When Janet Langsam was growing up in the Rockaways in Queens, it was an interminably long trip into Manhattan for meaningful arts and cultural opportunities.
An hour on the Long Island Railroad was followed by a subway ride to reach Lincoln Center or one of the city’s museums. There was usually more time spent traveling than enjoying a concert, show or exhibit.
“Maybe from that vantage point I felt that every community should have something nearby, where the kids can learn about the arts and participate,” Langsam said.
A lifelong arts lover, Langsam has dedicated most of her career to bringing those opportunities to local communities. For the last 27 years, she has served as the CEO of ArtsWestchester, the White Plains-based organization that funds, markets and promotes all types of art and artists throughout the county.
It has also been her mission to make the arts more visible and accessible for the public at large. Although Westchester residents can reach Manhattan within an hour from anywhere in the county, for those who may not have the time or disposable income for the trek into midtown, the growth of local arts scenes has filled what would be a gaping void.
“It doesn’t have to be the Metropolitan Opera, it can be the Taconic Opera,” Langsam said. “It can be the Met, it could be the Katonah Museum (of Art).”
Years ago, Westchester was strictly a bedroom community. Today, people want arts opportunities, restaurants and thriving downtowns near home. Municipalities are recognizing that offering cultural outlets bring crowds and dollars into the towns, she said. Local residents also want to participate, whether it’s part of a community theater or local band.
“I think what one thing everybody can agree on, every downtown should have some form of the arts and culture, and that’s no longer a movie theater because you can do that at home,” said Langsam, a mother of three with two grandchildren who has lived in Armonk since moving to Westchester.
One of Langsam’s most notable accomplishments was having ArtsWestchester relocate to downtown White Plains. She recalled that when she interviewed for the job, she was asked what she would do as director. She looked around at the cold corporate park office on Westchester Avenue and responded that the arts should be closer to the people.
Langsam’s efforts led to ArtsWestchester buying the old Chase Bank building at the corner of Mamaroneck and Martine avenues in 1998.
Originally a journalist, Langsam worked as a teenager for the Rockaway Wave, a community newspaper. As an adult she wrote for the old Long Island Press, the New York Post and House Beautiful magazine. But she soon realized that many of her interview subjects seemed to be enjoying themselves much more than she was.
“I had really liked the idea of being a journalist, but as I said, at one point I kind of looked at what everybody else was doing and they were having more fun than I was – and life is about fun,” she said.
Around the same time period, Langsam was part of a group of Queens residents to recognize the absence of arts and culture. That prompted her to become a co-founder of the Queens Museum and led to her appointment to the local Community Board, one of about 60 volunteer advisory boards throughout New York City that makes recommendations on planning and zoning matters, city finances and many other issues. She eventually became the board’s chair.
Her efforts opened eyes in the mayor’s office. Langsam was offered a job within the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. She planned on staying maybe two years but lasted 15, rising to become first deputy commissioner of the department.
“That was really a nice place to be,” Langsam said. “It’s good to be able to support the arts and art life in the community.”
From there, she became CEO of the Boston Center of the Arts before a recruiter reached out to her about returning to the New York area and interview for the ArtsWestchester position.
Langsam’s current goal is to encourage more public art so residents can be exposed to more culture without having to go to a show or museum.
“It’s also a peaceful thing for people to be walking in the street to come upon a mural or a work of art that’s there for their enjoyment of everyday life,” she said. “It’s not something that they have to make an appointment to go and see.”