Many individuals contribute to Westchester’s vibrant arts-and-culture scene, which has proven to be both resilient and resolute in the wake of the coronavirus. While there is no way to cite everyone who fosters the county’s cultural landscape, we’ve curated a seminal cross-section of some of the most important and influential vanguards in the 914. From museum heads and ceiling-shattering artists to innovative community leaders driving positive change, these are the key players shepherding the aesthetic soul of our community.
It was during a fateful elementary school recital that Carole Alexis was first struck with the incredible power of performance. “I still remember the moment I went onstage like it was yesterday, the feeling of unity in which we were all together, both performers and audience,” recalls Alexis. “That quintessence of bringing people together has remained with me.”
As founder, director, and choreographer of Ballet des Amériques, a Port Chester-based professional dance company and pre-professional ballet conservatory, Alexis fosters this kind of unity every day. “I wanted to create an institution to train people with uncompromised morality — no politics, no parents on the board,” she says, “and create a conservatory that chooses integrity, always using culture and the arts to repair what hurts in society.”
Alexis was apparently quite successful in this endeavor, propelling her organization to the county’s most lauded ballet conservatory and earning a proclamation for outstanding work from Westchester County. In fact, Alexis had founded her academy largely due to the fact that she didn’t want to abandon local students. “I also liked the idea that Westchester was a bit away from the city, because you could focus,” adds Alexis.
It is this same wealth of space that helped Alexis and her company quickly rebound from the pandemic. “Beginning in June , we held outdoor classes everywhere we could go outside in Westchester,” says Alexis, who also created a portable dance floor to bring ballet to various community spaces and educational centers. Throughout the past year, her company has held several open-air performances at Rye’s Wainwright House and at Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City.
Today, students are back to training six days a week, and Alexis says she is in the planning stages of five different ballets. Alexis notes she is also working to grow Amériques’ board and bring in a host of new performers. “Dance is the proposal to unify people around their humanity,” she says. “This is why dance has been used to bridge nations during crises: We can disagree, but we have to remember that we are all human.”
Known for assembling one of the nation’s premier private art collections, Livia Straus and her husband, Marc Straus, have always been far more concerned with sharing rather than hoarding works of beauty. Indeed, even prior to founding Peekskill’s Hudson Valley MOCA, collecting art was always more about passion than price.
“When Marc was attracted to a work of art, he had to learn everything about the artist before we could make a decision as to whether or not we would buy the piece. And because of that, our friends’ reactions were, ‘Oh, Livia is the spiritual one, and Marc is the scientist,’” explains Straus. “But there always had to be that emotional component for us both, always.”
In 2004, Livia and Marc set out to create a world-class museum in Peekskill, a community that had boasted nothing of that cultural caliber before. “I felt that the arts offered such an opportunity to really train kids in the imaginative process and to build on what they come to so naturally,” she says of developing the MOCA, which has since held more than 80 exhibitions and hosted six separate festivals.
“I think the museum really has made a difference in some people’s lives.”
It is perhaps the Hudson Valley MOCA’s new show, How We Live: Part II — the continuation of a prepandemic exhibit of works from Livia and Marc’s collection — that presents the clearest example of the Strauses’ love of art and their desire to address social issues.
“When the pandemic hit, it made sense to keep [How We Live] up, because a lot of people hadn’t seen it,” says Straus. “But we expanded it. We added more two-dimensional works to the show that are reflective of the pandemic and of what has been going on politically over the last year, all across the world.”
Ahead, Straus sees plenty of potential despite COVID’s devastating impact on the arts. “The museum has been working very closely with Mara Mills, who is the artistic director of Studio Theater in Exile, and she has three projects that she would like to hold at the museum’s Black Box,” shares Straus. “And then the Peekskill Film Festival will take place in our parking lot in August.” Additionally, the museum’s education programs are slated to resume during the 2021 to 2022 academic year.
Yet when Straus reflects upon her and Marc’s significant work, she is perhaps most proud of the change it has fostered. “I think the museum really has made a difference in some people’s lives, and that, for us, was very, very important,” says Straus. “If you help one person, you help a world.”
Over the course of her 28-year career, Vinnie Bagwell has singlehandedly changed the face of art in Westchester. A sculptor almost exclusively of public works, Bagwell is leading a new generation of county creatives, producing pieces that shine a light on underrepresented people and social issues while providing individuals of color with the opportunity to see themselves reflected in public monuments.
