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WHBPAC Executive Director James Burke Reflects on 1st Year

I am thrilled to be kicking off my second year as executive director of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center and to have a chance to reflect upon my experiences.

As a former professional musician and as an arts presenter, I have always believed that the arts are at the very core of our quest for meaning and fundamental to forging connections between engaged citizens. Just over one year ago, I wrapped up a 13-year run working on the renowned SummerStage festival in Central Park, where I served as executive producer from 2007 to 2013. It was a wonderful and edifying experience, but I was eager to take on new challenges and found the perfect match at WHBPAC. What has most impressed and excited me since joining WHBPAC is the tangible role the theater plays in bringing the community together in a spirit of celebration for the performing arts, as both a cultural meeting point and an important economic engine for the region.

WHBPAC was born in 1996 when a group of concerned citizens and business owners began the movement that transformed an abandoned movie house into a state of the art venue for live performances. The same enthusiasm and energy still thrives today and the deep and personal level of engagement from our patrons and supporters continues to inspire me and my team. It has been a blast to sit side by side with the theater’s loyal fans at MainStage programs that have ranged from Michael Feinstein to Ziggy Marley, from Natalie Merchant to Savion Glover to Roberta Flack. And to observe the impact that our professional Arts Academy classes and camps have on the lives of our students, both children and seniors, has been especially uplifting. I was able to witness our educational mission through the eyes of my own 7-year-old son, who has developed a keen appreciation of the arts and new friendships by taking part in two musical theater camps. And I have been cheered to hear firsthand from so many of the marquee artists that have graced our stage how much they enjoy playing at our intimate theater and spending time in the Village of Westhampton Beach and surrounding areas.

On a more personal note, my move from Brooklyn, where I had lived for the past 22 years, to Westhampton has been transformational in ways that I did not anticipate. I first visited the East End while dating my wife-to-be Jennifer, so it has always held a special resonance for me. Over a series of summers, she shared group houses in both Amagansett and East Hampton that mirrored a sitcom (this being prior to the reality TV craze) and I got to play the role of special guest star (the occasional “crasher”) and penned the imaginary show’s theme song—“Points East.”

These brief summer escapes always re-energized me, so when we moved with our three kids last January, we immediately began our weekend explorations, and I have been impressed at both the natural and cultural assets we have “discovered” (often thanks to Dan’s Papers features and listings). Over the summer, much as I love the pounding waves on Rodgers Beach, we enjoyed letting the kids loose in the Great Peconic Bay at Meschutt Beach. Our first autumn out here was amazing, as we hit as many produce stands, fruit orchards, pumpkin patches and fall fairs as possible, including Hallockville Museum Farm. With winter upon us again, we like to pick out new sledding spots and are gearing up for a trip to Mitchell Park Skating Rink in Greenport. We treasure hiking the trails and visiting the animals at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge in all seasons. Other favorite family activities include visits to the Watermill Center, Children’s Museum of the East End, South Fork Natural History Museum & Nature Center, the Parrish Art Museum, and the Montauk Point Lighthouse, to name just a few. Combined with the farm-to-table restaurants and wineries and the charms of the many towns on both forks, I am elated to call myself an East Ender! Above all, I am renewed by the warmth of my new neighbors who have made me and my family feel right at home.

Though the snow is piled high outside my office window, this is a very busy time of the year for the WHBPAC team and me, as we produce a string of Arts Academy and MainStage productions and put the finishing touches on a busy 2015 summer schedule. Our goal moving forward is to present the highest caliber of established and emerging artists across a wide range of genres and tastes year-round, and to make all East Enders feel right at home in our theater and on our campus. Your input is crucial to us, so do send your suggestions to and please say hello to me in the lobby the next time you are able to visit the theater!

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