In the Moment: An Interview with Workhouse Arts Center’s Ava Spece

The Workhouse Arts Center is a 55-acre cultural arts center located in southern Fairfax County. For the history minded, It was 100 years ago that Suffragettes who had protested the lack of voting rights for women in America were housed in the brick walls of what is now the re-adapted Workhouse Arts Center.

Ava Spece
Ava Spece. Photo by Caleb Keiter.

Now the Workhouse is alive and growing with opportunities and experiences in the visual arts, history, education, and the performing arts. The venue consists of artist studios and main galleries that support over 100 professional and emerging artists. For the performing arts-goers, the Workhouse provides a venue for theater; musical theater; film; music; and dance performances.

In September 2015, Ava Spece was named the CEO and President of the Workhouse Arts Center.

In a recent interview with she was clear and passionate about the upcoming season and the future of the Workhouse, she said, “The arts touch each of us, daily and deeply through experiences” that are available at the Workhouse.

In the performing arts and special events, Spece noted that the theater offerings will be re-invigorated in 2016-17. Once again, the Workhouse will produce longer run theater performances. In the upcoming months, the Workhouse will have productions including The 39 Steps, Solitary Confinement, and The Rocky Horror Show.

Spece also mentioned that the highly sought Manual Cinema will perform at the Workhouse. The Fringe Festival caliber performance will merge the visual and performing arts with a riveting “live film” production.

Quad Performance at the Workhouse Arts Center. Photo courtesy of the Center.
Quad Performance at the Workhouse Arts Center. Photo courtesy of the Workhouse Arts Center.

Other events that involve performance will include the annual July 4th fireworks display which is a high-flying performance of pyrotechnics. New this year will be the first “Workhouse Brewfest” on August 13th. The event will bring together “beer nerds, enthusiasts, and newbies” to taste creations of local craft brewers from across the area. There will also be gourmet food trucks and live bands on multiple stages.

WACBF_LogoA major musical group at the “Brewfest” will be The Claire Lynch Band with its bluegrass song, music and essence.  Also on the weekend of September 17-19, there will a jazz fest weekend coordinated through the area’s venerated Potomac River Jazz Club

So, let’s let Ava Spece speak for herself. This is Part #1 of a two-part series based upon interviews with Spece about the Workhouse. Part 1 focuses on artistic aspects. Part 2 will focus on the economic development aspects of the Workhouse Arts Center.

David: You describe the 2016-17 Workhouse season as the most ambitious season yet for the venue. Why is that?

Ava: After a series of challenges in recent years, the Workhouse is finally coming into its own as a visual arts, arts education, and performing arts organization. It’s a very exciting time for all of our programs, but especially for performing arts, which for a number of years has operated almost exclusively within a rental model for performances and performing arts education.

One of my primary goals has been to help the Workhouse and its performing arts team move away from the rental model and increase the number of in-house productions offered to the public and local communities. We typically offer about 300 performances a year, now a greater percentage of those performances will be produced by the Workhouse, with more control over the creativity, artistry, content, and quality of our performing arts programs.

Of course, we’ve enjoyed a successful history of performing arts partnerships with outside organizations in our area and across the Mid-Atlantic, and those will continue even as we produce more of our own shows.

How does the Workhouse Arts Center add to the quality of life for the citizens of Fairfax County and the nearby communities?

The Workhouse enriches the quality of life for Fairfax County residents – and even for residents of Prince William and Stafford, DC and beyond – producing each year more than 100 art exhibitions, 300 performances, and offering more than 800 arts education classes to adults and youth of all ages and skill levels. We also host special events that draw people to our campus.

All told, we welcome more than 100,000 visitors to the Workhouse every year, whether it’s to explore the grounds and galleries for the first time during our monthly, free, Second Saturday Art Walk, unwind and laugh at a Cool Cow Comedy show, view an exhibit, or take their first – or fifteenth – arts class.

Workhouse Arts Center.
The Workhouse Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Workhouse Arts Center.

The 65 resident and 30 associate artists who work and exhibit on our campus amplify the reach of the Workhouse, welcoming visitors into their studios to watch them work and chat about art, techniques, and more. There is also a museum dedicated to the history of the Workhouse and the imprisonment of suffragists who picketed the White House in 1917 for the right to vote.

Most importantly, the Workhouse provides a sense of place and pride in the region.

What are your goals for the Workhouse in the next 3-5 years?

There are so many goals for the Workhouse in the coming years, in part because there are so many advocates for the Workhouse and people in the community and County Leadership who support our efforts. It’s important when talking about potential, though, that we don’t overlook the many accomplishments that the Workhouse has already achieved: 100,000 visitors, 100 exhibitions, 300 performances, more than 800 arts education classes annually. In fact, we’re fast approaching a new strategic planning process to further define goals and priorities for both the short and long-term, and to decide how to balance our future potential with the great successes we’ve already achieved. 

We are moving forward on renovation projects in the next two years. We’ll also be dramatically reshaping our central Quad (greenspace) area at the heart of our campus. So there are exciting changes that will be very visible to the public both inside and outside on our campus.

Overall, though, the next 3-5 years will be witness to growth and development through both private and public support. We are growing our programming to further meet the needs of the area, including performing arts productions, education, and outdoor art. As we move forward, one of our primary goals is to grow the Workhouse as a destination of choice for those in the region and from across the nation – we have the facilities and the strength to reach this goal and will be able to do so with the support and contributions of the many fans and patrons who understand the value of arts in our community.

If you could invite patrons who have never visited the Workhouse to come for a visit, what would you say to them? 

A performance at The Workhouse Arts Center. Photo courtesy of the Workhouse Arts Center.
A performance at the Workhouse Arts Center. Photo courtesy of the Workhouse Arts Center.

The Workhouse Arts Center is all about one thing: experience. Whether you’re viewing an exhibit, listening to a concert, or taking a class, there’s nothing passive about a visit to the Workhouse. A Workhouse experience can unfold in many ways: discussions about art and technique with one of our resident artists; a strong emotional response to a work of art or piano performance; the thrill of riding a Ferris Wheel high above the Lorton landscape; the unique sounds, smells, and physical experience of working with clay in our Ceramics program; or simply enjoying the historic property and beautiful architecture. These experiences may or may not lead to careers in the arts, but they do create – without question – indelible experiences that will be carried with our visitors for the rest of their lives.

The arts touch each of us, daily and deeply, through experiences like these. And the Workhouse is a vibrant resource for the arts and art experiences for everyone in our community. So I’m thrilled to invite you to join us at the Workhouse to experience this unique and very special community treasure first-hand.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here