As the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture comes back to life, there’s a new executive director in charge.
William “Bill” Biddle brings a host of experiences leading artistic and performing arts facilities, including most recently for six years at the highly acclaimed Tilles Center at LIU Post’s campus in Brookville, L.I., where he was executive director.
Before that, he was the founding executive director of I.M. Pei-designed Ferguson Center for the Arts at Christopher Newport University in Hampton Roads, Va.
The chance to work in New York City, and the “opportunity to combine my love of the arts with my faith” was a dynamic proposition for Biddle, a Salem, N.J., native who holds a master’s degree from the University of Michigan where he was a professional theater program fellow.
Biddle had served as a consultant to the Sheen Center since the spring before taking over in a full-time capacity last month.
One morning last week, Biddle and I spent more than an hour talking in his office at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street in lower Manhattan. I can report two things about the interview: Biddle has given a lot of thought to the project before him, and he is eager to communicate it.
Biddle dubbed the undertaking Sheen 2.0, a pretty accurate assessment given that Covid-19 halted live programming at the Sheen Center in March 2020.
This fall, the gallery space reopened with Portraits of Grace, a photographic exhibit showing how health care workers and others, including the Church, helped New Yorkers cope and persevere in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed New York City to stillness.
While fall programming is still “very light,” Biddle said, future outlines are already starting to take shape.
The “pillars” on the programming front run four deep, according to Biddle, with the first being Catholic-based programming, followed by interfaith programming, and then arts and culture offerings, with a strong family focus, and finally, rentals and outreach.
The last category is no small consideration. One of the mandates for the Sheen Center, a project of the archdiocese, is to raise revenue and contain costs so that the operating budget is balanced within three years.
If you listen to Biddle, one idea flows smoothly into the next, and then another, all delivered with pace, energy and details.
He’s got plans to utilize the Sheen Center more fully for programming during the day as well as evenings and weekends, and once school trips are approved, he’d also like to have Catholic school students in the archdiocese visit frequently. He said he expects to soon sit down with the center’s board of directors to begin outlining “four or five goals” that will serve as the basis for a strategic plan.
“We want to be the welcoming front porch of the archdiocese,” he said.
That means, Biddle said, “we’re looking for the curious, and for those who are lost and want to come back to the Church, without hitting people over the head.”
For inspiration, Biddle doesn’t have to look far. A sign placed on his computer by David DiCerto, Sheen’s director of programming, includes counsel from none other than Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen himself: “When you believe in the incredible, you can do the impossible.”
While things will get more into full swing in the spring, Biddle believes good things are already happening. He pointed to “DaVinci on Bleecker: The Last Supper Experience,” an enveloping reproduction of the great painting, presented in an intimate setting including an audio tour in English and Spanish. The timed exhibit will run at Sheen from Monday, Nov. 15, to Wednesday, Dec. 9.
After arrival from Germany, the exhibit’s U.S. premiere will be staged in the Sheen Center’s Black Box Theater, with conceptual work for The Last Supper presented in the Gallery.
A benefit for the Sheen Center on Tuesday, Dec. 14, called “Christmas on Bleecker Street: Celebrate the Reason,” will feature a bevy of performers, including singer (and Sheen board member) Vanessa Williams, actor and entertainer Tony Danza, the New York Tenors and others performing religious Christmas songs and other popular and secular seasonal favorites in a variety show format in the 270-seat off-Broadway Loreto Theater. Cardinal Dolan is expected to welcome the crowd in attendance, and the evening will end with all voices joining the choir for “Joyful, Joyful.”
The New Year will bring a January series called “Faith: The Athlete’s Edge” based on the Vatican’s Sport in the Service of Humanity program. Discussions will highlight the six principles affirmed in the Vatican initiative, and a roster of athletes, including a celebrity emcee, is being lined up.
“The idea of the series is: How does faith play into their life as an athlete and as a person?” Biddle said. “One thing we’ve talked about here frequently is, when there is a person of faith who is willing to talk about it, we need to point that out.”
Biddle lives on Long Island with his wife, Carmen, and they are the parents of three sons. He said he prayerfully considered the opportunity that Sheen provides and looks forward to putting down roots that grow strong.
“My whole life has led me to this point,” he said.