Former Women’s Club is now home to an eclectic arts center
photo by Scott Barrow
Ghazi Kazmi is in his element. After pouring a drink at a makeshift bar, he carries a tray of tapas to hungry patrons, stopping along the way to check in with the sound guy and ask an employee to adjust a cock-eyed painting. All the while, his dimpled smile gleams underneath his signature, bright, red-rimmed glasses. As executive director of the Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield, he makes sure everything is running smoothly, and he does so with an enthusiasm that makes it seem like it isn’t a job at all.
On this particular night, Kazmi is hosting a country-folk band in the center’s Gallery W. The long, narrow room, once a formal drawing room in the circa-1865 building, previously housed the Women’s Club for more than 70 years, but tonight it effortlessly multitasks as a contemporary-art space, intimate concert hall, and hip, Friday-night hangout.
Says Kazmi with a glint in his eye, “When I first saw that room I thought, Yeah, we have potential.”
It may come as a surprise that Kazmi wasn’t always so enthusiastic about running a non-profit arts center. The original advocate behind the project was his partner, Pittsfield native Lisa Whitney. Growing up nearby, Whitney always admired the gorgeous building, saying it was “like a palace.” So when she saw a “For Sale” sign out front a few years ago, she pounced at the chance to take a peek inside. A self-proclaimed sucker for renovation projects, Whitney was disappointed to discover that the property had already been sold. Six months later, the sign was back—and she didn’t waste any time.
Kazmi was not without resistance. “I tried to dissuade her from this project. I said, ‘What do we know about the arts?’ But it was a lopsided battle. And it was almost like it was destined to be.”
The new owners initially tossed around a few different names, but friends convinced them that it would be crazy not to take advantage of a name like Whitney. So Whitney, not wanting to draw attention to herself, decided to name the center after her beloved parents, both longtime Berkshire residents. (Her father worked at General Electric and her mother once owned the popular Sugar Bowl Restaurant on North Street.)
“They were just the best parents anybody could ever have, and they loved the theater,” says Whitney. “My mother, she was the original “let’s put on a play in the backyard” kid.”
The center officially opened in the summer of 2013, and it didn’t take long for Kazmi, who has a background in operations and finance, to fall into the role of executive director, settling in Pittsfield while Whitney oversaw renovations and legal-related tasks from New York City. Kazmi isn’t ashamed to admit his utter lack of experience in or knowledge of the arts. Instead, it seems the success of the Whit, as it is now affectionately called, has resulted from equal parts luck, perseverance, and enthusiasm. Or, as local artist Richard Britell describes it, “It’s all been a series of happy accidents.”
In some cases, opportunities literally walked through the door, like when a local music teacher came by and happened to mention that she was a trained opera singer—Kazmi recruited her to help put together the center’s opera notte series. In other instances, he has actively sought out those with the knowledge he lacked to get events off the ground, including cabaret nights, artist talks, and theater.
“One thing I’ve learned in my business world is if you don’t know something, either take the time to learn it and learn it well so you can do it well, or find someone who does,” he says. Two people he has learned a lot from are Megan Whilden, Pittsfield’s former director of cultural development, and Carl Shuster, former president of the Berkshire Bach Society. Whilden became involved with the center early on, helping to arrange its first art show and says she admired the couple’s willingness to try new things. “Ghazi and Lisa both have a great kind of spirit of ‘yes, let’s do it, let’s try this, why not?’ ”
Shuster, who frequently puts on intimate chamber concerts in his own home, helped Kazmi get his own chamber series off the ground. “I always thought it would be successful because it was a size of venue that really didn’t exist anyplace else,” says Shuster. “I think it fills a niche, especially during the off-season months in the Berkshires, and I’m very happy that Ghazi’s there, and he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s made some very interesting choices.”