Juilliard President Joseph W. Polisi teaching his course “American Society and the Arts.” Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
The grand structures in the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts reflect decades of artistic tradition. And at the heart of the Upper West Side facility lies Juilliard, one of the world’s most distinguished performing art schools. Established in 1905, the Juilliard School has been a beacon of the arts in New York City for decades. However, as technology has become more of a prevalent force, even the most ardent of traditionalists have been compelled to shift.
EdSurge sat down for a conversation with Dr. Joseph Polisi, the president of Juilliard, who after more than three decades at the institution says he is now ready to pass down the mantel. Under his tenure, Juilliard his transformed both demographically and technologically. In an hour-long discussion, Polisi shares the legacy he hopes to leave behind, the digitalization of art instruction that he oversaw, and what “The Artist as a Citizen,” his revised book, means in the Trump era.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.
EdSurge: After the introduction of two apps that allow users to view the music production process, Julliard announced the availability of students to participate in its first full online courses this week. What are your thoughts on the role of technology and art and why did Juilliard introduce these courses now?
Polisi: Technology has been around for centuries, whether it was the harpsichord where the string was plucked, which turned into the fortepiano where the string was hit, and then the big Steinway of today. This is all new technology. However, it is still the human at the keyboard. I say to technology, bring it on, but let's not let's not say that [technology] is the creator.
I grew up in New York City in the 50s in the 60s, and I went entirely through the public school system, and it was an amazingly robust musical environment for children. That system is gone now, there a few hot spots, but nothing like before. If Juilliard can get involved in a way through the Internet, where there's access to serious instruction, we could help out.
You wrote in your book that, “Artist of the 21st century have to rededicate themselves to a broader national agenda.” What did you mean by that, and how has the meaning evolved since the time you wrote it?
The book was published in 2005, as part of our centennial celebration. I certainly didn't envision what would be happening in 2017 when I was writing it. A lot of graduates of Juilliard have taken this message up and run with it. There's an organization called ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty), they've started a conference, with my permission, called The Artist as Citizen. The message of the book has become the infrastructure for all the values of Juilliard.
I had a background in Political Science and International Relations before I received my graduate degrees in music and that certainly influenced me. In 2017, with the Trump administration, artists all of a sudden had a great deal of greatness thrust upon them, as Shakespeare would say. In other words, their responsibilities to present human values through their art has multiplied exponentially. The arts present values like empathy and nuance—values that sadly we see in short supply at the moment.
The arts are not valued in America today. Every politician since the 80s, even a great president like President Obama, has not embraced the arts. Now with the Trump administration, there are discussions about getting rid of the National Endowment for the Arts.
If you could leave us with one core message from your book, what would that be?
The arts matter in society. They are not fringe or fluff. The intellectual rigor required of the arts are just as much as in any other discipline.
I was very taken aback when Vice President Mike Pence went to a performance of Hamilton, and the cast went to the apron of the stage and read a statement that was very political. I thought it was very reasoned and correct. However, the response from some people was troubling for me. They said thing like, “What are these actors doing talking about politics? Their role is to entertain us.” No. Exactly the opposite, artists are there to get to you, to make a difference, to trouble you for good reason, and to bring humanity and values. That's what artists are about. It's going to be a long haul with the current environment.
You encouraged students to take their music out of the Juilliard bubble. Why did you feel the need to have students play and interact in the community?
Over the years the faculty occasionally has looked with some level of suspicion at some of my ideas. When we first introduced programs where we sent students in the communities to perform in the hospitals, there was a certain level of skepticism and concern on the part of the faculty. They would say, “Wait a minute, you know those two to three hours it takes to get to the performance venue and come back, and students could be practicing.” My response is, ‘They'll work it out, they're smart.’ And they did.
At Juilliard performances are very well organized—we have a completely ready-to-go concert venue for these young people. But that's not the real world. When they went out and played at a psychiatric center at St. Luke's at 116th Street, they were playing on a broken piano that's out of tune. But that didn’t matter. The nurses and doctors said a woman who hadn’t spoken for six months whispered, “beautiful.” A man, I’ll never forget, was incredibly knowledgeable about Bach. He started talking verbal program notes, and we were all just listening fascinated.
After over three decades as the President of Juilliard, you will be stepping down in June of 2018. What are your feelings about leaving and what do you want your legacy to be beyond your resume?
Someone's legacy is determined by somebody else, so I’ll leave it to whoever. But leaving will be emotional. I'd like to celebrate the people—the students and the faculty. One of the reasons I survived all these years was because I got a big kick out of seeing others flourish. I hope my successor, all the faculty, and future students will continue to get better. Excellence is a is a direction, it's not a place, and as soon as you let go a little bit, you start going backward. You know mediocrity is like carbon monoxide, can't smell it, you can't see it, but one day you're dead. You've got to keep pushing and pushing.
My next hope is to get into K-12 education. If I could put all my energies into just K-12 education in the arts, I'd be a very happy person. I believe deeply that the arts are a civilizing element to the growth of a young person.
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