were ballyhooed amounted to nothing.

One example: Some years ago, the Arlignton County Board agreed to upzone a parcel near Central Library in return for the developer’s offering part of the site for use as a black-box theater. When push came to shove, however, County Manager Mark Schwartz opted to take cash from the developer instead, leaving a group of surly arts groups in the decision’s wake.

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For more on Embracing Arlington Arts and its efforts, see the Website at