While Lee took advantage of the collaborative opportunities at Westbeth, Jack Dowling, who has also lived there since it opened, at first felt like an outsider in the community. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Dowling is today a figure beloved by the residents; as the longest-serving visual arts director on the Westbeth Artists Residents Council (known as WARC), he’s organized countless exhibitions at the Westbeth Gallery, and he knows just about everyone. In 2017, he was named the first Westbeth ICON.
But Dowling was nearly 40, broke, and essentially homeless when the Department of Cultural Affairs told him about the newly-opened housing project in 1970. This low point followed what had seemed to be an upward career trajectory: For 12 years, Dowling had produced his abstract paintings in an 1,800-square-foot loft on 1st Avenue and East 24th Street, an out-of-the-way location that the artist cherished for its space and quiet. The legendary art dealer Ivan Karp, who worked at Leo Castelli Gallery, was championing his work. Then, suddenly, the city allowed New York University to raze Dowling’s apartment building for student housing. Despite a costly legal battle, he was evicted and forced to put his paintings in storage.
When a slot opened at Westbeth, Dowling moved into a modest, 400-square-foot space the tenants call the “starter apartment,” because “the first thing you do is put your name on the in-house move list to get out of it,” Dowling explained. Enterprising tenants took advantage of the frequent management turnover in those days, remodeling their spaces or ignoring the in-house move list, and grabbing bigger and better apartments or coveted studio spaces as they became available. Dowling has now upgraded to a tidy, gray-painted apartment nearly twice the size of the starter apartment, with a loft space he built to write and store his work. “I just moved into it, and then I went down to the office and said I moved. That would never have happened later,” he told me.