After more than three decades as president of New York’s legendary Juilliard School, Joseph Polisi recently announced his plans to retire. Yet he remains distinctly upbeat. And that is because, since Donald Trump was elected US president, the students at his elite conservatory for actors, dancers and musicians now “see in a way they didn’t before the power of the arts to respond to things they didn’t expect”.
As a bassoonist who also studied international relations, Dr Polisi has a somewhat unusual background. The institution he heads is also something of an outlier in the sector. Although his students can take courses at Columbia University and vice versa, he believes that traditional universities have generally been slow to recognise that “the intellectual rigour in the arts is just as intense as in sciences and [the] humanities”. And he is delighted that the school has only 850 students, so that he can focus on its core mission and doesn’t have to “balance between the football team and the biology department”.
Although most higher education institutions have embraced community engagement, the Juilliard School puts its own distinctive spin on this.
“I feel that musicians need to get out of the box and understand how their art can affect other people,” explains Dr Polisi, “not just on a concert stage but in nursing homes and hospitals and Aids centres and schools. When you get the artist out of their comfort zone, which is exactly what I try and do, it’s a revelation to them how their art can make an impact. They become less fixated on getting the notes right and realise that the audience doesn’t know and doesn’t care. That’s not what the issue is.”
There are several other ways in which the Juilliard School is reaching out. Building on its success with apps such as Juilliard Open Studio, which show artists developing their performances in rehearsal, it has just launched Juilliard Open Classroom, a series of courses on musical theory and appreciation, keyboard skills and conquering performance anxiety.
Far more ambitious is the Tianjin Juilliard School, for which Dr Polisi reports it is “about to put the shovel in the dust”.
At the time of the financial crisis in 2008, he realised that he “couldn’t expect the world to come to our door”. So the school started looking for a new base in East Asia, “because of the great support there for classical Western art music”, and eventually settled on a development city in China. From September 2019, about 200 graduate students will take courses in orchestral studies, chamber music and collaborative piano for vocal coaching. There will also be larger pre-college and adult education programmes.
In the meantime, Dr Polisi is delighted that his students and the artistic community more generally are responding so actively to today’s political climate.
When the cast of the musical Hamilton booed US vice-president Mike Pence, he recalls, some people complained about “actors giving a political presentation when they’d just gone there to be entertained and relax. No! Absolutely not! Those actors and musicians are there to shake you up, to make you think in a different way. Trump has led them to intensify the message they are giving to their audiences. That’s energised us in a lot of ways.”