It’s a short trip through the artwork located next to the large green torpedo and up the skinny black spiral staircase to Linda Hafer’s office where she’s worked to cultivate and grow Alexandria’s Art League School.
Executive Director Hafer announced in a March school newsletter that she’d be retiring in October.
“Fifteen years is a long time. It’s time to move on,” she told Patch.
Her love for the league carried her from a position as a volunteer there to a job as a gallery assistant and eventually up the stairs to the administrative offices.
“I love the energy of this place and the dedication of the people—the students and staff,” said Hafer, who used to create her own art through etchings and printmaking before moving to the administrative side of things.
When she took the reins in 1997, the school had just expanded into the Madison Annex and was staffed mostly by volunteers. She moved the group to a more full-time, permanent staff and began offering employees health insurance.
The nonprofit, which was founded in 1954, now has about 14 full-time employees, but with part-time, seasonal help the number of workers can jump as high as 30.
When asked to reflect on her accomplishments, she is proud of the school’s growth but lights up when talking about programs such as a Space of Her Own, or SOHO, which helps fifth-grade girls gain self-esteem and other key qualities through self-empowerment and art.
“SOHO was a structured response to what the city outlined would help this population of girls,” she said. “It’s grown, and it’s amazing.”
Other initiatives that serve the school’s 7,000 students annually—students often take multiple classes so there are about 11,000 “chairs” filled per year—include events such as the Patrons Show.
Participants pay $175 to attend the event and ticket-holders go home with a work of art valued anywhere from $175 to thousands of dollars. The fundraiser has doubled in size since Hafer took over.
This year, the biennial Ikebana Show in late May will be preceded by a national call for “implements of tea,” which will become part of a tea ceramics show at the school’s gallery.
“I’m really pleased with the number of collaborations we do, like with [the Washington, D.C., branch of the Sogetsu School] and with the Del Ray Artisans,” she said.
Hafer said events like the Patrons Show are important fundraisers for the school, and fundraising has expanded during her tenure.
“We didn’t use a fundraising model when I started, but I realized in order to keep our student tuition fees low to attract a diverse student body and offer scholarships for adults and children, we needed to move in that direction,” she said. “It’s helped us have the ability to keep fees stable.”
The Art League also benefits from city support. The city does allocate any money toward the nonprofit, but it does allow it to lease space in the Torpedo Factory at below-market rates.
The offices are leased through the Torpedo Factory Board via the city, Hafer explained.
The school has physically grown by a factor of 27 since moving into the Torpedo Factory in 1974, according to Hafer, who noted that the school and the factory are two separate nonprofits. The Torpedo Factory houses the Art League, the Alexandria Archaeology Museum along with 82 artist studios and six galleries.
“It’s great to be a part of a city that supports arts organizations,” she said, adding that in turn the league attracts students who shop and dine in Old Town and has helped put Alexandria on the map as an arts destination.
The league also must shutter its Duke Street Annex by August as its landlord seeks to turn the building into a hotel or other venture as part of the city’s waterfront redevelopment. However, Hafer said the league is working with its landlord at the Madison Street space to expand there. It then will be primarily located in the Torpedo Factory and at the Madison Annex.
Hafer is no stranger to moving. She oversaw the replacement of the former King Street Annex with the Duke Street Annex in 2001. The King Street space had second- and third-floor classrooms only accessible by steep, narrow steps. The move to Duke Street "was a particularly appreciated one because it was accessible—being on one floor and with an entrance right from the garage," she said.
"That expansion and subsequent growth were pretty pivotal factors in the growth of The Art League during my tenure," Hafer said.
As for Hafer’s plans after the Art League—on Oct. 1 she retires and on Oct. 2 she heads to Ireland for a vacation.