ArtsWestchester's new CEO, Kathleen Reckling, set to adapt fencing skills to arts advocacy

The blade in Kathleen Reckling’s right hand flashes and flies, her wrist guiding it at angles her opponent will have to process instantly, or suffer the consequences.

The wrist rises, the tip of the blade descends. Touch.

The wrist lowers, the tip of the blade rises. Touch.

She lunges straight and leans into the blade long after it reaches its target. The blade bends. Touch.

A touch brings a soft click at the tip of the foil. The point is not sharp. It is more a push-button that registers an electronic hit when depressed on the target. Point for Reckling.

It is a workout, in layer after layer of protective gear, and before long, beads of sweat glisten on the 38-year-old’s forehead.

“I try to work out every day,” she says. “It’s been harder recently.”

It won’t get any easier. Reckling’s life — long defined by twin passions of fencing and the arts — is about to crowd with meetings and galas and lobbying trips to Albany. On July 1, the Westchester native takes the helm at ArtsWestchester, the grant-giving umbrella that nurtures cultural programs across the Lower Hudson Valley.

She’ll succeed Janet Langsam, the organization’s iconic, bespectacled leader whose 33-year tenure began when Reckling was 5 years old. Langsam’s impact can be measured in the estimated $75 million in funding she raised in her career, cajoling governors and lawmakers to loosen government purse strings, pressing well-heeled donors and foundations to contribute to the artistic good of their communities, cheerleading for arts education.

That role will belong to Reckling, who has served as gallery director and as chief operating officer at ArtsWestchester since 2011.

Kathleen Reckling, the newly named CEO of ArtsWestchester, has been a competitive fencer for almost 25-years. The Ardsley resident was photographed June 6, 2024 at the Fencing Academy of Westchester in Hawthorne.
Kathleen Reckling, the newly named CEO of ArtsWestchester, has been a competitive fencer for almost 25-years. The Ardsley resident was photographed June 6, 2024 at the Fencing Academy of Westchester in Hawthorne.

Her work secured pandemic micro grants to keep local artists afloat. Her collaborations on high-profile installations put her Columbia art history master’s degree to work.

She has definite ideas about what ArtsWestchester does best and where its limits lie, and she’s eager to put those ideas into practice. She knows she’ll need to be as flexible as that fencing foil, ready for whatever challenge lunges at her.

The fencing is not a metaphor. OK, it’s a metaphor, but more. Reckling credits the sport and her coach-mentors (beginning and ending with her mother, Diane) with instilling in her a level of resiliency, agility, balance. If her mindset is nimble, it’s because it’s been trained to be that way for the past 24 years.

Exit interview: ArtsWestchester's Janet Langsam to retire after 33 years, $75M raised

She is light on her feet. Fencers have to be.

“The fastest moving object in sport is a bullet. The second fastest moving object in sport is the tip of the foil,” she says. “Not only are you adapting, you're doing it really fast.”

Being fast in fencing, she says, starts from the ground up, with the footwork.

Her back foot points to the side and her front foot faces her opponent, which on this steamy spring morning is an inanimate helmet and torso on a stand that will endure hit after palpable hit.

Reckling pushes off her back foot and raises her front foot slightly, just enough to hop it forward, ever wary of what might be coming her way in an actual match. On occasion, she lunges, stretching her back leg and leaning lower into her outstretched bent front leg.

‘You should know this woman’ Langsam

“I ended up at ArtsWestchester because of Janet,” Reckling says. “My father found a profile on her in Westchester Magazine. He handed it to me and said: 'You should know this woman.' I interned at ArtsWestchester that summer, and I was mostly terrified of her. But when I came back to work for the organization, she became an incredible mentor.”

CEO Janet Langsam inside the vault at ArtsWestchester in White Plains March 21, 2024. Langsam is retiring in June after 33 years on the job. A painting by Fidelis Izekor is behind her.
CEO Janet Langsam inside the vault at ArtsWestchester in White Plains March 21, 2024. Langsam is retiring in June after 33 years on the job. A painting by Fidelis Izekor is behind her.

An athlete accustomed to perfecting her footwork, Reckling nimbly navigates questions about how she’ll fill Langsam’s shoes. (Langsam, for the record, wears a “six-and-a-half or seven,” while Reckling is an “eight-and-a-half or nine.”)

“Janet's experience and everything is singular,” Reckling says. “If I come into this role trying to be the next Janet, I won't be successful because I can't replicate her story.”

