For Juilliard president Damian Woetzel, there is more than one definition of artistic success

Woetzel comments on building a brighter, more inclusive future for the prestigious conservatory and cultivating a spirit of versatility and collaboration in the young artists of today for Document's Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

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Some heads of large institutions, particularly at the beginning of their tenures, lead with answers—sweeping plans and big ideas and bold directives. Damian Woetzel, who became the seventh president of The Juilliard School in July, prefers to observe before imposing. He believes in starting with questions.

He wants to know how his students move through the school—figuratively, but also literally, how they’re using the space. He wants to know what they’re consuming—figuratively, but also literally, what food they’re eating. (He considers the books and music and conversations and coursework—and, of course, the food—all to be forms of “nourishment,” a word he uses frequently to describe the type of environment he intends to create.) He wants to know which barriers to community-building exist at Juilliard—figuratively, but also…you understand.

Though Woetzel’s appointment to lead Juilliard, arguably the world’s most prestigious conservatory, surprised some, given that he had not previously worked in academic administration, others hailed it as an inspired choice. Not only is he familiar with the terrain—he studied as a teenager at the School of American Ballet, which was then located in the Juilliard building—but he’s also a world-class multitasker by nature. He earned an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School while performing as a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, and since his retirement from dance in 2008, he’s been the artistic director of the Vail Dance Festival, a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School, a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities under Barack Obama, and the director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program. Who better to prepare performers for careers on and off the stage than someone who has successfully navigated both worlds?

The stakes are high, not only for the institution and its billion-dollar endowment, but also for performing arts organizations more broadly, which Juilliard feeds at their highest levels and which are struggling to reconcile artistic missions with the imperative to fill seats. At the top of Woetzel’s year-one agenda: new initiatives to foster diversity and belonging and to encourage multidisciplinary collaboration as a complement to the school’s classical training in dance, drama, and music.

Dan Gilmore: One of your first initiatives as president of Juilliard is JuilliART, which brings visual art into the common spaces of the school. The first artist you’ve selected is Keith Haring, and you now have in the lobby a number of works on loan from the Keith Haring Foundation for this academic year. So let’s start with Keith Haring. What is his significance to you?

Damian Woetzel: There’s a lot of history for me with Keith Haring’s art, and on a personal level, he was a good friend of my wife, [former New York City Ballet principal dancer] Heather [Watts]. I knew how he felt about the world through her, in a sense. In the cauldron of the 1980s, in the incredibly difficult war days of the AIDS crisis—which, of course, is not behind us, by any means—Keith was such a voice for everybody. That quote of his, ‘Art is for everybody,’ permeated his work. And at the same time, there was great complexity to it. What we’re doing with JuilliART, starting with Keith, is really in that spirit of exploration that he had. There’s five lithographs and a sculpture that Julia Gruen and the Haring Foundation so generously lent to us. It changed the air a bit, and it also has a message about artistic exploration that I’m really hopeful about at Juilliard.

Dan: I’ve spoken with your wife before about how the AIDS crisis was a galvanizing moment for her. It was then that activism became a major part of her consciousness. Do you consider yourself an activist?

Damian: I would say I was an activist both for and through the arts, but with a growing sense of awareness. I can recognize in my own path a narrowing and a widening of perspective. I think that Heather was really on the front lines, in a way. I was younger and not in the same place that I grew to be—but I very much recognized the people and the artists we were losing all around us. And, of course, Keith—the loss of his voice, his work, what might he have done. He writes in his journals about running out of time and being very aware of that, and that idea that you have to take advantage of your moment to speak.

Dan: Do you feel that way?

Damian: I do. In a funny way, it’s like I can’t quite say enough, especially in the context of Juilliard. I feel that these students have been entrusted to us, and I don’t want to miss a day.

Dan: You have a finite amount of time with them.

Damian: That’s right. And I remember that in terms of my own path. You don’t know when the moments that matter are.

Dan: No.

Damian: You can be planning and planning, and suddenly, in the most unlikely circumstance, somebody says something, and you think, ‘Ah—that’s the one that matters.’

Dan: Or even when someone reminds you of such a moment later—‘Oh, I’d completely forgotten about that, but clearly it stuck with you.’

Damian: That’s right. There’s something there that comes back. So I want to make sure to have all those moments.

Dan: At the convocation, in September, you said, ‘I believe deeply in Juilliard as a community where each of us “belongs,” and that education cannot be its best without being fully inclusive.’ You’ve made diversity and belonging a central part of your mission. How are you approaching that as a straight, white male? I certainly don’t think that disqualifies you, but it must be a consideration. How do you think about it?

Damian: Carefully and iteratively, as I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve recognized the privilege that I’ve had over the course of my life. Every step of the way, I had another next step that was quite apparent, and there was a sense of a path. A lot of the work that I’ve done leading up to this moment has been in trying to open up those pathways to others. I think about Turnaround Arts, which we developed at President Obama’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities to bring arts education on the highest level to the most challenged communities in the country. Happily, our initial cohort of eight schools showed success, so it expanded and continues to expand as we speak. In that model, I certainly was in positions where I constantly was realizing how lucky and privileged I was in my path.

