In another lifetime, Riccardo Salmona wanted to be a geologist and gemologist, so while he was still at Fordham (studying English literature), he got a job as a page at Tiffany & Co. Before long, he’d worked himself up to be the jeweler’s buyer of colored-stone band rings. A subsequent invitation to run the New York office of an international gem store was prefaced with a request that Riccardo learn the business from the ground up—and soon he was living in a tree in Kenya, absorbing the nuts and bolts of prospecting. Unfortunately, a speculative bubble in the diamond market forced the bottom out of the colored-stone industry, and when Salmona returned to New York, he switched careers, becoming an appraiser and auctioneer first at Sotheby’s auction house and then at Doyle New York for 16 years. From there, he segued to the nonprofit world, as deputy director first of the American Folk Art Museum and then of Lincoln Center’s redevelopment (where he met Joseph Polisi and Bruce Kovner). After a stint as a vice president at the World Monuments Fund, he came to Juilliard—five years ago this month. Salmona, who grew up in Orange, Conn., just outside New Haven, now lives on the Upper West Side with his partner, Bill, a children’s book author, and their two dachshunds.
What do you remember about your first day at Juilliard?
On my first day I had a longstanding 6:30 p.m. meeting in TriBeCa for a nonprofit social services organization in the South Bronx for which I serve as chairman of the board, and I felt guilty leaving at 6 on my first day. I ran for the elevator, knowing I was going to be late, and as I rushed in the elevator, I was almost knocked over by Itzhak Perlman, who was rushing out. I somehow knew then that I was going to love this place.
What job at Juilliard would you like to try out for a day and why?
I would love to take over for Jimmy [DePreist], Alan [Gilbert], or George [Stelluto], and conduct the Juilliard Orchestra. I want to experience the feeling a conductor must get from standing in front of a group of musicians and, with a simple wave of my hand, producing the sound of an orchestra making music.
What is the strangest or most memorable job you’ve ever had?
Certainly the strangest was when I lived in a tree in Kenya for a year, just outside Tsavo West National Park. I was managing a group of men as we prospected for commercial-grade rubies and gem-quality tsavorites, a limey-greeny stone that looks like a peridot. My “living quarters” consisted of an open-sided platform built halfway up a large tree in the middle of the park. I dodged wild animals and poisonous snakes by day, and I fell asleep each night to the sounds of lions roaring under the clearest star-filled sky imaginable.
If out of the blue you had an unexpected day off, what would you do with your free time?
If the weather was nice I would grab the book I was reading and walk down to Riverside Park and sit by the river to read. If the weather was not so nice, I might treat myself to a matinee of a play or ballet.
Many Juilliard staff members are also artists. What about you?
I took piano lessons for six years, and I was a miserable failure. Football, squash, swimming, running, and tennis always won out over the need to practice the piano. A great regret is that I don’t have an ounce of the kind of talent that Juilliard students have, but my reward is that I am fortunate enough to help them make the most of their gifts each and every day.
What other pursuits are you passionate about?
I still love playing sports (now the non-contact kind), reading, and, on a very modest scale, I continue my interest in collecting American sculpture and mid-20th-century photography.
What was the best vacation you’ve had and what made that trip so special?
My favorite trip is the one to our place in New Hampshire, and being there is my ideal vacation. Although I feed off of the adrenaline rush of the city, New Hampshire is the perfect antidote to New York’s hectic pace, energy—and stress. We take the dogs, Hoagie and Tater, and paddle out onto a lake which sits in the middle of 1,000 undeveloped and conservation-protected acres. Aside from a few pairs of nesting loons, it’s just us and the peace and quiet of unspoiled nature.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
The incredible people it attracts. My friends mean the world to me, and I met the best of them all here in New York.
What book are you reading right now, or what CD are you listening to?
I am almost finished with a new book by Julian Barnes called The Sense of an Ending, which is all about the reliability (or unreliability) of memory. I just bought a CD that I’m about to listen to as it relates to Juilliard—Linda Lavin’s Possibilities. Linda is going to perform at Juilliard’s gala, which is on April 30 and which honors longtime board chair Mary Rodgers Guettel.
What might people be surprised to know about you?
I’m a pretty wicked, go-for-broke badminton player.