“When I first started sculpting, I kept wondering, How do I fit in? How do I find my place and set myself apart?” recalls Bagwell. “In the process of looking at art in public places, the first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t seeing any art that represented people of color at all. And when I looked around my town, all we had were dead presidents and war heroes.”
This dearth of representation lit a fire within Bagwell. “This is why I asked [the City of Yonkers] if they would do something like Ella Fitzgerald,” remarks Bagwell of her groundbreaking 1996 bronze. “Little did I know that it was going to be the first sculpture of a contemporary African American woman to be commissioned by a municipality in the United States. That meant everybody was behind.”
Since then, Bagwell has been doing her very best to catch everyone up. The recipient of ArtsWestchester’s 2021 Artist Award for her Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden installation at Yonkers Riverfront Library, Bagwell has also produced a Frederick Douglass sculpture for Hofstra University, a Sojourner Truth statue for the Walkway Over the Hudson, and has even been commissioned to create a monumental sculpture for New York City’s Central Park. Additionally, Bagwell’s Harriet Tubman is currently a finalist in Newark, NJ’s proposal for a new statue at Tubman Square.
Bagwell has also been tasked with revitalizing Montgomery’s historic African American Cemetery. “At this time, we are very interested in African American burial grounds because a lot of them are, frankly, invisible,” she notes. “I plan to include two large sculptures, one of a man and one of a woman, as well as a walkway that goes around the perimeter.”
Yet Bagwell is not focused on how these upcoming projects can bolster her own name, but rather the ways in which they can open doors for others. “Now is the time, with my experience and my personality, to help lead the way for other Black artists,” says Bagwell. “This is not Black history, or New York history, or Yonkers history — this is American history.”
One of the most surprising things about Janet Langsam is that she manages to get any sleep at all. As CEO of the county’s most expansive arts organization, ArtsWestchester, Langsam works day and night not only to aid area creatives, cultural organizations, and nonprofits but also to make sure ArtsWestchester continues to function smoothly as a gallery, administrative headquarters, and studio space for dozens of regional artists.
“As soon as I began work at ArtsWestchester, we started to expand what we were funding and how we were approaching it,” recalls Langsam. “Today, we have a Yonkers and Mount Vernon initiative, a folk-arts program called Westchester Roots, and Arts Alive, where we fund programs in various communities, including Ossining and Peekskill. The art council also had a big roster of artists that it sent into schools, and we expanded that program so that artists could not only go into schools but also daycare centers, senior centers, community facilities, and low-income housing.”
For Langsam, these many programs all have one thing in common: elevating the voice of the underserved. “A plethora of immigrant communities in Westchester were yearning to have cultural programs that spoke to them and have their voices heard, so we expanded what we do with those communities and expanded education for more needy communities, including securing grants for school programs in Mount Vernon and Yonkers,” she notes.
According to Langsam, the pandemic opened up entirely new avenues for growth. “We have done 60 different online workshop programs, with more than 5,000 people tuning into them from across Westchester, the metropolitan area, and even places we’ve never heard of,” she says. “The pandemic cramped our style in terms of in-person events; on the other hand, it taught us a lot about outreach beyond our borders.”
At the end of the day, for Langsam, this outreach is really about making every single person in Westchester know that they are valued. “We are one county, and it is a different community than it used to be, but it is richer for all of the cultures that are now here,” explains Langsam. “We need to look at the cultural assets that we have in Westchester, where they are, who has access to them, and how we can improve that — also, how we can fulfill some of the aspirations of new immigrant communities. I think that attitude has been something we’ve been able to foster, and it is one that the county has been eager to embrace.”
“We are one county, and it is a different community than it used to be, but it is richer for all of the cultures that are now here.”
Brian Ackerman can scarcely recall a time when film wasn’t central to his life. “My father owned art-house theaters in the city and was a film distributor,” he says. “It was an introduction to art films in a very casual way, since talking about and watching movies was what we did, and the idea of watching films that were not purely entertaining in the Hollywood sense was a commonplace event. I inhaled that world in a very organic way.”
Ackerman continues in his father’s footsteps as founding programming director of Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC), the county’s largest art-house theater. JBFC has grown quite a bit over the last few years, going from three to five screens and greatly expanding viewership prior to the pandemic, due largely to Ackerman’s attractive programming and expert leadership.
“In the past 20 years, we have nurtured and expanded the region’s cinematic palate, and people are willing to try new experiences.”
