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151 Bank Street: Artists’ spaces at Westbeth

  • William B. Harris - Walking Tour

William Harris reviewed several performances at the Exchange Theater at Westbeth, including the Belgian based avant-garde performers Le Plan K and a production of a young David Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room. His favorite may have been his review of Fable, a collaborative work by Jean-Claude Van Italie, Joseph Chaikin, and Richard Peaslee. He took a program, found a seat, pulled out a blue ballpoint pen, and divided his mind. While his analytical side took notes for his review, the side that simply loved theatre entered into the experience, engaged in the interaction between the play’s pacing and its music, and watched the script play with the narrative, jumping across time and changing points of view. Appropriately, the setting was also experimental. Westbeth was a pioneer in adaptive building reuse, occupying a factory built in 1868 by Western Electric, a telegraph-equipment manufacturer, and purchased in 1898 by Bell Telephone, which until 1966 housed its research-and-development lab there. It was also a pioneer in creating artists’ space. One of its founders, Robert L. Stevens, the first chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, had the idea that support for the arts meant support for artists. He worked with a friend, Jacob M. Kaplan of the J.M. Kaplan Fund to involve the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Borough President Perch Sutton, who arranged for special zoning converting the industrial building to a residence, and Bankers Trust, which provided a mortgage for the necessary renovations. The building, named for its place at the corner of West and Bethune Streets, opened May 19, 1970, with four hundred units in which artists could live and work, plus venues for engaging the public such as the Exchange Theater. Finally, Westbeth became an experiment in how support for the arts became support for people. As the artists retired, they stayed in their apartments. In 2007, Westbeth closed its list of prospective artist-tenants and began to operate as a legacy building, continuing to rent those who already lived there, and giving residents’ children, artists or not, preference in renting vacant apartments. It is unfortunate that William Harris died in 2000. His combination of aesthetic appreciation for performance and his keen analysis of the practical issues of production would have been perfect for writing a history of Westbeth.