A Westchester story

Reckling’s story is her own.

Her mother, Diane, was a competitive fencer in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Her father, Keith, played rugby for both the Canadian and U.S. national teams.

When their only daughter wanted a cello for Christmas at age 7, she mistakenly asked for a violin. When a violin was under the tree, she made the most of what was presented to her, mastering it well enough to play in Westchester All County and Greater Westchester Youth Orchestra by fifth grade.

She’s partial to Copland and Bartok, but concedes her playing is now limited to “mostly Christmas carols and the occasional Irish jig.”

“I loved being part of the orchestra, and being a piece of the whole,” she says. “So pretty much anything that we were working on was great, except maybe Grieg.”

As CEO of Westchester’s arts council, Reckling will be calling the tune, setting the course for an organization that secures grants, partners with hundreds of artists and non-profits, and presents the arts in its flagship bank building in downtown White Plains.

Kathleen Reckling, the newly named CEO of ArtsWestchester, has been a competitive fencer for almost 25-years. The Ardsley resident was photographed June 6, 2024 at the Fencing Academy of Westchester in Hawthorne.
Kathleen Reckling, the newly named CEO of ArtsWestchester, has been a competitive fencer for almost 25-years. The Ardsley resident was photographed June 6, 2024 at the Fencing Academy of Westchester in Hawthorne.

Team Mark Zuckerberg

Reckling took up fencing, late by fencing standards, at 14 in 2000. Though they lived in Greenburgh, she attended Ardsley High School, where her mother was the fencing coach.

When Kathleen was a freshman, future Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was a teammate, one year ahead of her. It was the year before he transferred to Phillips Exeter.

“My mother was our coach and she would drive us to beginner tournaments and stuff, in addition to like what we were doing with the school," Reckling says. "And one day she said to me, 'I don't love the idea of you dating in high school, but if you did want to date, I think this guy Mark is really going places.’

“Of course as soon as Zuckerberg ended up on the cover of Time magazine, the first thing she said was, 'I told you.'”

Reckling made a mark of her own at Ardsley. She lettered in fencing and swimming, was three-year fencing captain, leading her team to Westchester-Rockland championships, went undefeated in 120 consecutive bouts, and was a ConEd scholar athlete. She even placed first in the national Latin exam.

Lessons in leadership on the piste

She got noticed by Columbia University fencing coach George Kolombatovich, a legend in the sport, who “took a chance on me.” At Columbia, she was honorable mention All-American and first team All Ivy in 2007.

Her coaches, from her mother to Kolombatovich and Aladar Kogler at Columbia, were more than coaches, she says. They helped her on the piste — the strip on which fencers compete — but they also delivered life lessons.

“They really helped me believe in myself and what was possible," she says. "I was aiming for the highest level (the Olympics), which I didn't get to, but they never made me feel like it wasn't possible. They also adapted to me. The things that were my strengths, they pushed, and then they helped me identify weaknesses.”

They also trained her to pivot from setbacks, to reset and adapt.

“That adaptability and resilience and perseverance really informed how I head into my career and in anything I do. Those skills are completely translatable into these other spaces,” she says.

Kathleen Reckling, the newly named CEO of ArtsWestchester, has been a competitive fencer for almost 25-years. The Ardsley resident was photographed June 6, 2024 at the Fencing Academy of Westchester in Hawthorne.
Kathleen Reckling, the newly named CEO of ArtsWestchester, has been a competitive fencer for almost 25-years. The Ardsley resident was photographed June 6, 2024 at the Fencing Academy of Westchester in Hawthorne.

She had strengths, a foil in her right hand.

“I was someone who had a naturally very fast hand and reflexes, an athlete who was better on kind of a defensive type action. But the style that they encouraged me to have was an active defense. I would be aggressive, but I'd be looking to invite” her opponent to attack.

Once they did, Reckling would block (parry) their attack and strike quickly (riposte) before her opponent had any idea what hit them.

“Referees used to call me ‘the gun,’ my teammates, ‘the buzz saw,’ because my parry-riposte was pretty deadly,” she says. She gets a gleam in her eye, and laughs a husky, hoarse laugh. "It's based on a blood sport."

Reckling's early adversaries required preparation

Early on, two younger fencers from Rochester were perennially on Reckling’s radar: Ilana Sinkin and Adi Nott. Sometimes she bested them; sometimes they bested her. But she always knew those girls from Rochester were out there, ready to push her.

“You know who's on your list," she says. "You know who the people are that you have challenges with. It would help me focus."