Dan: It’s an unfolding process. It’s not something that happens all at once.

Damian: It’s not a lightning strike. One of the things I felt early on is that I was lucky to be introduced to a huge variety of things as I was growing up. One of them happened to be ballet, and it turned out that I was extremely natural. I always say I was far better at that than I was at the flute, which I was also introduced to. And what I’ve often thought is, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that have been strange if I hadn’t been introduced to ballet?’ I’d be walking around my whole life with this natural aptitude. How many things are people not introduced to? How many children don’t get a chance to know that they might be able to dance or play an instrument because it’s just not introduced to them? When I think about this question, my goal is to expand that pool of opportunity to talented people in the arts writ large, and certainly at Juilliard, which feeds the arts.

Dan: Though presumably people who are coming to Juilliard have already been introduced to these things. But younger people can look at them and say, ‘I can do that, too.’

Damian: That’s right. It’s a question of widening that pool of opportunity, and there are lots of different inroads to that, through lots of different and interesting programs. We’re embarking on a program right away with the Sphinx Organization, which does incredible work with diversity in classical music. I’m excited about that. And the word ‘belonging’ is one that I keep turning over in different ways. I just had an email exchange with a friend who is an education and psychology expert, talking about how belonging is another way of learning. If you feel you belong, you learn more easily. How do we create a community where everybody feels they belong? There are lots of different obstacles to that to be addressed. To me, the most important thing is building a community that can support that. That is, as Tony Kushner wrote, the great work.

“How many children don’t get the chance to know that they might be able to dance or play an instrument just because it’s not introduced to them? My goal is to expand the pool of opportunity to talented people in the arts writ large.”

Dan: Since you bring up Angels in America…back to the AIDS crisis for a moment. I want to read you a quote. ‘Everyone…talks about the artists that were lost [to AIDS], but they never talk about this audience that was lost. When people talk about why New York City Ballet [was] so great, it was because of Balanchine and Jerry Robbins and people like that, but also that audience…. If Suzanne Farrell went like this instead of this, that was it—she could just kill herself. There would be, like, a billion people who knew exactly every single thing. There was such a high level of connoisseurship that made the culture better…. The loss of the audience had a terrible effect, because everything has to be broader, more blatant, more on the nose. Things in the culture that had nothing to do with the New York City Ballet just got dumbed down, dumbed down, dumbed down, all the way down.’ That’s Fran Lebowitz in the documentary Public Speaking. Do you think of cultivating audiences as part of your mission at Juilliard? And is there a symbiotic relationship between artists and audiences?

Damian: Absolutely. Yes and yes. As a director, I’m as likely to be doing a performance that involves some level of education for the audience as I am straight-on performance. I do a DEMO series at the Kennedy Center, which is exactly as it sounds: It’s meant to be a demo, not a fully formed, produced performance. And often I’ll talk to the audience at the Vail Dance Festival, which I’ve directed for the last 12 years, with UpClose, which is about the same idea. It’s an open rehearsal, essentially. All of that was built out of two things: One, I recognized in my own life that walking through a museum with an artist just did it for me. Suddenly, I had something to hang on to on a different level. The second thing was reading about [Leonard] Bernstein and what he did—not only with the Young People’s Concerts, which created more than one generation of classical music aficionados, but he also did something at the [New York Philharmonic] that was essentially an open rehearsal on the Thursday night before the Friday concert. The audience would come in, and he’d rehearse the orchestra, and then he’d turn around and talk to the audience and tell them why he was doing what he was doing.

Dan: When was this?

Damian: I want to say it was early to mid ’60s.

Dan: Pretty radical.

Damian: Yeah. It was radical. So that’s my inspiration for UpClose. I thought, ‘Let’s rehearse something in front of the audience that they can then come see a few nights later. And then I’ll have something else.’ Bernstein referred to the ‘supply and demand’ of the arts. The principle of that was, the more the audience knew, the better we would have to be as artists. It would pull us. We couldn’t dumb it down, because we had brought them to a place where it had to evolve.

Dan: You mentioned earlier the sense of having a finite amount of time with your students. If you are cultivating audiences, those audiences can continue pushing them for the rest of their careers, long after they’ve left Juilliard.

Damian: That’s right. And that’s across the board. ‘Audience’ has many definitions. Within Juilliard, there are multiple audiences of different disciplines. One of my goals is to increase the amount of interdisciplinary work that goes on. There’s an unbelievable opportunity [that comes from having] music, dance, and drama in the same building. Earlier this week, Lil Buck was teaching the drama students—and frankly, I think that was an even exchange. Buck got a lot out of it, and the drama students got a lot out of it. That overlap is so important to find. And that leads to a higher level of knowledge and a higher level of demand for the work to get better.

Dan: That’s one kind of demand, but I think economic demand is important, as well. In the wider world, audiences are aging, and even the most prestigious companies, such as the Metropolitan Opera, are struggling just to break even. Do you feel a responsibility to protect the viability of the performing arts as a career path? To make sure that you’re graduating your students into a world in which they can have long and flourishing careers?

