2018 Convocation Remarks

September 4, 2018

What we are doing here today, I am realizing, is resembling a workshop as much as an event. And I think that is telling us something important as we mark the beginning of our school year. The Latin roots of the word “convocation” mean “to call us together” and so we are called, on this day and in this place, to start a new year and to begin the work, but actually to “re-begin.” To re-begin as we will all continue to do for the rest of the year, and indeed the rest of our lives. We are in fact always re-beginning, always building, always workshopping, the project is always ongoing, and what we have seen today has underscored those iterative qualities of artistic practice.

I have been reflecting on this extraordinary institution’s own practice. In many ways, this year will be marked with the rhythm of all the years before it: in performance halls and practice rooms, on stages and in small-group settings, We will aspire to perform at the highest caliber. We will harness our energy—and our discipline—in honing our skills.

We will all take our place in the flow of Juilliard’s history. Wynton Marsalis, who we are privileged to have leading our Jazz program, often speaks of our ancestors and our debt to them—our wise Provost and Dean Ara Guzelimian just shared a recent example in tribute to Aretha Franklin. Considering our place in the continuum is a centering activity, it links us to the generations who have come before. And together, within that continuum, is where we live. And as you take your places, you become shareholders in the magnificent trust that is the arts. The building of that trust is at the very center of Juilliard, as we foster the next generations who will write the next lines, to contribute to the story.

So I wonder, I marvel and I dream, about what your contribution will be. And I am humbled at the possibilities that you represent. All of you. From the newest student to our most senior faculty member. We have here in this building teachers who have been changing young lives for the better for over half a century. We have an extraordinary faculty, in service that is deep as well as wide, life-long commitments that inspire and resonate across decades.

The mix of history, and continuum, and the singular opportunity of any given moment— that is where we plant our flag here at Juilliard.

And what distinguishes our commitment, beyond excellence? I believe that it is paramount at Juilliard that we develop not only the artist, but the full person with a full range of possibility. Each of us has the chance to seize this moment, and to create a powerful artistic voice. And to take that artistic voice and share it. We seek to foster a growing community of these voices. Your voices. Our voices together. A community that is open, and pluralistic, and recognizes that if it isn’t, then it is lessened. A community that furthers civil discourse, and knows that arts and culture are an antidote to division. A community of grace, and gratitude, of curiosity and conviction. It is a community that always asks itself, as the consummate citizen artist Yo-Yo Ma has put forth as a guiding question: “What can we do together that we can’t do alone?”

This Convocation marks a transformational moment, and for me it also is the opportunity to set out a course for the institution as I take office, so if this comes across as part convocation and part inauguration, know that it is to give you more time engaging in the work and less time hearing me talk about it! Throughout this campus and among our alumni, I have been listening closely over the past year and I have heard central goals: to make more opportunities for collaboration across disciplines, providing a platform for generative work as an essential part of your education, as it will be in your lives; to lead the performing arts field to be ever more inclusive and to embody that principle in all we do; and to maintain and ever-enhance Juilliard’s standards of excellence.

And so, we will develop a long-term plan to those ends over the course of the next year, with a three-part framework:

First: we recognize that at Juilliard we are in an extraordinary position. Music, dance and drama all co-exist here on the highest level, and that provides unique opportunities. As I said in my introductory message to campus on July 1st,today’s artists are entrepreneurs, educators, leaders, collaborators and change agents. Artistic careers are imagined, reimagined, and applied in ever more inventive and community-building ways, and in so doing, we spark and re-spark our imaginations and refresh our artistic expression. The director Ava DuVernay has a line I keep coming back to: “the riches are in the niches.” What she means is, you need to actively create our own niches, and keep creating and inventing them. Keep collaborating with each other, drawing on each other, and making opportunities for what they call in ecology, the edge effect: in the overlap of edges between ecosystems, we find the greatest biodiversity, the greatest amount of new life.

