In Conversation with Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Juilliard School

Author of The Artist as Citizen

Joseph W. Polisi
Photo by Christian Steiner

Molly Sheridan: In the essay from your book that we’ve excerpted here in NewMusicBox, you relate an anecdote that includes the comment, “It would be difficult for arts programs to comply with community faith oriented values.” This American fear of art and culture—it feels parallel to current editorializing on the Democratic Party in many ways, actually. How can we in the artistic community be good stewards in our communities to change this perception?

Joseph W. Polisi: Right. The philosophy and strategy that I’ve always had in these matters to find the path of least resistance, because to confront political, religious, sociological issues—art is never really going to win. You’re always outgunned. The best thing to do is to really show that these artistic experiences—whether it’s in drama, dance, music, or in the visual arts—exist first of all to explore the human experience and to produce a more discerning point of view about one’s world. It really is a way of expressing one’s humanity. Now, of course, there will be those who will not be interested in expressing one’s humanity or who do not want to see a particular side of humanity, but I think for the most part a rational individual will at least listen to that type of argument.

Molly Sheridan: So, it sounds like you’re pretty optimistic that art can have an impact?

Joseph W. Polisi: There has to be an impact. I can’t believe anything but that. I read a quote having to do with presentation of “The Gates” from Michael Kimmelman, and he says, “We didn’t need ‘The Gates’ to make us sensitive, obviously. Art is never necessary, it is merely indispensable.” I think that’s a great way of stating it.

Molly Sheridan: The book is a compilation of your articles and speeches drawn from over two-decades of material. In general, as you prepared this book, did you note any great changes or surprising lack of change in the intervening years?

Joseph W. Polisi: Well, I think that in the years since that time the tensions between the federal government and the arts has lessened. That hasn’t, unfortunately, been replaced by greater support for the arts except in a marginal financial way. Things are calming down, but it hasn’t gotten better in terms of having the federal government providing funding and support for the arts educationally around the United States.

Two, I think that the students at Juilliard and other places like it around the country are personally much more motivated to use the arts to change the world for the better. You see young artists really developing programs, reaching out to communities, and making a difference. I’ll give you two examples. We have a group that’s called ArtsReach and they have for three years now run summer arts camps in Southern Florida close to Homestead, which is a disadvantaged community, and used the arts to bring children out of their intellectual and physical poverty and really excited them just about being special human beings. They’re now spreading out and doing a program in South Central LA this summer and also with children whose parents have AIDS or who are HIV positive in South Africa. So it’s quite a remarkable effort on their part. Another group composed of actors, dancers, and musicians has put together a show that they’ve been presenting to women prisoners at Rikers Island. This is all under their initiative. I helped out with a little money to get the bus there, but that was it.

Molly Sheridan: It also strikes me that there’s the stereotypical way that most people might think of Juilliard, where virtuosi go to study, and they might be surprised by these sorts of outreach activities. Was this something that was always there or is this a more recent reaction to something else?

Joseph W. Polisi: Let me put it this way—I think the potential was always there, and this is what I say in the book, I really do believe in the idea of the artist as citizen. An educational institution like Juilliard should do more than simply prepare these young artists to be performers. They also have to be advocates for the arts in engaging, clever, ongoing ways and this takes thought when they’re students and it takes help from us. I would say that the potential was always there—I think that young artists always want to touch audiences—but my point is that you want to touch them in a broader way than with just that performance.

Molly Sheridan: And it does take a special kind of training to do that effectively.

Joseph W. Polisi: It takes training. It takes thinking. You know, “Why are you doing this? Is it a drop in the bucket?” You have to have some understanding of how our political system works, how our economic system works, how our social system works. I teach a graduate course in the fall called “American Society and the Arts,” and it covers these things. You can only legislate so much and young people in any field really have to take charge. What are these environmental issues, what are these political and financial issues that we have to understand? You just can’t go out there and say, “Here I am!”

Molly Sheridan: Do you find the students in that class come to it with a naïve perspective on what it will mean to be an artist in this society or are they already fairly well prepared?

Joseph W. Polisi: The impression may be that these are people walking into walls, but that is not at all the case. In fact, the students were particularly upset by that one article the New York Times back in December, you know, as if they were some type of automatons. They’re not naïve; they know what they’re getting into. They also know what they believe in and they’re not cynical either. I think that’s an important point. They’re not looking at the field as if the field owes them something.

Whether they will be gainfully employed at the end of the process nobody can guarantee, but I can tell them that they’ve gone through a very honest and intellectual experience. Many times the term is you “train” students at Juilliard. Well, you train bears, you don’t train human beings. We educate these young people. The intensity and the dedication that they have—compare that to most of the undergraduates in the United States.

Molly Sheridan: As an industry, classical music institutions have made something of a habit of lamenting the ever-approaching death of the art form for various cultural and economic reasons. In an educational environment, you have a unique view of the future. From where you’re sitting, how healthy are we?

Joseph W. Polisi: Well, if you look at it from the Juilliard side, then we’re in robust health; I’ve never seen it better. I’m not going to claim that I’m totally objective about these things but I’m also not totally blind. We’re constantly monitoring the activity levels and the performance levels of our students. Talk about outcomes assessment—we’re perpetually doing it almost on an hour-by-hour basis, so the talent, the enthusiasm, the discipline, the commitment, I’ve never seen it better in my 25 years of doing this sort of stuff.

Now, ok, let’s go to the other side—the institutions that present these arts. It’s a mixed palette. It’s not the fiasco Joe Horowitz seems to want to announce every seven or eight years. I think one of the fundamental problems is the lack of education in the arts at the primary and secondary levels, which I talk about in the book, and that has gotten worse, not better. And just because new programs exist, I would add, doesn’t mean they’re effective.

Molly Sheridan: Are you speaking nationally or just regarding New York?

Joseph W. Polisi: No, I’m speaking nationally. I grew up in the New York City school system in the ’50s and the ’60s when there was high quality teaching across the board by music teachers, not by biology teachers who took a summer workshop for six weeks on how to teach the arts. These were musicians who taught the instruments and conducted and gave you standards, even at the junior high school level. That’s gone and you’re not going to instantaneously have a mass epiphany on the part of 47-year-olds about going to the New York Philharmonic. They have to have some experience earlier in their lives that will compel them to do so. And that troubles me enormously and the only way we can fight it is to get back on the local level. Our artists have to be missionaries for this type of project. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill said. Get art programs in every school taught by correctly educated arts teachers.

Molly Sheridan: For as far astray as we might have come at this point, how long do think it would take us to get back on track?

Joseph W. Polisi: I’m sorry to say this, but a generation—30 years. But every journey begins with a first step and we better get going. There are hot spots where you have wonderful music teaching, but it’s not imbedded in the system. They don’t have space. It becomes an after school event. It’s very difficult.

Molly Sheridan: I’ve also heard talk that with the implementation of new education standards such as No Child Left Behind put the squeeze on non-tested areas like the arts departments. Do you have any sense if that’s accurate?

Joseph W. Polisi: Well, in a non-thinking sort of way, yeah. If you get a principal or board members who say they’ve got to get their math grades up so they’re going to put in extra help in 6th period, and a student who goes to extra help can’t go to band, it becomes a situation where band becomes an extraneous part of the curriculum. The whole idea that there’s joy and discipline in making music and that it is an intellectual exercise is not being heard enough.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out. In a very basic way, if you’re going to get good at a musical instrument, a few things have to happen. You have to have encouragement, you have to have proper instruction, you have to have an environment where you can practice, and you have to practice. And if you realize that personal discipline, it’s going to rub off in other areas. We have a program here at Juilliard called the Music Advancement Program for African American and Latino children. One of the things that was most difficult was to find a quiet environment for the child to practice, but once they found it, that’s an environment that also lends itself to reading, to doing homework, to not watching television. It’s not that complicated. The complicated part is just getting the environment to be quiet. People ask, “What did you do?” because these students then also started succeeding in various other areas, and it’s not that surprising. They’re motivated. They feel special.

Molly Sheridan: You’re watching young performers come of age. What are some of the new creative trends we might expect from these artists in the coming years?

Joseph W. Polisi: Well, that’s a good question and I don’t know how adequately I can answer it. Juilliard and places like it perpetually deal with conflicting interests. No matter what great ideas you have, you can’t realize those ideas without a certain level of technique and acquiring that takes a tremendous amount of time and concentration. It can also trap the student into thinking that the acquisition of technique is 100 percent of the process, which of course it’s not. So one of the big tasks at Juilliard is making sure they acquire the technique and then also begin to get across the bridge to artistry. Once they start that journey, I suppose that’s a journey through a lifetime.

To instill in them how to explore their own art world is an interesting challenge at Juilliard because what you’re doing in some ways is planting seeds to grow in future years. It’s not going to work with every student. Some are never going to get it and some are going to acquire it after they leave. But I’m not Polly Anna-ish—I’m optimistic because I see the energy of these young people. They’re not going to listen to the downsiders.

Molly Sheridan: No Norman Lebrect for them?

Joseph W. Polisi: They’re just not interested. They don’t think in those terms. They’re thinking about making their art as effectively as possible.