The Torpedo Factory Art Center

The Turning Arts Group are members of The Art Center Cooperative as a place to display and sell our work. For the last two years I was the Vice President and last summer The Art Center joined with The Art League of Jacksonville and The Performers Academy to start a project to work with the city of Jacksonville to convert the old unused armory building and convert it to an arts and performance center.

One of the things that made us feel this was possible is the Torpedo Factory Arts Center (TFAC) of Old Alexandria, Virginia. We have thought of there operation as our model since the beginning. Since my brother lives in DC, I felt I should make a trip to see TFAC as well as do a little family visiting. What this Florida boy didn’t reckon on was the tough winter that DC has experienced this year.

I left last Tuesday at 5:45 AM trying to get into DC at a reasonable hour. I had checked the weather in DC and it looked pretty good. However, I hadn’t checked the weather for the states in between Florida and DC. It started to rain when I hit South Carolina, then freezing rain, then flurries and by the time I hit North Carolina it was a full fledged snowstorm. I had to start channeling my “Northern Boy” driving skills from growing up in Connecticut and going to college in Syracuse.. Fortunately, the weather cleared up as I entered Virginia and the rest of the trip was fine.

Not only had I planned to see TFAC, but I had also made arrangements to meet Marian Van Landingham, the founder of TFAC on Thursday while she worked in her studio. Meeting her was a big deal since TFAC has been in operation for forty years and she has been with them the whole time. However, the DC forecast called for a major storm starting Wednesday night, so I had to change my plans and go to TFAC on Wednesday and the storm would probably mean that I wouldn’t be able to meet Marian.

My brother and I took off for TFAC early on Wednesday morning, no snow, but cold. There has been a lot of development around TFAC. When it was first started there wasn’t much development here and indeed, the art center was originally a torpedo factory.

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TFAC Main Entrance

The Torpedo Factory consists of 82 studios with 140 artists. There are also six galleries. The studios are quite big and nicely set up. Part of the reason is that each studio is considered it’s own business, that is each studio has both a retail and work space. This was the concept from the beginning. Artists need to work in their studios about 30% of the time during open hours. This is so the visitors to TFAC can interact with the artists and learn about how they create their art. Art education for the visitor was one of the primary objectives at the start.

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1st Floor Studio with retail area

There was some repainting going on, so many of the studios were draped with plastic.

The Art League maintains a school at TFAC as well as their offices and a gallery. They were the initial group in TFAC at the start, since Marian had been their President. The gallery way packed with local art.

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The Art League Gallery

The host juried shows here, but they have outgrown TFAC for the school and now run most of their classes at an annex six blocks away. I had a chance to sit down with The Art League Executive Director, Suzanne Bethel, to talk about their history and how TFAC worked. She gave me a lot of insights into the operations.

There is a lot of art on all three floors. The third floor has many studios, some interior, but many over looking the Potomac.

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3rd Floor Studio Row

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Interior 3rd Floor Studio

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3rd Floor Studio overlooking Potomac

I was glad I made the visit and it was good information for our ARTery project back at home.

I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to my meeting with Marian, so I called her to see what we could do. She said she wouldn’t be going in to paint, but maybe I could meet her at her home. We were also lucky that Kathryn McAvoy, the Executive Director of The Performers Academy from Jacksonville was in town with a school trip and was staying only a dozen blocks from Marian’s house. I told her if I could get there we’d meet up and have out\r interview with Marian.

This is what I woke up to the next morning.



Everything was closed, including TFAC. The Metro was very close to closing, but the snow had stopped, so although there were some delays they kept it running. Kathryn and I decided to walk, me from the Metro Station and her from the hotel. It was a long, cold and very wet trip, but Marian was gracious and offered us some tea to warm up. We ended up talking to her for over an hour and she filled us in on all the details of how she started TFAC, how it’s been governed,  how the artists are organized and on and on. She gave us her best advise for our project as well. I left with a ton of notes from our meeting. After another slog back to the Metro station and the ride back to Brookland, I called it quits for going out and hunkered down for the rest of the day. Another storm was coming Saturday, so I decided to leave for Florida on Friday morning and actually had a very nice trip home. More storms hit on Saturday, but I was back home making notes on the trip for the ARTery team. Even with the weather, it was well worth the trip.

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