Behind every named scholarship is a story. The newly created Byron J. Gustafson Scholarship, an endowed music scholarship with preference for piano students, honors the career of its namesake—an esteemed artist manager who has worked with some of Juilliard’s most famous graduates.
After retiring as managing partner of Opus 3 Artists in November due to a health condition, Gustafson’s partner of 25 years, Gustave Fleury, established the scholarship.
When asked why the scholarship is at Juilliard, Gustafson replied: “Because we are New Yorkers.”
The response seems to sum up his reverence for a school that trained so many of the artists he worked with.
Gustafson became the assistant to the chairman of the Auditorium Theater Council in Chicago after graduating from North Park University with a bachelor’s degree in piano performance. After two seasons, in 1978, he moved to New York City to work at ICM Artists Ltd.
At ICM, Gustafson found what seemed to be a limitless career path. “I never had to worry about finding another job because my responsibilities kept expanding,” he said. Beginning as an assistant to the legendary manager Lee Lamont, Gustafson worked his way up to become a booking agent and then a director of touring for large ensembles, including orchestras, choirs, and dance companies. In recent years, at Opus 3 Artists, Gustafson has worked with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, to name a few.
Soon after beginning at ICM, Gustafson met a fellow fledgling pianist, Yefim Bronfman (’81, piano), then 18 years old and a recent addition to the ICM Artists roster.
In a recent interview, Bronfman said he was immediately impressed with Gustafson’s ability to remain cool-headed in a field that is filled with strong personalities, describing him as someone who can “count to 10 before giving an answer.” Over the years, Bronfman turned to Gustafson with questions about everything from travel arrangements to repertoire to the market in Japan.
Gustafson has served as a career compass of sorts for many artists, guiding them through many decisions. “He treated every artist with equal respect,” said Bronfman, “yet he did not have the same recipe for all of them.”
Similarly, pianist Jeremy Denk (D.M.A. ’01, piano) sees Gustafson as a “calm voice of patience and belief.” Denk credits Gustafson with aiding in the development of many of his own musical relationships, including those with conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Mikhail Pletnev.
In 2006, facing a proposed merger with IMG Artists that threatened to break up the company, Gustafson was instrumental in leading ICM’s transition to become Opus 3 Artists LLC. They were able to secure all jobs and performers under the new name, a move Gustafson said was made “to maintain our history.” He is now managing partner emeritus of Opus 3 Artists, and continues as a consultant.
Gustafson’s sense of morals has been a defining characteristic in his career. “He was the heart and soul of Opus 3 Artists,” said Patricia Winter, senior vice president of the company, who attributes Gustafson’s success to strong ethics and a commitment to working with artists he truly believes in.
Winter recalled Gustafson’s support of Denk as an example of his faith in the merit of artists. Though the pianist, then a doctoral student at Juilliard, was a relative unknown when Gustafson first heard him play in 1995, Denk’s talent was enough to win him over. “He took him based on what he heard,” said Winter, acknowledging that in the artist management industry, such decisions are sometimes made based on money or notoriety.
As a well-versed musician, Gustafson drew from his deep understanding of, and love for, classical music. “He has exquisite musical taste,” said Winter, adding that “it really comes from a place of knowledge and an aesthetic uniquely his.”
Gustafson said the most fulfilling part of his work was “probably the honor of having close connections with so many artists.” He is filled with remembrances of early encounters with great musical talents, recalling “a young cellist from Juilliard named Yo-Yo Ma—a kid,” and meeting a youthful Wynton Marsalis when he was making his first recording. Gustafson has been working with violinist Midori since she was a Pre-College student at Juilliard.
Music itself seems also to have been a reward for Gustafson, even during times when others might have felt overwhelmed. “Some weeks our schedule was packed with a full day at the office and then many performances in the evening,” he said. “Some days we had artists performing at the same time, so we would go to the first half of one concert and rush to the other.”
Although committed to working with large ensembles, Gustafson is also devoted to individual artists, and his concern for the individual comes across in his vision for the Byron J. Gustafson scholarship. He recognizes that most students need financial aid, and hopes the scholarship will assist in the development of future artists. “It’s all about helping,” he said. “There are so many amazing stories of students and how they get to the next level.”
Gustafson’s lasting impact tells a story of its own.
To contribute to the scholarship, please make your check payable to The Juilliard School and note that your gift is for the Byron J. Gustafson Scholarship Fund. For further information, please call Tori Brand, manager of scholarship development, at (212) 799-5000, ext. 692. You can also make a gift online.