“We had expectations of 500 members the first year; we had 5,000. In many ways, it became clear that this was a thing people were waiting for,” says Ackerman. “They were waiting for a [nonprofit] art theater that had more than one screen, that was committed to playing a range of art films, and that was set up to generate discussion around what people were watching.” Even during the pandemic, this mission to generate discourse continued with a virtual platform on the JBFC’s website, which allowed people to enjoy film screenings from the comfort of their homes. According to Ackerman, JBFC’s virtual film festivals were a particular high point during this time. “Each was surprisingly successful,” he notes, “which was really, really encouraging and really exciting.”
Ahead, Ackerman and his team hope to boost collaboration with other arts institutions, expand international screenings, and hold more film festivals. Yet, no matter what the future holds, Ackerman knows Westchester will likely be responsive to it.
“I think there is a lot of New York sophistication here, and I think that is relatively uncommon,” says Ackerman. “In the past 20 years, we have nurtured and expanded the region’s cinematic palate, and people are willing to try new experiences. A lot of film is not so easy to watch, so having an audience that’s willing to come together to see these movies is really the essence of being human.”
Tracy Fitzpatrick recalls the first time she knew her future lay in the world of art: “While a student, I was walking through the neoclassical galleries in Boston’s Museum of Fine Art when I was stopped in my tracks by a sculpture of a baby lying upon a pillow,” she shares. “I couldn’t believe that someone could make something as hard as marble look so soft. In that moment, I knew I wanted to work with objects and that no matter what I would do, I wanted to be surrounded by works of art.”
Fitzpatrick immediately set to making this dream a reality, studying art history and working as chief curator at the Neuberger Museum of Art, on the campus of Purchase College, since 2012 before ascending to director in 2014. “I really view us as having one audience that encompasses both campus and community,” says Fitzpatrick of her museum. “We have an obligation, and decidedly a pleasure, to show and teach generations of local students, their siblings, their parents, and their grandparents, for almost 50 years now, about the value of the visual arts and the value of supporting organizations like the Neuberger.”
Earlier this year, Fitzpatrick was also named interim managing director of Purchase’s Performing Arts Center, where her leadership is already generating noticeable change. “Even though the public is not coming in, we are supporting socially distanced classes, so the Performing Arts Center is packed from the basement to the rafters with dancers, actors, design technology students, and musicians,” she shares.
During the pandemic, Fitzpatrick oversaw a number of art acquisitions and community projects. “You had to cope with not knowing when you would reopen, at the same time imagining how you would reopen,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “So, like many museums, the Neuberger shifted its focus to collections. We also focused on the needs of the community and actually piloted a program for school kids where we raised funds to create backpacks filled with art materials.”
For Fitzpatrick, these varied efforts are largely about opening the arts to everyone. “A lot of our students are first-generation, and for many of them, when they walk into the Neuberger, that is their very first experience walking into a museum,” she says. “So, one of the values we provide to the region is that we are teaching generations of students to become cultural consumers, and I think that really benefits the entire arts-and-culture community.”
For Ray Wilcox, the arts have always been accessible. “I actually fell in love with art through comic books,” recalls the Yonkers native. “I have been a big Marvel and DC guy even from before I could read, and just to be able to understand the stories through illustrations is something I’ve found to be powerful since I was young.”
It is this same approachable attitude that has made Wilcox one of the county’s most celebrated young leaders, pioneering meaningful change by cofounding the coworking space/gallery/community incubator The PowerLab; working to establish Yonkers’ Black Lives Matter mural; forming the Yonkers Artists Guild; and serving as executive director of the nonprofit Yonkers Arts. “My goal is to provide my community with the resources that a place like New York City enjoys,” explains Wilcox.
Ironically, the pandemic actually accelerated Wilcox’s work at Yonkers Arts. “We had to really readjust and go digital when COVID first hit, but we found, during that conversion, we were actually able to strengthen and expand many of our programs,” he explains. “Even while still doing the Black Lives Matter mural, we had four or five digital programs on a weekly basis, including an artist showcase every week and two concert series twice a month.”
In addition to his many responsibilities, Wilcox is currently working on a community-fridge program, where area restaurants can donate extra food to provide alternative meal solutions for residents in need. The date for the popular Yonkers Arts Weekend was still being determined at press time.
Yet, amid these many achievements, it is a new project, titled “Art in the Park,” that is currently top-of-mind for Wilcox. “My goal is to bring the arts directly into the communities,” he explains. “The project consists of converting and rejuvenating some of the parks here in Yonkers through the arts. This could be providing the park with a beautiful mural or installation that represents the community, shows love for it, or just encourages more people to come out and enjoy the space.”