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Citizen Polisi

As he begins his final year as president of the Juilliard School, Joseph W. Polisi reflects on the changing cultural landscape.
By Philip Kennicott
Photographed at The Juilliard School by Sasha Maslov

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Photographed at The Juilliard School by Sasha Maslov
© Sasha Maslov (portrait); grooming by Affan Graber Malik for Tom Ford Beauty
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LAST FALL, JUILLIARD ANNOUNCED that Joseph Polisi, its longest-serving president, would step down at the end of June 2018. By that time, his career will have spanned thirty-four years, during which the nation’s preeminent professional arts school has seen sweeping changes, not just in how it teaches music, dance and theater, but in the relationship between the arts and the American people. Polisi is widely credited with dramatic changes to both the shape and size of Juilliard—adding a dormitory and renovating its main building, on the Lincoln Center campus, and creating a new satellite school in Tianjin, China, slated to open in 2019—as well as to its curriculum. But when he reflects on his career, he returns to an idea that was also the title of his 2005 book, The Artist as Citizen.

“I felt that our young artists, our students, needed to look up a little bit and see the horizon,” he says. That was his first impression upon arriving at Juilliard at the age of thirty-six in September 1984. The school lacked a sense of community, its various departments and studios were balkanized, and its students were driven by a fratricidal sense of competition that made it difficult to see the forest of art through the trees of technique and careerism. “When I got to Juilliard, it was really a commuter school. Faculty and certainly students came in for studies and then left. People didn’t hang around a great deal. There wasn’t a sense of trying to seek out other students, having actors go to dance presentations, or instrumentalists to theater—that wasn’t happening as much as it should have.” 

But that lack of community among Juilliard’s faculty and students wasn’t the only crisis Polisi would confront. Artists were also facing huge economic and social changes that would demand that they redefine their fundamental sense of purpose. By the end of the 1980s, there were ominous signs on the horizon for the arts, not just the usual fears of an aging audience and the decline of arts education in the public schools but the surging culture wars that alienated the arts from mainstream American cultural and political life, along with the rise of MTV and other forms of mass entertainment that threatened to overwhelm the traditional arts. Polisi was an early voice anatomizing those threats, and an early adopter of ideas that have now become mainstream. Artists could no longer think merely about excellence and career, could no longer expect to find an arts industry ready to absorb and employ them upon graduation from conservatory, and would need to connect more directly to the public outside the traditional concert hall or opera house. They would need to think of themselves more broadly, he has long argued, as citizens.

There were, in fact, two different things going on that became intertwined (and sometimes confused) under the catchphrase “artist as citizen.” First, there was huge economic disruption in the usual expectations about how artists build careers, which led to a new emphasis on a holistic arts education designed to produce more flexible, adaptable and entrepreneurial artists. Second, there was a growing focus on the social impact of the arts, on the importance of performing in hospitals, teaching in public schools and reaching out to people who don’t have regular or easy access to the arts. Some traditionalists heard words like excellence and artistry being downgraded, or displaced by things that had little to do with the artistic experiences they most cherished. But Polisi and other likeminded arts leaders intuited that these two ideas—a reform to the ways in which artists prepared for their careers and a new sense of community, duty and idealism—could together become a path to saving the arts for future generations.

Building a dormitory was one of his first priorities, and the Meredith Willson Residence Hall opened in 1990. “That began to create a sense of community, where there were roommates, and dancers roomed with trombonists, and so on,” he says. He showed little patience with the feudal divisions of the school, where powerful and often egomaniacal teachers ran their studios like personal fiefdoms. “I wasn’t very tolerant of that,” he says. “It was anathema to everything I believed in. I wasn’t interested in siding with one person or another. This wasn’t the level of civility that I wanted in the school.” He also encouraged a greater sense of responsibility when it came to collaborative enterprises, such as performing in ensembles and the orchestra, and engaging across disciplines. “Lateness would not be tolerated, exemptions from the orchestra were frowned upon, and practicing the part before the rehearsal was de rigueur,” he wrote in The Artist as Citizen. Eventually, he says, greater interaction and a more robust sense of community began to “dissipate” some of the old and sometimes toxic Juilliard atmosphere.

