Correction 11/15/21: The photo with this story is credit Vincent Giordano Photography. The photo credit was not included in an earlier version of this story, as well as photographs published with this story in print Nov. 14.
SCHENECTADY – If an arts initiative is needed in the community, especially if it affects kids, look no further than Betsy Sandberg to head the effort to make it a reality.
“I’ve got a soft spot for bringing art to kids of all ages, whether it’s music, visual, dance or sculpture,” Sandberg said. “Connecting librarians and gardeners or scientists with photographers or musicians with architects is something I do pretty well. I like to brainstorm and think of ways folks can work together.”
For more than 20 years, Sandberg has volunteered, financially supported, done grant writing for, or been at the helm of such efforts as Kids Arts Fest, Music Haven concerts, Schenectady & Me projects, Color the Canal, CREATE Community Studios, Creative Connectors, Jazz on Jay, and DRI (Downtown Revitalization Initiative).
Among the tangible results have been art given to area nursing homes that local kids drew; giant cardboard heads that Fran Giordano created to take to five area festivals; sculptured benches — one of which is in front of City Hall; visual and sculptural art along the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail during a summer festival; and currently in the works: a mural on Erie Boulevard, a musical playground called Drums Along the Mohawk on the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, a train playground on the Alco Heritage Trail and hundreds of collages mounted on the walls of the Alco Tunnel, which extends from North Jay Street under the railroad tracks to Erie Boulevard.
“Betsy is just a powerhouse of getting things done,” said Heather Hutchison, director of CREATE Community Studios. “She’s the first person I turn to when I have an idea of something to implement, and she always enthusiastically supports it.”
With all this involvement in the arts, it would be assumed that Sandberg is either herself an artist or comes from a strong cultural background.
“I’m not artistic,” Sandberg said with a laugh. “But I do love writing and I do have an extensive veggie garden. I like to eat. If I can’t eat it, I don’t weed or water it but leave it to the pollinators and birds.”
Rather, Sandberg was the third youngest of seven children, who grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin, where her father worked at Andersen Window World and her mother was a homemaker. Graduating Class of 1981 from Hudson High, she would not have gone to college had she not won a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — the only one in her family to graduate from college. Her youngest sister, Mary, also got the scholarship but opted to do a one-year vocational degree.
“The family did not value education,” she said. “But I didn’t grow up impoverished. There were some opportunities: I remember taking a gymnastics class and for a short time we did get piano lessons because our house came with a piano — but that didn’t last long.
“I know what it feels like as a kid to not have a new box of crayons or fresh clean paper, or a notebook or a sketch pad or an instrument that is all your own, even if it’s a cardboard oatmeal container turned into a drum. Instead, I used to work weekends to clean nursing homes or apartments as a teenager or did paper routes.”
But in high school, Sandberg discovered that she loved foreign languages and learned Spanish, German and Swedish, came to enjoy theater and was on her school newspaper staff. It was in college, however, where she learned how much she’d missed culturally.
“I came to realize how important arts were for kids. I didn’t have it,” she said.
Initially, Sandberg thought she’d become a teacher, but “a wise Spanish teacher” showed her she didn’t have the patience. Since she loved writing and was good at it, she got a job at an Arizona newspaper.
“It was hot and I came to hate the heat,” Sandberg said.
When she spotted an ad for an arts writer with the Kingston (N.Y.) Freeman, she applied and got the job. But that didn’t last long because she saw an opening at The Daily Gazette in Schenectady for an education writer. Hired in 1987, Sandberg was 25 years old.
“I loved being that education writer and part of that was sometimes to cover City Hall, which is where I met Mayor Karen Johnson,” Sandberg said.
She also had to cover the New York State United Teachers — the state’s union for teachers. It was in1993 when then-Gov. Mario Cuomo proposed a Spartan budget, which made drastic state cuts to schools that resulted in teachers being laid off and arts and sports programs being cut, that focused Sandberg’s direction.
“I strongly believed and agreed with Karen Johnson that something had to be done for the kids. My family didn’t have money for art even if I had been exposed to it,” she said.
By 1994 several things happened: Sandberg left The Daily Gazette and began working for the New York State United Teachers’ newspaper; Johnson put her on the newly formed planning committee for Kids Arts Fest, which Johnson had been chairing and which Sandberg eventually became the chair of; she started volunteering for Mona Golub’s Music Haven series, for which she sold raffle tickets — eventually becoming volunteer coordinator in 2014. After years with NYSUT, she retired in 2013.
Meeting artists, writing grants
As she became more involved with arts in the community, she got to know more of the artists and found she loved working with them.
“Artists who might show you something new, give you a new perspective, connect with you — it’s what I love about Kids Arts Fest — the connections that are made,” said Sandberg, who lives in Niskayuna with her husband, Steve.
Applying her writing skills to grants also proved valuable for several organizations including for Giordano’s giant head project.
“Betsy helped guide me in writing a New York State Arts Council grant,” Giordano said. “The result was five heads that we took to five festivals in Schenectady County, bringing Kids Arts Fest on the road.”
That’s music to Sandberg’s ears.
“I love getting money for artists and musicians. I don’t get a cent for this,” she said.
“I wrote the grant for Creative Connectors and am now in charge of those projects. It will be a full-time job.”
It’s as a grant writer that she joined the Jazz on Jay weekly summer music series in 2017.
“I know nothing about jazz but it was about getting them the funds,” she said.
What Sandberg loves is seeing dreams become reality. One of those is about the collages made by kids and others that will be turned into tiles and put inside the Alco Tunnel, a passage that workers used to get to the old American Locomotive Company and Alco site along the Mohawk River.
“My dream since we started was to display every one. There are at least 600,” Sandberg said. “Twenty years from now, someone will point at a tile and tell their kid and say ‘I painted that.’ Schenectady is a pretty great place. My impact on the world is to make it a brighter, more vibrant place. It’s about improving our community.”