As anybody who has ever planned a visit to Old Town, Alexandria, VA, US knows, the Torpedo Factory is a must-see attraction. Even though it is a priority destination for the area’s thousands of tourists annually, somehow there are still people locally who have no idea about the treasure trove of original art available to them a mere metro stop away.
If you unknowingly came upon the building while wandering around Old Town’s charming restaurants and shops, you might not realize what you had found. It’s pale stone exterior doesn’t begin to hint at the variety of artistry and creativity at work inside its walls on a daily basis.
Believe it or not, the Torpedo Factory Art Center actually began it’s life as…a torpedo factory. Beginning in 1918, it was a critical component of the American war machine, including furious production of torpedoes of various types throughout World War II. After the war ended, the cavernous space was used merely as storage by the federal government, until the City of Alexandria purchased it in 1969.
Situated on the Potomac River waterfront, the building was huge and well-placed for a significant community improvement project, but no development took place until May 1974. By September of that year, the Torpedo Factory was open to the public as a newly renovated gallery and studio space for artists. Most of the studios had already been reserved from a long list of juried artists. Resident artists have always been enthusiastic about the space. Many suffered through the lack of decent heating or air conditioning in the seventies and early eighties, until a major renovation turned the art center into the modern space it is today.
The Art Center is now home to 165 artists in 82 studios, along with six galleries, two workshops, the Art League School, and the Alexandria Archeology Museum. My favorite feature of the Torpedo Factory, and the reason I love to visit, is that you can actually meet and talk to the artists. All resident artists hold open studio hours, during which you can visit with them, see them at work, chat with them about their creative process, as well as purchase original art. Visitors are actually encouraged to ask questions and to watch the artists at work. (Below, painter Caroline Emmet Heald prepares to start work.)
The Torpedo Factory is always looking for new artists! The annual jury process is about to begin, and all artists working in fine art and fine crafts are encouraged to apply, including work in fiber, jewelry, ceramics, glass, film, and more. The jury changes annually and is comprised of individuals not affiliated with the Torpedo Factory. The jurors are given absolutely no guidance or suggestions about what kind of art or artist to accept. They are themselves working artists, curators, professors, and gallery owners, and their decisions are final. Sometimes all applicants are accepted, sometimes none. Sometimes accepted artists all work in the same medium; sometimes they are all different. It is a major priority of the Torpedo Factory to keep the jury process completely fair and unbiased.
The Torpedo Factory is much more than just gallery and studio space for its resident artists. The Art League School (a separate organization that is housed within the Art Center building) offers a wide variety of art classes in multiple disciplines that serve more than 2,000 students per term. The independent galleries incorporate the works of hundreds of national and international artists, with an extensive schedule of juried and curated exhibits.
Finally, the Torpedo Factory hosts numerous events and collaborates with several community organizations and businesses to increase awareness and vitality of the arts in Alexandria. A new initiative in the works is called “Handcrafted Alexandria,” in which the Art Center is collaborating with several Alexandria area business that focus on handcrafted goods. Watch this space for details when that enterprise is launched!
The Torpedo Factory Art Center is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and is open late on Thursdays. Artists’ studio hours vary. (105 N Union St, Alexandria VA)