Janet Langsam Reflects Upon Her Legacy at ArtsWestchester

Stepping down this month as CEO of ArtsWestchester, Janet Langsam discusses her meaningful career and enduring impact.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine our county’s cultural landscape without the tireless work of Janet Langsam. Stepping down from her post as CEO of the single largest, private, not-for-profit arts council in New York State to become CEO emeritus, there is scarcely a creative institution, museum, or artist in Westchester that Langsam hasn’t somehow touched over her 33-year career.

“I think it’s time for new leadership and I think it’s time for me to have a new chapter,” says Langsam of her decision to step down later this month. “The board has picked somebody who can bring ArtsWestchester to the next level.”

After so many years, Langsam is proud of what she has built. During her tenure Langsam grew ArtsWestchester’s budget from $1 million to $7 million, raising $75 million for the arts during her tenure. “The way I see ArtsWestchester is that we’ve created a place where artists’ voices and the community’s voices resonate,” says Langsam, “a safe space where these artists and the community members can express themselves.”

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Before working her wonders in Westchester, Langsam served as president and CEO of the Boston Center for the Arts, and later led the charge to found New York City’s Queens Museum. ArtsWestchester similarly owes its very headquarters to Langsam, who spearheaded the 1998 purchase and renovation of an abandoned bank at the center of downtown White Plains, transforming it into a hub of artists’ studios, galleries, and offices.

“We were very fortunate to be able to buy this building that was so centrally located, putting the arts right at the heart of the county,” says Langsam. “I think that was an achievement; a central, accessible location for the arts in the heart of the county.”

“The way I see ArtsWestchester is that we’ve created a place where artists’ voices and the community’s voices resonate.”

Yet it is the artists this building fosters, and their growing impact, that has brought the most pride to Langsam, “I am particularly fond of the work I’ve done in introducing new artists to the community and new organizations that have inaugurated their offerings in Westchester,” says Langsam. “I think there has been an explosive growth of the arts in Westchester over the period that I have been here, and it’s made Westchester a community that has its own artistic identity.”

Langsam’s passionate embrace of public art is one major way in which she has been driving this growth, working with public and private organizations across the state to put more than 30 public artworks in place. This includes teaming up with the New York State Thruway Authority to adorn the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge with sculptures by area artists and spearheading Amanda Browder’s nine-story, Best of Westchester-winning fabric installation.

“I am a great believer in removing barriers to art, and public art is one way to do that,” says Langsam. “The idea is that you enliven the landscape with public art and make it available to everybody. I also think [public art] allows artists to put their dreams and thoughts about the world out there, and it allows people to think more broadly about issues while they are going about their everyday lives.”

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Arts Westchester’s ArtsMobile, a van that travels around the county offering free programming and workshops to area children, is yet another way Langsam has propelled this expansion. Langsam’s work went into overdrive during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the very concept of performances and gatherings was thrown into question, and when many artists and institutions had nowhere else to turn.

“It was very difficult navigating ArtsWestchester, but it was also difficult for every single artist and arts organization, not just in our region, but all over the world,” she says. “We all had to learn how to get art out into the public without face-to-face engagement.” During that period, Langsam secured an incredible $3 million from the state for her Restart the Arts campaign and awarded dozens of scholarships to local artists. “I am sure it wasn’t enough, but it was something, and it was the right thing to do,” she says.

Ahead, Langsam has every intention of keeping busy. She has already begun writing a memoir and has returned to one of her first creative loves: painting. Yet no matter what lies ahead for Langsam, it is her impactful work at ArtsWestchester that will remain as a testament to her dedication to the arts.

“It is especially during these times, when we are dealing with so many philosophical questions as a county, that artists have something meaningful to say,” says Langsam. “And I think my goal has been to encourage them, to encourage their voices to be heard, and to encourage that there be places like ArtsWestchester, where those voices can be heard and artists can feel safe expressing themselves.”

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