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Lorton Arts Foundation Sets Sights on Self-Sustainment

The Workhouse Arts Center is in for some big changes this year.

The nonprofit Lorton Arts Foundation has been in the red since the opened in 2008, and LAF President and CEO John Mason has a goal to make the complex self-sustaining by summer 2013.

"We have been operating at a loss," Mason told Patch. "How can we do that? You move some money around to cover your immediate expenses, and, at the end of the year, the negative balance gets carried to the next year. At some point, you run out of opportunities to plug holes, and so here we are in 2012, and we're coming to grips with a new business model that hopefully makes sense."

County Assistance

The LAF reported that revenue dropped to negative $500,000 in 2010 from $2.75 million in 2009, according to the nonprofit's most recent tax documents. Also, the foundation took in $1.44 million in contributions and grants in 2010, versus $1.25 million in 2009. 

Retiring Fairfax County Executive Tony Griffin wants to help, and asked the county in his FY2013 budget to give the LAF $3.35 million (a $2.6 million increase over the annual $700,000 commitment) to cover debt service on construction bonds. The move has drawn criticism—especially during lean times. 

"That money would reduce the significant $52 million burden we bear with debt service," Mason said. "And, in our conversations with the county, the Lorton Arts Foundation has committed to be self-sustaining by next July."

The foundation needs to increase operational revenues and develop large-scale donor programs, according to a June 2011 County Office of Financial and Program audit. "The organization has possibly been too focused on the rehabilitation of the properties and planned use, rather than ensuring the current operations are producing the revenue results needed and budgeted for," said the report. "Much of this focus is understandable in that bringing the historic properties into a state of occupancy means those buildings bring revenue potential and that significant (although one-time) tax credit revenues become available."

The LAF needs help to turn things around, said Sully District Supervisor Michael Frey at a budget town hall meeting in his district. “We have let them [the LAF] know this is a one-time thing and that they can’t keep expecting this of us,” he said, .

2012: A Year For Change

The opening of the 900-person capacity Workhouse Events Center this July will be a hallmark of the year.

"This opens up the opportunity to begin renting the space for all sorts of events," said Mason, whose FY2013 budget was approved by the LAF Board last week. "Over time the space will generate enough revenue to pay for the building's enormous maintenance and facility costs, which are about $150,000 a year." 

Mason is also talking with George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College about conducting art classes on campus. "We're using 25 percent of our classroom capacity at the moment. If we were to move it up to 30 percent, we'd be making a significant jump in revenue," he said. "The goal for this year is to generate enough new revenue through campus activities to cover $3 million."    

You can also expect to see a restaurant at some point on the Workhouse grounds. "We sorely need one," Mason said. "And it would have an ABC license."

The $300,000 marketing budget remains unchanged, and artist residency at the Workhouse's 69 studios hovers at 85 percent (worth about $425,000). Mason plans on filling those empty studios by recruiting associate artists (who hang art in the main gallery W-16, but have no studio on-site) to fill the gap. 

"Associate artists serve as excellent feeders into our existing studio spaces," he said."However, there is potential for Workhouse artists to showcase their work at Reagan National and Dulles International Airports."

Mason noted that Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland and Sharon Bulova, the County Board Chair, have art from the Workhouse in their offices, "and that's a wonderful way to expose Workhouse artists," he said.

Other 2012 Projects: 

  • The renovation of a baseball field that welcomed jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong 
  • The construction of a 1,000-seat amphitheater 
  • The renovation of building W-12, a former prison gymnasium, into a 300-seat theater
  • The Workhouse Studio 3 Theatre for Young Audiences opened last fall, and, in January, began producing plays for general audiences.

What advice do you have for the Lorton Arts Foundation? Tell us in the comments box below.

Mary Jane Cobb Reyes March 29, 2012 at 08:29 PM
We have lived in Lorton 25 years and have never toured the Workhouse Arts Center. If you are looking to rent space for events then maybe some advertising to the local community regarding costs and available facilities. Mason Neck residents in the past held events at Gunston Hall which is no longer available. If we don't know the size of the rooms and the cost then we will not think to utilize the space. Mary Jane Cobb Reyes
James Cullum March 29, 2012 at 09:14 PM
Thanks for the note, Mary Jane! The stats and rates on the events center have not been released, but I'll post them as soon as possible. Also, go check out the Workhouse! Don't let another 25 years go by!
bill koch April 08, 2013 at 02:26 PM
LAF should take advantage of the historic nature of the site to attract visitors. There is a small but vibrant museum on site that has attracted over 27,000 visitors since the workhouse site has been open. This facitility should be prominately featured in all marketing efforts. Bill Koch

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