“Who would have thought there’d be four places to get cappuccino here,” says Judy Grunberg.
On this rainy October afternoon, Grunberg sits in one of the village of Chatham’s coffee shops looking out of the window. She has lived in the town of Chatham since 1965, after she left Manhattan with her husband and two young children in tow. Observing the buildings lining Main Street, she says, “Chatham looks pretty much the same, but it’s livelier now.”
Whether fussing with her short, curly head of hair or absently picking miniscule pieces of debris off of the table, she constantly fidgets. Sipping her beverage, she kicks off her Birkenstock-style sandals and settles in, barefoot, to wait for her food.
“We were looking for land. We wanted to have chickens and be self-sufficient,” she recalls. “You know, that whole urban-to-land movement. I never heard of Columbia County before I moved here.”
Her lunch arrives, and it is a plate the eatery calls an “adult grilled cheese” sandwich. She chose the twelve-grain bread “for the fiber,” and in a way, this classic childhood favorite sums Grunberg up quite well.
Slight and energetic, she exudes a youthful quality that belies her actual age (somewhere in her 70s). She is a passionate dreamer with the ability to translate her visions into practical reality. Fun but also pragmatic, like grilled cheese on a sturdy, healthy bread.
Grunberg appears to know almost everyone in the village. Several people greet her as they enter the shop or wave to her from the street. She is a bit of a legend in these parts, for good reason. While raising three sons of her own as well as caring for her stepson, she was the first artistic director of the Columbia Council on the Arts, which brought a series of dance companies to various performance spaces in the area; she was on the board of trustees of the Columbia Land Conservancy; and she was very active in the Chatham school system.
Somewhere during those years she also bought (and still operates) the Blue Plate restaurant, got the local food co-op going, helped to save the Crandell movie theater (a village landmark), opened the Necessary Lines gallery on Main Street, and founded Performance Spaces for the 21st Century (PS/21), which is now in its seventh season.
“I knew her by reputation before meeting her,” says Johnna Murray, the manager of Rewraps, a resale clothing shop owned by Grunberg. “I started out as customer and sort of never left,” Murray laughs. The revenue of Rewraps helps to subsidize the operating costs of PS/21.
Murray, another New York City transplant, was drawn to the country for the nature and the quiet, but is also heavily involved with theater and performance. She appreciates the performance venues in the area. “PS/21 is such a wonderful place,” she says. “I am continually impressed by [Grunberg’s] ability to do so many things.”
PS/21 started out as a shared idea between Grunberg and her husband before his death in 1997. They had discussed a not-for-profit venue for music and dance, in a country setting and envisioned the space as a brand new “green” building. But when the organization finally opened in 2006, Grunberg says that the economy prevented the actualization of that facility. She found a work-around in what she thought was a temporary solution: a Saddle Span concert tent, an arched structure that Grunberg says that patrons of PS/21 have become very attached to.
“PS/21 is unusual but it just works,” says Susan Davies, the administrative director of PS/21. “It’s magical and people love it. It allows you to be outside but sheltered, and there is a sense of being uplifted.”
The renowned Parsons Dance troupe performed for PS/21’s first season and have for every season since. This programming high standard was part of Grunberg’s vision, and those who know her don’t expect her to achieve any less.
“If she feels something should and can be done, she’ll stay with it,” says Murray. “She is persistent. She knows what is needed and having it not happen is not really on her list.”
Grunberg is an artist armed with a system. After taking on the position of graphic designer for her slimly-staffed organizations, she realized that she loved the work. “I liked to make things clear in a visual way,” she says. “Graphic design is all about decisions and organization. You have a purpose and you have to decide what the priorities are.”
This work method has yielded much success for Grunberg, but so has her desire to create a world filled with things that she enjoys. When she bought the Blue Plate 15 years ago, it was mainly because she liked having it around and didn’t want to see it go after the owners decided to get out of the business. She focuses on the arts because they are important to her and she can’t seem to help but to surround herself with them.
Davies says, “She loves the arts and understands the importance of them to society and the community. She understands in a very deep way how important art is to the health of a society and a culture.”
Grunberg was an art major in college, but her introduction to the arts began in early childhood. “Growing up in Manhattan, most of my parents’ friends were musicians,” she says. “I was always around it.” When she relocated to Chatham, she brought the cultural elements that she knew with her.
“Doing the right thing fuels her,” says Murray. “She genuinely cares about what will work for this community.”
“She is generous financially but also with her time,” says Davies. “Nothing is above or below her.” Davies recalls how when a dancer needed her costume altered on the day of a PS/21 performance, Grunberg “sat there and did it.” She also prepares home-cooked meals for the troupe.
When the owner of the Crandell movie theater on Main Street died, he had been working on selling the building to the Chatham Film Club. When he died he left no will. Although his wife wanted to honor her husband’s wishes, she had to sell the theater at a competitive price. Enter Grunberg, who bought the building and then promptly turned the title over to the club.
“Oh, I just helped them,” she says, before quickly changing the subject, eager to brush it off.
“She keeps a low profile about that,” explains Davies. “She doesn’t want the spotlight to be on her, but on what they’re doing over there instead.”
Grunberg would rather discuss her future plans, like offering workshops for teaching practical skills, such as sewing. She would also like to get back into her art studio to focus on fine art again. “You can never have enough activity in the village,” she says.
“She’s a very creative and very generous person,” says Davies. “We’re very lucky to have her in our community.”