Sinkin, now a corporate attorney for Amazon in Washington, D.C., who hasn’t fenced in years, recalls Reckling as a steady presence at tournaments.

“I just remember her being there, showing up and determined," Sinkin said. "And I knew she had it out for us. Because I was in Rochester and she was in Westchester, we were in the same region, so I saw her at every New York state and regional competition. I just had to be ready because I knew she was out for us.”

Kathleen Reckling's tenure as ArtsWestchester gallery director included 2017's "Give Us the Vote," about the fight for women's voting and the persistent barriers and challenges to voting access. Reckling, who takes over as CEO of ArtsWestchester on July 1, 2024, says she's proud of the exhibition, "which marked the centennial of women's suffrage in New York, but which asked a larger question: "What does that moment, women winning the right to vote, mean today? And looking at the broader issues of gerrymandering and other ways in which people may not have the right to vote."

Nott is still entrenched in the sport, and was interim head fencing coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy this year. She says she and Reckling were “friendly nemeses” and that the fencer from Westchester was “probably one of the physically strongest women I've ever fenced.”

“Because she was so strong, if she ever took control of her blade or the action, it felt like (I was) scrambling," Nott says. "For me, the best way to fence Kathleen was to stay away from her as much as I could ‒ and then basically go as fast as I could and hope she didn't catch me. It wasn't smart to attack her unless you were like super, super ready.”

Reckling's ties to fencing are deep. She is board president of Fencers Club, established in 1883, which bills itself as "the oldest continuously existing organization in the Western Hemisphere dedicated exclusively to teaching and promoting the sport of fencing." She speaks excitedly about American chances at this summer's Olympics in Paris, about how strong the sport has become here.

Reckling said those early lessons in preparation ‒ studying Nott and Sinkin to try to gain an edge ‒ prepared her for the job she’ll take on when June turns to July.

"With donors or the elected officials, they're people that you're going to be engaging with,” she says. “It’s doing the homework, knowing who you're talking to, who your audience is. And taking the assets of the organization and putting it before them in a way that engages them."

Arts in Westchester, and priorities

Growing up an arts kid in Westchester, Reckling experienced firsthand the power of arts funding and arts education, with ties to Music Conservatory of Westchester, Hoff-Barthelson Music School, and the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College. That reality makes "everybody's mission very personal for me."

She concedes that the post-pandemic recovery in the arts has been uneven, that some arts groups emerged more successfully than others. "But none of our grantees permanently closed," she says. "And that's really important."

She points to a promising upside: "The creative workforce is actually one of the fastest growing workforce populations in our area, which means there are more of these incredible individuals with vision. And developers and municipalities are really seeing the arts as a valuable placemaking tool."

Kathleen Reckling's tenure as ArtsWestchester gallery director included 2017's "Give Us the Vote," about the fight for women's voting and the persistent barriers and challenges to voting access. Reckling, who takes over as CEO of ArtsWestchester on July 1, 2024, says she's proud of the exhibition, "which marked the centennial of women's suffrage in New York, but which asked a larger question: "What does that moment, women winning the right to vote, mean today? And looking at the broader issues of gerrymandering and other ways in which people may not have the right to vote."

ArtsWestchester's role and success stories

Reckling says her organization serves best when it connects patrons to creators, and creators to resources and support. That could mean marketing or assessing needs shared by groups and addressing them.

"Everyone needs the dollars, but there's a need for professional development and other resources as well," she says.

Reckling is looking forward to the advocacy part of her job, to engaging leaders in Albany, led by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

"To be part of that team advocating for continued recognition of the value of arts and culture in our communities is incredibly empowering to me," she says. "To know that I have this network, and to have a leader like Andrea Stewart-Cousins who says, 'Well, I got you a million, but I can't just get a million for you. We have to do it for the state.' To know that we have the kind of representation ‒ at the county and at the state level that recognizes the value of the arts, not just here, but statewide ‒ fuels the eternal optimist in me."

Kathleen Reckling has been named the new CEO of ArtsWestchester, effective July 1, 2024. Reckling has been with the grant-giving arts incubator since 2011, serving most recently as chief operating officer, alongside Janet Langsam, who leaves the group she has led for 33 years.
Kathleen Reckling has been named the new CEO of ArtsWestchester, effective July 1, 2024. Reckling has been with the grant-giving arts incubator since 2011, serving most recently as chief operating officer, alongside Janet Langsam, who leaves the group she has led for 33 years.

