Juilliard Professor Bärli Nugent has a surprise assignment for each student-musician in her class: leave the building and come back in two hours having booked a concert somewhere in New York City.
“They look at me in horror,” says Nugent of her world-class students, “and some of them begin to weep openly—and a hefty percentage would plead openly that they not have to do this.”
Nugent’s assignment is part of her career development seminar, which itself is part of a larger entrepreneurial push at The Juilliard School, driven by an increasing awareness of tough economic realities. After the 2008-2009 economic collapse, Nugent says she noticed more students stopping by her office. It is not just about the arts being under threat, she says, but the general realization that in this economy, it is harder to find success in any field.
Even by recession standards, support for the performing arts in New York City is suffering.
According to reports by the Alliance for the Arts, after 2008, 75 percent of New York’s nonprofit performing arts groups — the kind most likely to employ classically trained performers — started slashing their budgets, and more than a third of them have cancelled or postponed planned programming in the years between 2008 and 2011. The percentage of groups reporting cuts decreased to 65 percent in 2009-10 and 50 percent in 2010-2011. However, this still means fewer jobs for young performers, even in what is indisputably America’s greatest bastion for the performing arts.
Now more than ever, talent alone, even the kind that gets you into Juilliard, is no assurance of success.
Bill Baker [full disclosure: Baker is the former president of WNET, the parent company of MetroFocus], who has taught Juilliard’s only business class for the last two years, says “I always thought you got to be a genius performer and then somehow you got rewarded for it. Well, I realized it’s not that simple. Being a genius performer is maybe 20 percent of the job.”
Baker’s class, The Business of the Performing Arts, which he teaches jointly with Fordham University, gives students a snapshot of the structure and economics of America’s performing arts industry, and brings in practitioners ranging from the head of the Metropolitan Opera to young artist-entrepreneurs who graduated just a few years ago.
Alex Lipowski (Juilliard ’10) says Baker’s class gave him the “tools and inspirations I needed to bring my skills as a musician into the business world.” Lipowski directs the Talea Ensemble, a contemporary classical group he co-founded in 2007. Talea, which moved into its first dedicated office space this year, is now Lipowski’s fulltime job.
Baker is pleasantly surprised by how empowered his budding dancers and musicians feel after learning even the most basic business skills: “I teach them how to read a business statement, which is not that hard, really, compared to mastering a musical instrument, but suddenly my students feel like they’ve learned Chinese in just two classes.”
Baker believes that Juilliard and similar institutions have an obligation to prepare their students for life outside the cloistered walls of the conservatory. At stake is his students’ ability to keep practicing the art they have devoted years to mastering, and also the greater health of the arts in New York and the nation.
He tells the story of two talented Juilliard graduates who took up other careers because they were unable to turn their art into full-time employment. One became a plastic surgeon, says Baker, and the other a real estate salesman.
“Tragically, the danger is that their art becomes a hobby,” warns Baker, “and that’s what we’re trying to avoid, for the sake of the larger community.”
Entrepreneurship is even the official theme of Juilliard’s 2012-2013 opening ceremonies, held on Sept. 5, which will culminate with a special, entrepreneurial-themed performance commissioned by Joseph Polisi, the school’s president.
“We’re using the word entrepreneurship for the first time,” said Polisi, “but the idea is just that our students should have a much better sense of their environment, politically, socially, economically—and also the idea that as leaders they should shape the future, and that they should also have a way of shaping their own future, instead of expecting the profession, the field, to simply provide them with employment.”
“It’s taken a long time to put it into the ethos of Juilliard,” Polisi said, “but I think it exists now, for sure.”
In a time when arts education cuts are feeding a general drop in the awareness and appreciation of the performing arts, Polisi believes that enterprising performers are the best hope for carrying a vibrant classical music tradition into an uncertain future.
Back in her career development seminar, Bärli Nugent said that every single student she sends out to book a concert ends up coming back successful, with a valuable life lesson in hand: “that opportunity does not exist merely on the stage of Carnegie Hall, or Leningrad Philharmonic Hall, or the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam—that opportunity for the rich exercise of their gifts is right around them if they will just open their eyes and see it.”
Evan Leatherwood (www.evanleatherwood.com) writes about books, the arts and productivity. He directs communications for Fordham University’s Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy & Education.