And so we will explore and expand our collaborative activities, our own overlaps across the school. We see the beginnings of this in Evan’s All-School Jam Session, and an increased emphasis on programming that gives interdisciplinary opportunities to you our students. As part of this journey, this year we welcome our new Creative Associates, several of whom you have already met today: Lil Buck, Caroline Shaw, and Bill Irwin—and our collective will also include in its first year bandleader, pianist, composer and alumnus Jon Batiste, and tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance, who has already been working with us this past week. They all exemplify collaborative and adventurous artistic excellence, they embrace the risk of creative enterprise, and they brilliantly navigate the DIY world you will all be entering. I want to thank Jody and John Arnhold for their support for this new initiative and other creative enterprise work we will be undertaking.

And to add an additional dimension of creativity to this vibrant engine of ours, we are also introducing a visual arts program, JuilliArt. Most of you will have seen by now the initial installation in our lobby, a series of Keith Haring lithographs and a wonderful sculpture lent to us for the year by Julia Gruen and the Keith Haring Foundation. Our purpose with JuilliArt is to feed your imaginations, to inspire, and to challenge. When art surrounds us, it nourishes our spirit. Keith Haring’s personal artistic philosophy is one that resonates with me and with our work as citizen-artists. “Art,” he said, “is for everyone.”

Which brings me to the second part of our framework:

For our voice to be true, we must be intentional and proactive in fostering a robust inclusivity. I am pleased to announce our early planning for a multiyear president’s initiative to advance equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging in the arts—here at Juilliard and more broadly in the cultural sector. Juilliard is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in this critical work.

Beginning this academic year, we will embark on a range of activities and partnerships, notably with the Sphinx Organization who have done such groundbreaking work nationally in fostering diverse excellence in classical music. We will engage in active listening to all of you within our community, and in the arts world writ large, so that we may design necessary and successful programs both internal and external. We will work to create pathways for all to rise and for all to excel—from young students with top-level aspirations but no access to top-level training, to teachers who need networks and resources to effectively launch their talented students. I want to thank the Ford Foundation for partnering with us and providing new funding in support of this work.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of talking with our student orientation leaders. Hello Orientation Leaders!! I offered them a collective goal: when our new students text, call, or perhaps even write a letter home in these first few days, let’s work to be sure they say they are in exactly the right place for them. That goal is one we must embrace on every level, every day. I urge you all to be a part of this spirit and practice. It will change your experience, and that of all your fellow students. Listen to each other, extend yourself to each other and you will extend your self. Realize, that the continuum we spoke of earlier, is not simply one of achievement, it is one of fellowship in something larger than oneself. I believe deeply in Juilliard as a community where each of us “belongs,” and that education cannot be its best without being fully inclusive.

Which brings me to the last, and overarching element in our framework:

For Juilliard to be the best it can be, we need to ensure the school’s overall well-being, which is an ever-present commitment we see every day in the work of our dedicated staff. As we begin this year we re-commit to institutional renewal, launching a strategic planning process and working to increase the ways we can support you our students, and our school overall. We can spur new programs, new partnerships and new resources, which will expand the bedrock we stand upon. And this renewal will be the foundation on which we will grow and evolve.

So, let us celebrate as we begin this year. Let us work to be the most expansive artists and humans we can be, to not limit ourselves, but to “contain multitudes” as the poet Walt Whitman wrote. To truly live big, vibrant lives. It is my singular honor to be here with you. I want to thank all of you for your kind welcome as I begin my role. I am grateful to you. I am grateful to your families who got you here, and to my own who got me here to be with you. Thank you especially to my wife, Heather, who inspires me every day.

To my predecessor, Joseph Polisi, I am forever in debt, and I continue to amass charges on the bill of advice and perspective. I am grateful to our board and our chair, Bruce Kovner, who support all we do here with such inspiring commitment and passion. And I am profoundly in awe of and grateful to our extraordinary faculty and dedicated staff.

With you, in this time and this place, where we have come together to re-begin, as we look to the future with hope and determination:

I see for Juilliard a future that preserves its magnificent traditions while becoming ever more diverse and ever more collaborative. I see for Juilliard a bold, creative, unstoppable, and joyful spirit, which nurtures individuality. And I see for Juilliard an endless continuum of beauty, of artists who launch their voices into the universe. And we get to do this, and can only do this, together. So let’s go! Thank you all.

Last Updated Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, 05:19PM