Asked for a roadmap of what works, she points to two highlights, one gallery based, the other a multi-venue effort.

Her tenure as ArtsWestchester gallery director included 2017's "Give Us the Vote," which marked the centennial of women's suffrage in New York.

"The goal was to celebrate women's suffrage, but we asked ourselves kind of a bigger question, which is: What does that moment ‒ women winning the right to vote ‒ mean today? And looking at the broader issues of gerrymandering and other ways in which people may not still have the right to vote."

"What we had was a really powerful exhibition that was both about history, like the history of the vote in America, but also about real conditions today that may enhance or limit the democratic process," she says.

Kathleen Reckling talks to a Boys & Girls Club group at 2017's "Give Us the Vote" exhibition about the fight for women's voting and the persistent barriers and challenges to voting access. Reckling, who takes over as CEO of ArtsWestchester on July 1, 2024, says she's proud of the exhibition, "which marked the centennial of women's suffrage in New York, but which asked a larger question: "What does that moment, women winning the right to vote, mean today? And looking at the broader issues of gerrymandering and other ways in which people may not have the right to vote."

Then there was "All Fired Up," Recklings's first experience with ArtsWestchester in 2006.

"It was a countywide ceramics program, with 70 venues that each did something with ceramics," she says. "I think we even had a trolley that took people to different sites. And it was a marketing initiative, but it really got people out to the different venues."

These thematic, big-picture success stories ‒ a central idea that can coalesce a wide spectrum of arts groups ‒ are on Reckling's to-do list.

"That kind of project is something I'm very much looking to replicating, working with our affiliates and identifying a theme or something that we could do where we can engage many sites, and then build a marketing campaign and as a central agency we can help leverage those partnerships for funding," she says. "Marketing is expensive and is needed. We're well-positioned to do that kind of work."

Helping others to be the solution

Reckling acknowledges there are places in Westchester where the arts lag. But she says not every problem is hers to solve alone.

"One of the things that's really exciting to see is just how many incredible local grassroots organizations are coming up exactly to solve that problem," she says. "ArtsWestchester doesn't have to be the one that solves all these things, because we have such an incredible network of organizations like Yonkers Arts and New Era Creative Space (in Peekskill), both of which we actually recognized within Advancing Equity Awards this year."

Yonkers Arts won a $20,000 grant and New Era Creative space a $10,000 grant. They'll work to close "gaps in arts experiences for youth, seniors and adults ... to expose them to arts experiences, whether it's drawing or music."

Reckling also sees promise in public art, in murals and sculptures, art in shared places, and festivals. "I think those are ways that we can create moments, opportunities for exposure. And then our affiliates and other cultural organizations can be that transition point, right in their neighborhood."

Her parents' daughter

Diane Reckling sounds a lot like a coach when says she got her violinist daughter into fencing to toughen her up, “to make her meaner.” Her daughter wasn’t going to be a pushover.

Kathleen Reckling, the newly named CEO of ArtsWestchester, has been a competitive fencer for almost 25-years. The Ardsley resident was photographed June 6, 2024 at the Fencing Academy of Westchester in Hawthorne.
Kathleen Reckling, the newly named CEO of ArtsWestchester, has been a competitive fencer for almost 25-years. The Ardsley resident was photographed June 6, 2024 at the Fencing Academy of Westchester in Hawthorne.

“When we’d practice, I’d win and she’d cry. When she got older, we’d practice and she’d win and I’d cry. And she’d laugh,” Diane says. “I hope it's got her ready for this job that she's going into.”

Kathleen Reckling demurs.

Mean? Not mean.

“Polite, but assertive,” she offers.

She is the daughter of a fencer, also the daughter of a rugby player.

“My father's advice that he would give me before I'd go to a fencing tournament — but I also take with me everywhere into life — is 'pin your ears back and take the gap.' That's his rugby scrum half. It's like when you see the opening, don't wait. You take it. And it was a good advice for fencing. Don't miss your opportunity. But it's good advice anywhere.”

A gap awaits Reckling on July 1. The keys to ArtsWestchester will be hers. She’ll be chief cheerleader, the face of the organization, figuring out when to parry, dodge and lunge with donors and elected officials.

Is she ready?

“I have to be, don't I?” she says with that low, hoarse laugh. “It's what I've signed up for. If you ask yourself if you're ready, you'll never be ready.”

Reach Peter D. Kramer at pkramer@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: New ArtsWestchester CEO Reckling has twin passions: arts and fencing

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