Damian Woetzel’s tenure as director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program is slowly coming to a close. He was named president of the Juilliard School in May. Arts reporter Claire Woodcock caught up with Woetzel during the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival to talk about his overarching mission with both institutions.
It’s impossible to walk through the Aspen Institute’s campus with director of arts programming Damian Woetzel without guests of the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival stopping to greet him.
He stopped to chat with Kurt Anderson — who co-founded Spy Magazine in 1986 and has since gone on to publish tons of books and host the public radio program Studio 360 from New York. Casually, Woetzel explains how the two know each other.
“We actually did a radio show live from Aspen Ideas,” he recalled. “I remember a few years ago, which was challenging because he wanted me to dance and that didn’t really work on the radio, so, I shuffled a lot.”
As a kid, Woetzel said he was given plenty of opportunities to try art, through different instruments and languages.
“It’s been a big part of my mission as an artist, and as a citizen working in the arts, that we make sure that options are open,” he explained. “As many options as possible....Over time it became clear to me that I was much better at ballet than everything else. And I really decided at 11 years old, I’m going to be a professional dancer.”
He debuted as a dancer in the Los Angeles Ballet in 1983 before joining the New York City Ballet, where he later became a principal dancer. He was with the company for nearly two decades.
“And life went on, it was a dream,” he said.
In June 2011, Woetzel signed on as Director of Arts Programs with the Aspen Institute. Throughout his tenure, his mission has been to bring speakers to the Institute who work to create a juggernaut of art that evokes social change.
“The most important thing for me is that the work and the people that we’re talking about really are intersecting with society in some way that is progressive and important for progress in society,” he said.
Woetzel used the musical Hamilton as an example, with the musical’s producer Jeffrey Seller being a guest at this year’s Ideas Fest. Woetzel called Seller’s seminar a success because the points Woetzel was hoping would naturally come out in conversation did.
“Yeah it's a great musical, yes it's sold out forever, yes it's doing all the great things you hope it will do on the stage, but what else is it doing? Man, it's opening up huge conversations about immigration, it's doing incredible things about civics education and learning about government,” he said.
Midway through our conversation, he spotted Seller across Aspen Meadows.
“He’s looking slightly lost … I probably should flag him down for a sec,” he said. And he did. Both men walk over.
Seller is overheard having said, “That’s my dream to have a radio show.”
“Really?” asked Woetzel.
“No,” Seller said
“Oh, you’re too funny,” said Woetzel, as Seller waved and walked on. “Gotta take care of your guests, make sure they’re not lost.”
He sat back down and continues on, as if the producer of musicals like Rent and Avenue Q wasn’t just there, which further emphasizes that the artists he’s brought to the institute over the years have done more than just put on a good show.
“Thinking on behalf of the artists, that they're connecting with the right people, that they have some next step themselves, that it's not just a show here,” he said. “That there's next steps.”
Looking to the future, Woeztel plans to take his ideas on social change through art to the next level as the Juilliard School’s seventh president. He called this an “enormous” opportunity.
“It was like I want to be ready to play a role, and in some ways this feels very along the line of what I was thinking without knowing what I was thinking.
“The importance of a philosophical underpinning to what you do is primary. It’s like creating the ground to stand on. I think about that a lot in terms of performance work, certainly. That when I prepare for a performance it really mattered so much what I was trying to say with whatever it was I was doing. It’s more about what your presence means in a certain time and place and how, contextually, that has impact.”
Woetzel intends to stay with the Institute through one more Ideas Festival before stepping into his new role with an even larger platform to evoke change and innovation through the arts.