Westbeth began as offices and research facilities for the Western Electric and Bell Telephone companies. In 1968-70 the complex became one of the first converted into housing and work space for artists. Many LGBT artists have lived at Westbeth. Among them are:
Barton Lidicé Beneš (1942-2012) created shadow boxes from collected items as well as controversial works dealing with AIDS, though many galleries would not show this work. His apartment, filled floor to ceiling with his works and his collections of animal skeletons, religious relics, celebrity items, and other ephemera, was a work of art in itself and has been reinstalled at the North Dakota Museum of Art.
Edward Field (b. 1924) is a poet and author who won the Lambda Literary Award in 1992 for his Counting Myself Lucky: Selected Poems 1963-1992. He received an Academy Award for short subject documentary in 1964 for writing the narration for To Be Alive, originally shown at the Johnson Wax pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.
Barbara Hammer (b. 1939) is a celebrated experimental filmmaker who specializes in documentaries about lesbian life and the untold histories of women. Her Dyketactic (1974) and Women I Love (1976) were among the earliest lesbian- themed films. Her work features in retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern in London, the Jeau de Paume in Paris, and the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York.
John Jasperse (b.1963) is an award-winning Modern dancer and choreographer with his own company. The New York Times described him as the “hottest – and brainiest – choreographer on the downtown scene.” His work explores “identity, intimacy and anxiety,” including pieces dealing with the impact of AIDS on the dance world.
Besides the artist studios, Westbeth has galleries and commercial and studio spaces for rent. Keith Haring had his first solo New York City exhibition in the ground-floor gallery in 1981.
From 1971 until it disbanded in 2010, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was housed in the former penthouse auditorium of 55 Bethune Street. After studying with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) became a leading figure in the development of Modern dance in America. In 1944 Cunningham had his first solo performance to music by John Cage. Cage was Cunningham’s partner until his death in 1992; they lived nearby at 107 Bank Street.
Cunningham established his dance company in 1953, choreographing over 200 works, many in collaborations with visual artists, notably including Robert Rauschenberg.
In July 1975, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s oldest LGBT synagogue, moved here from the Church of the Holy Apostles where it was established two years earlier. In 1977, the congregation moved to a larger space at Westbeth.
“After forty years of wandering, the children of Israel reached the Promised Land. After only four years of wandering, our congregation has found a home.”
In 1992, the congregation hired its first spiritual leader, Sharon Kleinbaum, who remains the senior rabbi.
The commercial space within Westbeth’s courtyard at 57 Bethune Street, entered via a massive concrete ramp, was home to the congregation until 2016 when it moved to its current space, 130 West 30th Street, which it owns. It remains the largest LGBT synagogue in the world.