Monday July 23, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- According to a friend, Kitty Lichtenstein lived by the old Roman saying, "Ars longa vita brevis est" -- "Art is long, life is short."

Lichtenstein, who died on June 26 in San Diego, Calif., at the age of 86, was a tireless and enthusiastic supporter of the arts during her brief tenure in the city in the 1980s. Known by many as "Pittsfield's first lady of the arts," she was an early advocate for the revival of the Colonial Theatre and founder of the center for the arts on Renne Avenue that bears her name.

The former Katherine Ester Goller stepper fled Austria in 1938 at age 12 with her family to escape the Holocaust, settling in Israel. Eventually, she met and married her first husband, Henry Lich tenstein, with whom she emigrated to America. In 1981, she moved to Will iamstown, and from there to Pittsfield in 1982.

In a relatively brief time, Lichtenstein became a key figure in the resurgence of the arts in the city, which was in many ways tied to a more working-class image in those years.

In an interview with The Eagle in 2009, artist, longtime city cultural commissioner and friend of Lichtenstein Daniel M. O'Connell recalled making a pitch to a local civic group, urging them to bring more culture into the city. "Son," he was told, "We already have culture up here: Agriculture."

O'Connell conceded in the interview that he realized that his endeavor would be an uphill battle.

Lichtenstein's arrival in 1982 jump-started the movement, according to Eagle files.


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She founded the Lich tenstein Center for the Arts, and was active in the Berks hire Public Theatre. She was appointed in 1982 as the city's cultural affairs commissioner, for the princely sum of $1 per year.

She also began a concert series at the Berkshire Mus eum and was a strong supporter of the Berkshire Ballet, Jacob's Pillow and the Berkshire Lyric Theater. She purchased and renovated the Octagon House on Union Street as housing for actors and was an early supporter of reviving the Colonial Theatre.

"As Pittsfield grows," she noted in an Eagle column in 1986, "we might even .... refurbish our old opera house, the Colonial Theatre."

She met and married her second husband, Albert Ask enazy, in Pittsfield. The two were together until his death in 2004.

Even her Crofut Street home was famously used as a meeting space and conference center for politicians and supporters of the arts -- and at times as a boarding house for actors.

O'Connell pointed out that Lichtenstein "did all these things without asking for anything in return."

In addition to her arts connections, Lichtenstein served on the board of directors of the Berkshire Community College Foundation and the Pittsfield Economic Revital ization Corp.

Lichtenstein moved to California in 1984, in part to be closer to her grandchildren.

And yet, according to one of those grandchildren, Steph anie Binder-Lichtenstein, her heart was never far from the Berkshires.

"I know my grandmother would be very honored to know there is still great interest in her work so many years later," wrote Binder-Lich tenstein in an email.

In fact, said Binder-Lichtenstein, her grandmother will make one more cross-country trip back to the Berkshires.

"Her time in Pittsfield was very important to her," wrote Binder-Lichtenstein, "and in fact her last wish was for her ashes to be laid to rest at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts."

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile