As President of The Juilliard School, Dr. Joseph Polisi is a twenty-first century visionary poised at the helm of a world-renowned performing arts institution; he is a fierce proponent of the arts, an author, a teacher, and a performer.
Beneath the officialism of his charge as President of The Juilliard School (a position he has held since 1984); in looking beyond the two books he has penned in recent years (The Artist as Citizen and American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman), his prolific career as a bassoonist, and his teaching endeavors (of an aptly-entitled class at Juilliard: American Society and The Arts) - there exists a man of industry, polish, and genuine human warmth. Dr. Polisi is a creative professional aware of his greatest strengths and devoted to inner growth, continuously demonstrating resilience in his role to address the challenges of an ever-evolving performing arts world.
Dr. Polisi sat down with Notes On The Road to share on how he manages to pace himself while juggling multiple responsibilities in his position, how he maintains his artistic integrity at all times, why anger should be saved for when "you plan on getting angry," and what he truly believes the arts can do for the environment of the human spirit.
In your creative journey to becoming President of The Juilliard School, we know that in addition to being a prolific performer, your academic background has included earning degrees in Political Science and International Relations. What inspired you to broaden your areas of study?
I was always a good bassoonist, and my father was my teacher. He was principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic, and he taught at Juilliard. During my senior year of high school, I asked him: "Dad, should I go to Juilliard or Curtis, where you went to school? And he said, "Is playing the bassoon the only thing you want to do in your life?" And I said, "Gee, I'm not sure." And he said: "Well then that's not the place for you right now. Maybe someday, but not now." And so I became a political science major at the University of Connecticut, and I had a wonderful advisor whom I admired enormously. He graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, and he suggested that I go there.
I did, and received my Masters Degree in International Relations. I realized during that time that I really missed the arts. It was 1970, during the Vietnam War, and I knew I was just about to be drafted. Back then, you were forced to think about what you really believed in. That issue is not quite as prevalent today regarding relevancy and what you want to do with your life.
In the end, I actually had an ACL operation for my knee and didn't get inducted into the military, but I did decide that ultimately, I wanted to devote my life to music. I was very fortunate in discovering that.
Your family background in the arts seemed to be a great primer for your multifaceted career.
My father was a musician and my mother was a dancer, so it was a good match. Later, what I really learned from my studies in diplomacy was rational thinking and clear writing.
What do you think artists in general can learn from the world of political science?
Oh, I think any honing of the mind is of enormous value. And now at Juilliard, we have a Communications Center that's dedicated to improving the skills of writing and speaking. We're working very hard on integrating those skills into every classroom experience at Juilliard, certainly in liberal arts, but also in music history and theory. If you're doing a presentation on the String Quartets of Elliott Carter, you should be using your speaking and analytical skills as effectively as possible.
What advice would you give to students starting out now, or young people in their 20's, on balancing various interests or who are trying to assimilate and find a sense of societal purpose, as musicians or other kinds of artists?
I think an important thing is to follow a path that you love, and I really mean this very seriously. People know when they're comfortable and when they're not comfortable. They recognize when they are forced into doing something and it's not who they are. They also know when it feels very natural. I think it's important to follow your sense of self.
Musicians often think: "My art is my art, and that's the way it is going to work. I'm great, and I'll be fine." And unfortunately, that is not the way it works. In the conventional model, there are cases where there is an opening for Principal Oboist of the Chicago Symphony and you might audition. You might get the job and that is a tremendous achievement. That is not, however, the way it usually happens.
You have to be entrepreneurial, recognize the many facets of your own talents. In my own case, I could feel that I was a talented teacher because I enjoyed it and I seemed to be effective. I also found that I was a talented administrator. And I knew I was a talented bassoonist. But deep down, I knew I was a better administrator than I was a bassoonist. And after doing a host of auditions, one of which I won, I said to myself: "Is this what I really want to do?"
When I was 25, I wanted to be like my father. I wanted to be the principal bassoonist of a large orchestra. That was my goal. But when I was faced with that reality, I thought: "You know, maybe I really want to teach more." And I continued to play bassoon, but then I started working as an administrator, which led me to think: "Gee, I'm doing this naturally and well, and for whatever reasons I made the decisions that turned out to be correct decisions."
Eventually, I said to myself: "I think I am better as an administrator than as a bassoonist, even better than I was as a teacher." You decide on things the further you follow your instincts. Things eventually become clear.
How much of your job as President of Juilliard is fundraising?
I'm so often asked that. I should really calculate how much time I spend. Let me put it this way: fundraising is all about representing the institution well, and that's a full-time job. The "asking" in fundraising is such a tiny, tiny percentage of the time. I always say: if you do it right, you never even have to ask. The biggest gifts I've ever received I really, truly have never asked for.
What advice would you give to people who are looking to reformulate a fundraising strategy, especially in today's economic climate?
You need a very clear mission that you can articulate clearly and briefly, and it has to be a mission, to some degree or another, that's not duplicative. Obviously, you can't totally reinvent the wheel, but you have to give a reason why your organization, your experience, should exist. And there are plenty of angles to make that happen.
Your approach should be absolutely and totally honest. Don't try to guild the lily by thinking if you do this or that, it will work. Anyone who is knowledgeable will immediately recognize phoniness. Go straight ahead and be absolutely honest. That was advice that Bill Schuman gave me. He said "always tell the truth, because this way you'll never have to remember what you said." (Laughs)
There seems to be a pressure as the face-forward of an institution that you need to be "nice" to everyone, no matter what. Have you ever felt, when the pressure is so high to be courteous, that you just wanted to lose it on somebody?
Sure! I have wanted to lose it. And that goes back to my Fletcher training. I remember reading a "Diplomat's Guidebook" that was written in the late 19th century, early 20th century. I think it was written by a British writer. And one of the things that I never forgot was, "Get angry only when you plan on getting angry. Only when it's to your benefit. Never get angry because you just lose it."
I feel that I'm polite to all people. My general assumption is that all people are nice unless proven otherwise. So that's my attitude. But I'm not chopped liver either, if someone is arrogant or difficult or saying untrue things about Juilliard, I will push back.
I also feel that sometimes donations are just not made in heaven. It's just not the right match. So simply say, "OK, thanks very much, nice meeting you, goodbye." And I can count on, maybe, almost one hand, maybe I'm edging towards two after 26 years, certainly less than ten times where I've actually gotten angry when I didn't plan to. Even looking back at those times, I think on a few occasions, I knew I wanted to get angry, but I didn't know when.
As a fundraiser, have you ever faced a situation where funding was offered from a source that might either be questionable or of questionable alliance? How would you advise others to handle that situation?
When dealing with both individuals and organizations, a friend of mine once said, "Does it pass the smell test?" If it doesn't "smell good," it's probably not a good idea. If it doesn't feel good in your gut, it probably should not be pursued.
Juilliard is often offered opportunities to participate in reality shows but we're not desperate for visibility. There is an image that I feel is appropriate for Juilliard, and there are other things that, in terms of privacy, we simply don't want to violate. We are often asked, for example: "Can we film auditions?" -- and of course the answer is no.
Many people seem to think that auditions at Juilliard are like "American Idol," that people are saying wonderful things, or insulting things, and of course that's not what it's about at all.
Why do you feel that arts education is always the first to be cut from curricula?
Let's look at the past fifty or sixty years. When we were in the Cold War, we were actually in competition with the Soviet Union, not just in terms of weapon design, but in terms of intellectual growth. When Sputnik was launched in 1957, we were beaten by the Russians in the "space race," so to speak, at least the first stage. There was a tremendous push at that time for the strengthening of science and mathematics studies in American school systems. That really has not diminished to any great degree.
In the late 80's, with the Mapplethorpe Controversy, and Senator Helms and the issues of the NEA, America started looking at the arts as if they were some sort of evil element of our society. As a result, there are many school systems that not only see arts as superfluous, but as something negative. So as a result, we're fighting this battle.
Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, we're seeing a phenomenon of perpetual testing everywhere--testing in mathematics, and in reading, in the sciences, and teachers are being evaluated based on the results of these tests.
We see over and over and over again, when we go into the inner city with our programs, and now the Juilliard/Carnegie Academy program, that the children who embrace the arts on a day-to-day basis, who practice and see the joy and discipline of the arts, invariably do better in their other subjects. Why? It's not rocket science. Once again, we're helping them focus. We're enhancing their sense of self-esteem, and their peers are seeing them as being interesting people and leaders.
What inspired you to write The Artist as Citizen?
Writing is a funny thing for me. I will think about something for a very, very long time, and then it bubbles up--and I can't stop myself from letting it out. The Artist as Citizen was a collection of essays that I edited and wrote for which I wrote an introduction. It just felt like the right time, around my 20th year as President of Juilliard.
The Bill Schuman biography, American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman (Amadeus, 2008). was born from a tremendous desire to analyze his achievements as both a composer and an administrator, and his centennial was coming up, which is this year, 2010. I'm very happy that that's completed. Now, I'm seriously looking at a third book on the history of Lincoln Center, which is something I've thought about for a long time.
What sort of daily habits do you have in place in your own life to manage time effectively? How do you balance all the aspects of your career and keep yourself clearheaded, productive and creatively buoyant?
I work out in the gym a great deal. In high school I was a long-distance runner. I say that only because I know how to pace myself. If I get back home at 1:00 in the morning from a concert I'm not in the office at 7:00 the next morning. And I try to schedule my day so that there's some time for me to be a bit contemplative. I attend many performances, not just at Juilliard, but around the city. I also have to travel internationally or domestically, so it's all about pacing. Being the president of Juilliard is more of a marathon than a one-hundred-yard dash.
Regarding the future of music, there seems to be a pressure within the conservatory environment on young artists to "specialize" in a certain area. As a performer, is that a trend that you see ever changing?
That's a good point. I think you're absolutely right that we live in a world of specialization. Just look at today's medical profession. There are very few general practitioners anymore. Today's level of technical ability in music, for example, is exceptionally high. We don't know exactly how Liszt played, for example, but we do know that many composers were performers as well. This is markedly less the case today.
I also think that with today's electronic media a performer has greater accessibility to disseminating his/her artistic ideas. I'd like to think that at Juilliard, we are considering what the future will hold for the artist of the future who is a composer, performer, teacher, administrator, etc.
It is interesting from a performer's point-of-view that audience members very often preface their questions with disclaimers in conversation: "I know this is a stupid question," or "I'm not at your level, but..." Even if they are well-educated, brilliant people. Why do you believe audience members feel resistance or fear when they are addressing members of the arts community?
I think there is an aura about the classical arts that if you don't get it, it's your fault, not the performer's fault. And especially with new music, or much of 20th century music. I've often spoken to people who are subscribers to the New York Philharmonic, and they will say: "Gee, I feel so upset, I just don't understand this music. I can't relate to the music. What's wrong with me?" And it may very well be that it's the composer's problem, or the performer's problem.
The responsibility of a performing artist is to have every single performance be a transformative experience for those listening. No one is going to "bat a thousand" with that high a standard, but as a performer, you are actively trying to win people over, and trying to perform in a way that is very communicative, and it touches audience members, that can make a big difference.
I think it's the entire experience that engages audiences, not only the music -- although the music is obviously the core of the experience. It's the whole aura of the experience. It's getting to know the artists, getting to know the works performed, the history of the pieces, what influence history may have had on the composer at the time--whether it's Beethoven or Babbitt.
And giving a context within which the audience can absorb this whole experience is important, a context that make sense within a larger universe.
In your opinion, what do you think some of the effects of the arts are on a society? What would change in the United States if a larger percentage of people were more in touch with the creative arts?
In terms of change, generally speaking, I think people would be much more sensitive individuals if the arts were a part of their lives. If we're talking about arts education within a curriculum within the primary and secondary levels, that is something I've been talking about for a long, long time that has not been integrated into our system nationwide in a way it once was--especially in larger cities.
I think that has to be brought back, If you don't have a music class for forty minutes in your curriculum every day, it's going to go the way of the wind. And now schools of course have become so dependant on time management and testing that the arts are often ignored. And then with the financial turbulence we're now experiencing, what's the first subject to go? Sadly it's the arts.
This weekend, I was at Middlebury College to receive an honorary doctorate from Middlebury. I was very honored, but when I was talking with the other honorees, I learned that they were all in politics, or journalism, or medicine, environmental studies, legal issues; I was the only one involved in the arts. Middlebury is an institution that is very involved with issues related to the quality of our environment.
I had to say a few words at a pre-ceremony reception and I said: "I'm in the environmental business also. I'm in the business of improving the environment for the human spirit." And that's what the arts do. They expand our view of the world. They allow us to be enlightened, to be engaged, to be happy, to be sad, to be introspective, to be extroverted. The arts make us human.