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Polisi teaching his course “American Society and the Arts” at Juilliard
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

CHANGES TO THE CURRICULUM and artist training were also fundamental, and the impact on training opera singers was particularly profound. “We always had superb voice teachers,” says Polisi. “That had been consistent for decades. The big difference [now] is that we really insist that our singers become superb musicians. We insist that they study music theory and keyboard seriously. This is not just a sideshow—this is the tool kit they will need.” Ear-training, music theory, piano and regular academic coursework outside the singing studio became part of basic training for undergrads. “In the early days that was not taken as seriously,” he says. “There was considerable pushback about spending time in the classroom working on these tools.” Today, he believes, “We are graduating very intelligent singer/actors, who understand the drama and the music. They learn faster. They adapt faster.”

Charlie Corcoran, a stage designer who has worked on Juilliard opera programs since 2011, sees the impact of this more organic approach. “Opera isn’t what it used to be, where you would find your mark and sing your aria,” he says. The students and young singers he has worked with at Juilliard understand that opera “is a more inclusive art form,” that the skill set needed to do it well is bigger than it has ever been, that the emphasis on movement and acting (especially for modern opera) is more essential than ever. The Juilliard program is intense and competitive, he says, “but as far as I’ve seen they are also one of the most nurturing groups of people doing this. The students work hard, they have a lot of intense studies, but they are taken care of.”

Soprano Camille Zamora received her master’s degree and artist’s diploma in opera studies between 2000 and 2004 and says it was “a life-changing place” for her. “When I entered, there was this sense that we were all going to practice and study super-hard and dedicate ourselves to artistic excellence,” she says. And there was an assumption that all the students would emerge and work their way through an established “feeder” system—a few seasons at New York City Opera, recitals and eventually on to the big opera houses of the world. But while she was there studying, that world was falling apart, and there was intense discussion of other ways to make a career in music, perhaps singing both popular and standard repertoire, or throwing oneself into the smaller but often artistically more engaging opportunities offered by leaner, scrappier independent opera companies. In 2006, Zamora and Monica Yunus (another Juilliard graduate) cofounded an organization called Sing for Hope that helps connect musicians with communities that are underserved by music. One of its regular programs, Sing for Hope Pianos, places dozens of pianos in public spaces around New York City, then donates the instruments to schools. The program has been a wild success, with an abundance of media coverage, which she manages alongside her singing career. 

“One of the things Polisi did was set up a forum for conversation about all of these things, even at Juilliard, where we wear the mantle of tradition so seriously,” she says. “Polisi, in his very elegant way, has been a great champion for looking at what these new systems would be. He has a light touch about him, he has a warmth and a wit that he approaches things with, and there is an optimistic vibe about him. It is easy to be a little ‘the sky is falling,’ but he is great, saying, ‘No, we need the arts more than ever, so let’s look at our delivery systems for art.’”

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© Sasha Maslov 

READING THROUGH The Artist as Citizen, one gets the sense that Polisi was more worried about the future in the 1990s than he is today. There was a note of alarm in the early speeches he was giving that has dissipated, or perhaps been shifted to new and broader cultural worries. “In the 1980s and ’90s, I thought there was a shot at being able to redirect these early digital elements in a way that would allow the arts to be understood better,” he says, of the days when he worried about how mass entertainment was shortening our attention spans. “Twenty, thirty years later it is a completely different world, with iPhones and Twitter, so my strategy has changed. I no longer believe we can move this thousand-ton elephant in a different direction, but engage with it. Now we have to use its power for what is good in the arts.”

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If he frets now, it is about the larger degradation of our political and cultural life. He mentions Donald Trump several times in an hour-long conversation, and his worries about the current political moment go well beyond what will happen to the National Endowment for the Arts or arts education. “Issues of civility, nuance, empathy are lacking,” he says of our contemporary political culture. “And those elements, those values are exactly what the arts are all about. There are so many examples in so many works of art. The last act of Figaro, with the Countess’s ability to forgive her husband—that shows such grace, so much empathy. These are values that are not evident in the current administration.”

Not everyone in the arts-administration business is willing to speak so frankly. Yes, he is about to retire, and that may make it easier to be candid. But his concern is also a natural extension of the pedagogy he has been talking about. The concept of the artist as citizen would be meaningless if artists were unwilling to speak up when the basic values undergirding democracy are threatened. It was never Polisi’s goal to train artists as activists, and he admits to significant impatience with artists who speak loosely and ignorantly, with more passion than substance. But why train artists to look up and see the larger horizons of life if they do so only to put their heads back in the sand? 

“When you lose those values,” he says, “the rest of the nation follows.” spacer 

Philip Kennicott, chief art critic for The Washington Post, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

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