Hat trick

Call it “When Harry Met Janet.”

There Janet T. Langsam was, an NYU student journalist interviewing former President Harry Truman.

“I don’t remember a lot about Truman,” says Langsam, CEO of ArtsWestchester in White Plains. “I remember a lot of security, the fuss.”

And one thing more: She punctuated her look with a hat and gloves.

While people don’t regularly wear hats anymore, she says, “(a hat) is a completion of an outfit.”

That notion stayed with the woman who enjoys finding millinery treasures at antiques shows and flea markets. Years later when Langsam was attending one of the councils of Americans for the Arts, she visited a history museum that featured an exhibit of stunning hats worn by African-American women.

“I came back (to Westchester) and said, ‘I want to do a hat show.’”

Ultimately, she enlisted the help of Kathleen Reckling, ArtsWestchester’s gallery director; Tom van Buren, its director of folk arts and performance programs; and board member Judith S. Schwartz, a professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at New York University who also happens to have a millinery degree. Along the way, the Milliners Guild joined in.

The result is “HAT-titude” (Feb. 11-April 12), featuring some 160 hats – ethnic, artistic and everyday. There will be a re-creation of a hat shop as well as some hats for sale. And those attending ArtsWestchester’s April 4 luncheon at the Westchester Marriott in Tarrytown are invited to wear their best chapeaux.

The guests may want to doff them, though, to the petite Langsam, who nonetheless packs a wallop, turning ArtsWestchester into a cultural powerhouse and the flagship arts council in New York state (with an annual operating budget of about $3.5 million).

It’s not a career she consciously planned, she says over a tasty, leisurely lunch at Hudson Grille, just down the street from the Arts Exchange, ArtsWestchester’s headquarters. (More on that in a bit.)

Langsam, a honey blonde whose pixie cut is accentuated by her trademark round glasses, is the perfect lunchtime companion, answering questions thoughtfully but also posing them as well – a habit no doubt honed during her early career as a journalist. She was a copy editor for House Beautiful, a reporter for the Long Island Press and did a stint for the New York Post. Even now she blogs on ArtsWestchester’s website.

But journalism is not where her heart lay either, at least not for long. Growing up “a kid from the Far Rockaways” in Queens, the daughter of a teacher and a velvet merchant in the Garment District, all young Janet knew was that she didn’t want to be a teacher (like her mother) or a nurse – the only professions other than secretary that were generally open to women at that time.

Not because she didn’t respect nurses or teachers, but because “I didn’t want to do the only things allowed to women.”

As for journalism, she says, “I got tired of writing about other people … doing great things. Why couldn’t I be the one doing great things?”

After a sojourn at a public relations firm that represented everyone from actress Polly Bergen to Edward Fields’ carpets, she took herself off to The New School and became an artist of large, abstract canvases. By then she was the wife of a supportive AT&T executive and mother of two daughters. She exhibited her work, sold her paintings through a gallery in SoHo and held art classes, including those in the nude figure, in her Queens home. But life had yet another twist.

Langsam got involved with her local planning board. This led her to help found the Queens Museum of Art, a jewel in Flushing Meadows Corona Park that she’s justly proud of and to a career in New York City government – first as a district manager, or community organizer, for Mayor John V. Lindsay, whom she found to be personable, engaging and ahead of his time in many ways.

Under the subsequent administration of the down-to-earth Abraham Beame, Langsam became First Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Affairs and helped establish the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs as a separate agency. For the “larger than life” Ed Koch, she used federal stimulus money so cultural organizations could withstand the city’s fiscal crisis and pioneered the conversion of vacant city-owned property into cultural sites and artist housing.

Early on in her city government career, Langsam was both a token female and one of the guys, who didn’t dare take a day off if one of her daughters was sick (though she kept careful tabs on them by phone). Her time in city government made her realize that if there was one thing that has threaded her life, it is that “I’m very much about community” – and the community of artists. It was this civic-mindedness and love of the arts that she brought to her tenure as president and CEO of the Boston Center for the Arts, a complex that houses the Boston Ballet, among other organizations and in 1991, to ArtsWestchester, formerly the Westchester Arts Council, which she has transformed along with part of the White Plains cityscape.

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment has been the acquisition of a former Chase bank at 31 Mamaroneck Ave. (at the corner of Martine Avenue) as ArtsWestchester’s home.

“I guess the real estate thing is in my DNA,” she writes in a follow-up email. Not only has she drawn on her experience with artist housing during the Koch administration but her memories of her childhood home, “a 13-room, 100-year-old, white elephant Victorian house, which had been boarded up for years before my folks bought it, thinking they could restore it to its former elegance.”

Langsam and her full-time staff of about 20 have turned the nine-story former bank (whose mortgage Chase generously forgave) into a fully occupied Arts Exchange that not only houses ArtsWestchester’s administrative offices, exhibits, lectures and performances but various arts-related professions from architects to graphic designers.

Under Langsam, ArtsWestchester has spearheaded public art programs and partnered with other organizations to develop arts education. ArtsWestchester has received two $1 million federal grants to train art teachers in the Mount Vernon public schools and to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) there through the arts.

Langsam has her critics, including those who say that she has set up her organization to rival others in the county, siphoning off state and federal monies. But she is passionate about her mission.

Asked if she thought being a woman made her a different arts administrator, she says, “What I bring isn’t female or male, but a combination of experiences that relate to how the arts contribute to the world we live in.”

For more, visit artswestchester.org.

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