Aspen Times Weekly Q&A: Aspen Institute arts program director Damien Woetzel
DAMIEN WOETZEL IS winding down his time as director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, finishing a transformative tenure that’s reshaped the nonprofit’s programming and returned art and artists to their historic place at the center of the Institute’s mission.
The former principal dancer at New York City Ballet has led the Institute’s arts wing since 2011. In May, he was named president of the Juilliard School, where his tenure begins in July 2018.
Woetzel — who also serves as artistic director of the annual Vail Dance Festival — will stay on board at the Institute through next year’s Aspen Ideas Festival.
At this year’s Ideas Fest, June 25 to July 1, his program is welcoming luminaries ranging from Norman Lear to Jeff Koons and running a festival-long track titled “The Art of Change” that will examine art’s social impact.
I caught up with Woetzel recently to look back on his time in Aspen and ahead to his next adventure at Juilliard.
Andrew Travers: You’re jumping into the world of academic administration for the first time. What about it excites you?
Damien Woetzel: In so many ways this is a culmination of so many strands of my life to date — from being a young artist who came to New York to be the best dancer I could, with a dream. That aspect of knowing the students are arriving with a hope that is timeless and continues to this moment, to the work that I did as a professional and understanding the needs in the field. And collaboratively, what really appeals to me about this is having music, dance and drama all in the same place as this one giant creative engine, creating the future, is what I look at as such an extraordinary opportunity.
AT: Over your tenure here at the Institute, we’ve seen you launch the artist-in-residence program and the way you’ve integrated the arts across the diverse programs within the Institute, how you’ve brought the idea of the “citizen artist” to the fore in your time there. What are you proudest of? What did you learn in Aspen?
DW: You hit on many of them. The idea of integrating the arts into there greater conversation was the goal from the beginning. It was my goal the first day I was privileged to come to the Institute — not just to be someone showcasing art and the arts, but actually integrating the arts into larger frameworks, which is something that I believe in and when I finished my career on the stage (it) was something that I put a heavy focus on trying to do. The Institute has been utterly welcoming of that idea, because it fits. It truly is a part of the DNA of the pace. And Walter (Isaacson) and Elliot (Gerson) and Kitty [Boone] and all of my own team, and many programs — from Youth and Engagement to the seminars — we all put it together in a way to become a cohesive proposition.
The Creative Young Leaders Alliance is something that I’m most proud of — to build this generation of young leaders who have creative sides. We started very small and now it takes place in different cities around the country. And a few years down the line, there’s going to be a common base around the country. They’ve all performed “Antigone,” if you know what I mean. The Aspen Strategy Group — when I saw that I said, “We should have one of these for the arts.” We’ve done those in various places, addressing how the arts can be of the most service to society. It’s a useful model that will go on.
We look at something, we sew it happen and then we say “What is culture’s piece in this?” That’s certainly a common characteristic of all the artists-in-residence and also in the DNA of the organization. I think that’s important. I’ve just been honored to be a part of that tradition and I’m thrilled that I get to keep doing it for another year. And I look forward to collaborating with the Institute at Julliard and instilling that thinking there.
AT: We’ve witnessed some transcendent artistic moments at the Institute in recent years with you on stage. I’m thinking of the artist J.R.’s film and live performance collaboration with the dancer Lil Buck two summers ago, Yo-Yo Ma performing with the injured war veterans from MusiCorps in 2013, and so on. What are the moments for you that stand out?
DW: Yo-Yo and MusiCorps was something truly special. It started in an organic place, in that I learned of this program at Walter Reed (Army Medical Center). Music was being offered as a daily thing to do, essentially. It wasn’t therapy; it was “We think this might be a beneficial way to spend your time.” And it turned out it was incredibly valuable in a huge number of ways. and when I spoke to Yo-Yo about it and introduced him to (MusiCorps founder) Arthur Bloom and said, “We should go visit, we should do one of our art strikes there.” We had just been at the Kennedy Centers Honors in D.C. and got in a car an went to Walter Reed. And the next thing we knew, Yo-Yo had his cello out and they met on the field of music. It was just about the work. They rehearsed and did the work. So I said, “Lets take this to another step,” which became the idea of bringing it to Aspen Ideas and sharing it with people. The way it came togther in the framework of health, mental health and mindfulness happened right on stage in Paepcke (Auditorium). It was very special and its gone on to this day, the work goes on. Being able to synthesize those moments in Aspen has been really valuable.
I also think about Sing for Hope with Camille Zamora. We brought a Sing for Hope piano to Aspen. I remember it sitting on the lawn next to the Marble Garden and keeping an eye on who would play it and witnessing the magic of it. People would hear music across campus and people would gravitate toward it. It represented the ideal for the Institute, I thought.