Damian: Sure. I’ve been thinking about that on both a micro and a macro level for a long time. Certainly on a micro level, I thought about it when I was dancing, and I think about it now when I walk into a theater. There’s a proposition being made, and you’re either going to come back or you’re not. So you’re trying to impart something that is of value to people. Knowledge is a huge tool in that, as we saw with the Young People’s Concerts. Bernstein created an audience for many, many years. I think it’s debatable about the aging. I think perhaps the audience was always aging, and some of the economic challenges the fields are facing today come from other factors beyond that. But there’s a line between being relevant because you’re faddish and you follow what people want, and being relevant because you present something of value that people touch and grow with over a long time.

“The principle of that was, the more the audience knew, the better we would have to be as artists. It would pull us. We couldn’t dumb it down, because we had brought them to a place where it had to evolve.”

Dan: Let’s talk about versatility. You also said at convocation, ‘Today’s artists are entrepreneurs, educators, leaders, collaborators, and change agents. Their careers are imagined, reimagined, and applied in ever more inventive and community-building ways.’ In terms of your career, ‘imaginative’ and ‘inventive’ may be an understatement. It certainly ticks all of the functional boxes you listed. Is it important for you to help your students construct a foundation on which to continue building careers after they stop performing? Is that something that starts at Juilliard?

Damian:  think that part of the proposition as you develop your craft at Juilliard, whether it’s as an actor or musician or dancer, is that it be an open practice that gives you the opportunity to do many things with it. There’s not just one definition of success. I’ve heard Vijay Gupta talk about this, and he’s said that people might think that as a violinist, he wanted to be a soloist. He’s in the [Los Angeles Philharmonic]—does that mean his career is not a success? And what he actually loves doing is working on Street Symphony, which is a community project—some might call it an outreach project—that he founded. Is that a lower level of success? He thinks not, and I think not. I know that in my work, I’ve had the same feeling of success working in a first-grade classroom as I did dancing in the New York State Theater, in terms of the sense that my art was being put to full use. I recognize that there were certainly times in my training and education when I was narrow. I thought, ‘I need to work on my tendus now. I need to work on my turns, get my knees straight…’

Dan: Like working on free throws.

Damian: It’s work. And on your day off, you might read something, and suddenly you start to get wider again. That’s a constant thing. So I think it’s about instilling that habit that it’s not just narrow. Sometimes it may be, but in the same moment, you’re building a skill set to go wide.

Dan: Wide not just in dance, but…

Damian: Not just in dance—it’s about something else. In your art, sharing and collaboration take many forms.

Dan: In that spirit, tell me a bit about your experience using the arts to influence and inspire stakeholders in non-arts-based organizations, such as the Aspen Institute.

Damian: I think if arts and culture are not apparent in any situation—audience, organization, whatever—then it’s latent. It’s there in the way that every single one of us somehow knows how the scale is supposed to resolve. Having arts and culture as a part of things is an overwhelming positive in every way: It creates community, and it builds nuance and sophistication. So I always think it’s an idea waiting in people’s minds to happen. It’s a matter of letting that blossom in different ways.

“Having arts and culture as a part of things is an overwhelming positive in every way: It creates community, and it builds nuance and sophistication.”

Dan: It’s early days, so I don’t want to look too far ahead, but let’s try eight months. It’s May 2019. You’ve just finished with commencement, and you’re in the car driving up to Connecticut, reviewing the year. What are you thinking about, and how are you measuring success?

Damian: Well, I’m sure I’ll be thinking a lot about the students who just graduated—about handing each of them their diploma, greeting them, and imagining where they’re going and how we helped them on their way. I’m sure that will be primary. In terms of the school itself, I’ll be thinking about next steps, assessing what worked and how we can go to the next place with any one thing or person or department.

Dan: To use a word that you used earlier, it’s iterative.

Damian: It’s iterative. I’ll probably be looking at the things that were accomplished, but I think overall I will be thinking about community—how much of a community we are and what we can do to make it even stronger.

Dan: And the students who will have just graduated, how will they be different in their training compared to the students who graduated from Juilliard decades ago?

Damian: I don’t know if they are. It’s funny—I think it’s truly a continuum. Philip Glass is a friend, and I went to see him a little while ago. Before I did, I went to our amazing library and asked our extraordinary librarian if there were any photos I could see of Philip when he was at Juilliard. And there they are—there’s Philip, and he’s a young man doing crazy things with music already. It’s the continuum. Wynton Marsalis was walking through those same halls I was walking through in the ’80s. It all grows, and we build on each other and continue on. Everybody has come to Juilliard over the years and worked together, and worked to find in themselves a voice. And that will always be.

This article originally appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2018 issue.

Hair Jimmy Paul at Susan Price Agency. Make Up Francelle Daly at Art+Commerce. Lighting Technician Romain Dubus. Digital Technician Henri Coutant. Photo Assistant Gaspar Dietrich. Make Up Assistant Jessica Lundgren. Production One Thirty-Eight Productions. Set Design Piers Hanmer at Art+Commerce.