Juilliard's President Joseph Polisi on Changing Times, the Unshakeable Concept of Excellence: Q&A

Michael DiDonna
The Juilliard School

Juilliard's longest-serving, soon-to-retire president explores the past and the future of being an artist.

The Juilliard School is one of the preeminent institutions for performing arts education in the world. Its name alone is synonymous with artistic achievement -- and high expectations. Its list of notable alumni resembles a phone book that includes the names of Nina Simone, Steve Reich, Tito Puente, Itzhak Perlman, Jon Batiste, Philip Glass and Alan Greenspan (yes, that surprised us too). 

Joseph Polisi has been at the helm of this brilliance factory since 1984, the school's longest-serving president. While the culture of classical music may be slow to change, the world has zigged and zagged dramatically through the years of Polisi's presidency, and he's done his best to prepare his students for a life within the arts, but also has tried to redefine what a life within the arts even means.

Polisi recently announced he'd be stepping down from his position in 2018. Billboard spoke to the administrator about his time at the school, and how the times have changed.

Billboard: Because of your tenure at Juilliard, you have a wide lens on the different changes throughout the music business. Some thing in classical music have more overlap with popular music than others, but the business is at least making a living on it and the distribution of it, etc. has gone through a monumental change across both in your time. Can you just describe or just give me a little background on what you saw when you first took this job as far as practical kind of education for students goes in the music business. 

Joseph Polisi: Well I think my first efforts in that regard may not be viewed as practical but I view them so… and that is community outreach. I felt it was extremely important for our young artists (the dancers, actors and musicians that were here) to be able to successful advocates for the arts beyond the traditional venues they usually perform in. 

The programs we created got them into hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, schools of course and it really changed their own perception of what they were as artists, because it was not really whether you got the notes or the words or the steps right, it was how you were able to communicate with audiences that perhaps weren’t as inclined or informed to understand what classical music was all about.

The responsibility of an artist does not stop when the concert stops -- it actually just begins. In more recent times, the past five or ten years, we’ve become involved in providing the appropriate tools for these young artists to deal with a very new world in terms of distribution and recordings and a whole host of issues.

So, that was well into the technological seismic shift that’s happen over the past decade. How has the approach with that entrepreneurial education changed just since the school’s launch? Every day I wake up and expect something fundamental to have shifted. 

The thinking of the students at the school has shifted significantly. It used to be very, very complicated and very costly to do a recording, and now it’s something that you could post on your own in various outlets and it's comparatively high-quality, and it gets the word out as to what you’re all about as an artist. I think the students that are coming into Juilliard and places like Juilliard are already thinking in those terms, but we’re here to refine the process and begin to give them a strong course of action as to how to make it better. 

One thing that’s always interested me, this new generation is growing up unlike any before it -- just like you can say about any generation -- but this one I think has seen a particularly gigantic amount of change. What have you seen as far as the impact on the art that’s come from you know, student’s conception of it and use of it? Does that make sense?

Yeah it does absolutely. I think that there are various levels of answering that really important question. 

One, no matter what the vehicle is for the reproduction of the art, going back to a harpsichord or a fortepiano or Steinway Grand of today, it’s the human being at the source of it that’s the important element. In order words, you’ve got to maintain the excellence. Excellence doesn’t change because of the delivery vehicle, and I think within the context of American society in particular but throughout the world, there is a tendency in certain cases to find the easy route. 

It’s pervasive access right now, but that doesn’t mean that the art is better. So that has to be... that is the foundation of what Juilliard is all about; the continuation of excellence. 

As I say so often, we’re as good as our last performance -- here, that’s the attitude that we have. On the other side is the opportunities within these delivery systems and technologies that allow new creative work to take place that we do through in something called the Center for Innovation in the Arts which we purposefully merge and meld so to speak, new technologies with human beings in dance, drama, and music and often it comes off as a result of multimedia activities, interactions with digital world. 

Aren't the goalposts of 'excellence' fluid?

No it’s not, it’s not. It’s not fluid. You know when it works, and when it doesn’t work. When you’re not sure, you’re not achieving it.

Any genre deserves excellence, and there will be failures and successes within it. There will be things that work and things that don’t work. Whatever art form it is, if it’s pop music or if it’s rap, I mean you’ll know what works and what doesn’t work within certain parameters. So I’m not suggesting at all that we go back to the music of Mozart -- quite the contrary, I’m saying we have to develop new work, but within that context, the standard of excellence is what’s constant.

Right, what I meant was that people’s definition of excellence has, I think changed since they’ve gotten access to anything they want. Does that make sense?

Yes it does make sense and i think you hit upon an extremely important part because I think that with this flood of access -- with this flood of information, it’s very difficult to decipher what works and what doesn’t work. In our society we tend to be shy about our concerns about delineating what we believe works and what doesn’t work; everything is equal but everything isn’t equal. 

Looking at the business too, people have said – not said it’s an absolute fact –the recording industry has contracted significantly over the past 15 years and a lot of people see that as a negative. I kind of look at it a different way. I think there’s a lot of opportunities for emerging artists, would you agree with that?

Oh I agree 100 percent. I think, as I said a little bit earlier, emerging artists now have a greater opportunity for their work to be heard than before. 

The record companies certainly had to evolve and morph into different permutations in order to make money but I think for the artist, it’s a bigger opportunity, it’s a much larger playing field so to speak and I’ve heard many times you know when places like Le Poisson Rouge or National Sawdust, where there’s a lot of variety of acts that they presen,t both classical and pop, et cetera, that many times the producers there and other places like them will say well you know these young artists come already with a following because they already have presence out in the social media and so when we book them, people actually buy tickets to hear them live. That would’ve never happened 30 years ago. 

Yeah, do you think by, how do I put this… The economics of it have shifted to the point where no one is necessarily even less so maybe these days starting on an artistic career with any expectations of remuneration? Do you think that, what kind of effect do you think that has on the art that’s being made? 

Umm, let me put it this way that probably through the history of human culture, people who have been very, very serious about developing their art have not put compensation at the top of the list as to why they do it. 


I really mean it. I’m sure that Picasso, as a very older painter, probably realized that every new painting he could knock out would be that much more compensation. But I would argue that early on in his lifetime, he wasn’t painting to make money. He was painting because he had to. 

The young artists that I see at Juilliard, their passion for doing what they’re doing and they’re being so white-hot at what they want to do is why they get into this field. They don’t get into the field for fame or necessarily for money. 

With that said, they’re investing in their education both financially and in time, and we have to be sure that they function in the areas that they’re educated in. So we try to provide as broad array of educational experiences for them as possible including writing well, speaking well, analyzing situations well -- independent of artistic activities -- being entrepreneurial, as I already said. I would also add that you know some of the elements that they experience here are universal -- discipline, stamina, imagination, creativity, working well within a group, all these are attributes that could be easily transferred to business. 

And they have to one-in-a-million to be a soloist. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.