James Burke, the new executive director of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC), is quickly getting his feet wet.
Coming to Westhampton Beach from New York’s City Parks Foundation, Burke replaces Clare Bisceglia, who helmed the WHBPAC for 11 years. Though his hiring was formally announced November 1, his first day was not until November 18. In his early days on the job, he has met with the staff as a group to hear their ideas and goals and is getting acclimated to his new position—to which he brings a wealth of experience.
In an interview last week at his office behind the theater on Main Street, Burke says his career trajectory is a result of following his passion. He has been a musician since his high school days. He studied theater and philosophy at Boston College—and spent his junior year at Oxford University—but says, “I was always playing music.”
After college he was the bassist and singer-songwriter for Idle, which he says was an indie rock band before indie rock existed. Then, it was just called it “alternative,” he says. “Or, in the words of my mom, ‘Music nobody listens to.’”
Burke is originally from Detroit and he counts Michigan’s MC5 and Iggy Pop among his musical influences.
Idle was signed to a small label, Big Deal, through which the band recorded three albums, toured the New York City circuit and got some college radio play. They were dropped from the label, though a week later Big Deal’s parent, Paradigm Associated Labels, offered him a job. In addition to his stint as national sales director at Paradigm, Burke worked at Caroline Distribution in CD export sales and at CMJ Music Marathon, which is billed as New York City’s largest music event, before finding his way to the City Parks Foundation in 2001.
Burke held six different titles at CPF over the course of 13 years. From 2004 to 2007 he was the general manager of the SummerStage festival, and his most recent post at CPF was director of arts & cultural programs. “Whenever there was an opportunity to step up, I was willing and able,” he says.
SummerStage is CPF’s flagship series, though CPF presents a total of 115 events annually at Central Park and smaller parks throughout New York City. Other events include the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and puppetry shows. The nonprofit’s mission is to connect people with their neighborhood parks through free events.
“It was an amazing run at SummerStage,” Burke says. “I left on happy terms.”
The timing of the job opening at the WHBPAC was fortuitous for Burke. A colleague in New York mentioned it to Burke, nominating him to a recruiter. “But I probably would have applied anyway,” Burke says. He has known the WHBPAC by reputation and was looking to move his family from their two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment to a place with more room.
Burke is currently commuting from Clinton Hill but hoping to relocate to the Westhampton area at the end of the school semester. His wife, Jennifer Townsend, is an elementary school teacher. His eldest son, J.T., is 6, and his twins, Graham and Phoebe, are two and a half. He wants to live as close to the WHBPAC as possible and lay down roots in the community, he says.
In years past, his wife and her friends had rented in Amagansett for the summers. Because he was working constantly the whole season for SummerStage, he joined Townsend late on Sundays to decompress. He says they both fell in love with the scene and vibe of the Hamptons, and they enjoy the North Fork’s wineries too.
Though Burke is moving from a big city and a big city organization to a small town with a small town theater, he says much will be the same.
SummerStage has a maximum capacity of 6,000 at its largest venue, while Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center has just 425 seats, but Burke points out that SummerStage puts on free shows. The WHBPAC mainly holds ticketed events. ”It’s more comparable than you may think in terms of the caliber of artists we’re able to attract.”
Just recently, Burke attended two high-profile performances at the WHBPAC. The first, over Labor Day weekend, was as a guest of the theater to see Michael Bolton and experience the show as any other audience member would. Then on November 24 he had his first experience at a WHBPAC show as the man-in-charge, when Amos Lee performed. He admits he is still learning the ropes and took his cues from seasoned staff.
His last position and his new job are similar in that they are both about connecting communities, he says, calling the WHBPAC an asset to the village and the region. He hopes to expand outreach.
Burke says his duties are split between fundraising and programming, the latter of which he will really tackle at the upcoming Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in Manhattan next month. He has been a member of APAP for 10 years. “It’s always been important for SummerStage,” Burke says. He is setting up meetings with acts’ agents now. He says the WHBPAC has a reputation as a very artist-friendly theater. “Agents tell me their artists love coming through here.”
He said he can appreciate that as someone who has been a touring artist himself. He has been on a hiatus from music since having children, and he packed up his home recording studio, but he says his hiatus may soon be over. “Now that my babies are toddlers, I’ll get back into it.”