Examining the Artist's Role as Citizen


Any member of the Juilliard community who has made a trip to the school’s bookstore could tell you that President Joseph Polisi has written a book titled The Artist as Citizen. Likewise, we are all aware of his substantial efforts to make it possible for students to share their art with the community. However, when we pause to consider the achievements of our colleagues and this institution, the task of Citizenship—with a capital C—becomes rather daunting. To demonstrate that simple yet profound contributions are possible, President Polisi moderated a panel discussion on March 18 in Room 305 in which several faculty members and alumni shared personal stories regarding the challenges and rewards of engaging their communities through the arts.

A panel discussion on the artist's role as citizen was held on March 18 in Room 305. The panelists were (left to right) faculty member and composer Behzad Ranjbaran; chair of the L&M department, Ed Bilous; director of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, Sarah Johnson; and Juilliard President Joseph W. Polisi.

(Photo by Chris Downes)


President Polisi set the tone with a few words from his book: “Artists of the 21st century, especially in America,” he read, “must rededicate themselves to a broader professional agenda that reaches beyond what has been expected of them in an earlier time. Specifically, the 21st-century artist will have to be an effective and active advocate for the arts in communities large and small around the nation. … By performing superbly in traditional settings and making the effort to engage community members through their artistry, America’s best young artists can positively change the status of the arts in American society.”

The first to speak was composer and L&M department chair Ed Bilous (M.M. ’80, D.M.A. ’84, composition), who began with a few observations about the student body. “It’s clear to me that young people at Juilliard are looking for ways to connect with their audience beyond just doing a great job performing. You’ve already got that part of it down,” he said. The question to ask ourselves, he suggested, should not have to do with our technical prowess, but should rather be: “How can you make alive the great and transformative power of the arts in your communities, homes, and classrooms?”

Mr. Bilous also imparted some practical advice. “If you intend on making a career in the arts, part of your life will be in arts education,” he noted. “Part of your life’s work is going to exist offstage as well as onstage. Finding the tools within you to be advocates for the arts is an incredibly important thing.”

Next, we heard a few words from Sarah Johnson, director of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute and a Juilliard graduate (B.M. ’97, M.M. ’99, oboe). A founding member of a successful wind quintet, Ariel Winds, Ms. Johnson said that she eventually began to feel that she had more to offer than what she could share from the stage. She left the quintet and began a career in arts education that led to her current position at Carnegie Hall, with stops at the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Ms. Johnson detailed some of the Weill Music Institute’s many community-based projects and charged each of us to develop some ideas for practical and personal contributions to society. “It’s important for you all to consider your individual role as cultural citizens—what you can accomplish in your community by developing a wide and flexible array of skills, inviting people into music [by] sharing your passion and unbelievable talent. Whether that means you’re at a cocktail party and have one minute to talk about why you think it’s important for children to have access to arts education or you’re at a postconcert reception with some member of the House of Representatives who says, ‘Why do you think we should be funding the N.E.A.?,’ your capacity to be articulate in that moment is really important.”

One of her pet peeves, she noted, is a linguistic one. “I don’t use the word ‘outreach’ anymore,” she said. “I think it implies that there is someplace that is the core, the center, where the good stuff happens and that we deign to go outside of our cultural palaces and share with other people.” While she admitted that the language game is just that, she is firm in her belief that if artists genuinely want to connect with their audiences in a broader sense, they must stop thinking of themselves as separate entities.

Perhaps the most dramatic story came from L&M faculty member and composer Behzad Ranjbaran (M.M. ’88, D.M.A. ’92,composition). Mr. Ranjbaran told the audience about his experiences growing up in Iran, which at that time was a totalitarian monarchy overseen by secret police. As a teenager, he studied violin at the Tehran Music Conservatory, but also had an interest in social and political issues.

“At age 16,” he recounted, “I fell victim to the inhumane acts of the secret police and was arrested for owning legally published books that were deemed critical of the regime. After a few weeks of solitary confinement, I was transferred to a large prison. Once the other political prisoners learned that I was a music student, they asked me to teach them. Overnight, I was transformed from a young music student into a choral director working with tens of political prisoners who were coming from the torture chambers and some on their way out to be executed for their political beliefs. I organized the choir singing songs in praise of life and feeling. I experienced the power of words and music in expressing the deepest and most profound human emotions. Every word and every note meant the world to these singers.”

After his release, practicing the violin alone in a small room suddenly seemed less important, said Mr. Ranjbaran, and he began to work as a music teacher in small villages throughout Iran. He assigned his young students to learn folksongs from their grandparents, which he recorded and arranged for use in all his classes. He said this made his students “express a sense of ownership about the class and the music. Perhaps I learned more from them than they did from me. This experience positioned me on a different path in life.”

Mr. Ranjbaran continued by addressing the big question: “What does it mean to be an artist as citizen? It might be mentoring a young musician in a high school, or a string quartet performance in a nursing home in Queens. It may range from a free concert by the New York Philharmonic in a special performance of [Brahms’s] German Requiem several days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, to Rostropovich’s impromptu performance during the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Art is a reflection of essential human values,” he concluded. “Responsible performing artists apply their artistry to make a difference in society. The answer to this question is as varied as an individual artist’s abilities. However, once an artist starts to ascend the ladder of citizenship, we will know it.”


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