By J. Taylor Basker
Something new and exciting is coming to our neighborhood, announced the Whitney on July 27th, when Westbeth Artists Housing hosted the museum’s meeting with members of the West Village community who live near Roy Lichtenstein’s studio at 745 Washington Street between Bank and Bethune Streets. Since it is right across from Westbeth, many of its artists came, along with upscale well-coiffured neighbors who own homes close by, and people from this area’s expanding art scene, which includes distinguished galleries such as White Columns.
Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum, proudly announced that Roy Lichtenstein’s studio has been generously donated to the museum by his widow, Dorothy Lichtenstein. It will be transformed into an exciting permanent home for its successful Independent Study Program (ISP), which will be much expanded. Founded in 1968, the ISP has an influential history of cultivating successful artists including Donald Judd, Ron Clark, and Julien Schnabel who also has a studio in the neighborhood. Alumni of ISP include artists Jennifer Allora, Gregg Bordowitz, Tony Cokes, Danielle Dean, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Renée Green and Jenny Holzer.
Ms. Lichtenstein stated, “Thanks to Roy, this building has been the site for artistic and intellectual endeavors, both for himself and for the people who have long gathered here. I can’t think of a more meaningful use for the studio than for the Whitney to carry his legacy far into the future, building on and expanding the role of the foundation in supporting contemporary art and artists.”
The goal of the ISP is to support the vision of the Lichtensteins—a place for artists to gather, dialogue, and create in community. Students engage in studio art, curatorial work and art history scholarship, and critical writing. They probe the context of artworks through historical, social, and intellectual factors that drive production. A select group of fifteen students are chosen for the studio program, four in curatorial, and six in the critical studies program.
The magical transformation of Lichtenstein’s studio into the ISP permanent home is under the baton, cranes, and jackhammers of the distinguished architectural firm Johnston Marklee, known for its art projects such as the renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the UCLA graduate art studios campus.
The meeting at Westbeth was called not only to inform, but also to assuage fears the neighbors may have about noise and disruption caused by construction. The plan was thoroughly explained: building additions, subtractions, and alterations required to provide an appropriate space for the goals of the ISP. Floor plans, site plans, and reconstructions of exterior elevations were shown.
One neighbor was concerned about the structural security of the expansion—adding a new level to the building—but was told that engineers were conducting thorough tests to assure that the framework would support it. The building was originally built in 1912 as a factory metalworking shop and is likely sturdy enough for the additions. Another neighbor was concerned about the aesthetics of the new façade, that repeated the brickwork but only had two windows, while the lower floors had a pattern of multiple windows (see illustration). Weinberg said they needed wall space for the artists, but would investigate the possibility of adding another window in the design.
Several neighbors repeated concerns about construction inconvenience and requested that work not begin until 8:00 a.m. It was explained that the larger construction of the addition would be limited to a few months during the winter when windows would be closed. The schedule is optimistic, with plans for completion by summer 2023, the year of Roy Lichtenstein’s centennial. Neighbors with questions were told to contact Jane Carey, senior officer of Community and Government Affairs at 646-666-5522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the summers, when not in use by the ISP, the museum expects to use the building for a diverse set of educational programs, including residencies, teacher training, and teen programs, under the competent leadership of Chair of Education Chris Scorza.
Westbeth artists offered their support and professional expertise, possible housing, mentorships, and apprenticeships. Our neighborhood continues to be enriched by art institutions, pioneered by Gertrude Whitney, who opened the Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village in 1914, presenting exhibitions by living American artists ignored by mainstream art institutions. She assembled a collection of more than 500 pieces by 1929. After her offer of these as a gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was declined, she set up her own institution with a mandate to focus exclusively on the art and artists of this country. The neighborhood was full of artists such as Edward Hopper, Ad Reinhardt, Philip Guston and Frank Stella. However, today’s rents price out most artists, and Westbeth remains their lone bastion for housing, although its rents are also rising steeply after it left HUD and became rent stabilized.
Dorothy Lichtenstein’s generosity to the Whitney is extended by her donation of the Lichtenstein sculpture on the roof, visible to Westbeth residents. Her commitment to art is concrete. The 9,000 sq. ft. space will not only include studios, classrooms for discussion, and study spaces, but also residential space for an artist-in-residence, and a communal kitchen and lounge. The Whitney hopes to offer a physical space that will evoke creativity and encourage community among artists. Perhaps the ghosts of former artists who hung out here in the past will hover over the newcomers, helping conjure up innovative imageries for the future.