The Gift of Joye
Photos by Brent Cline © Ocozzio Inc.
In 1989 Steve Naifeh and Greg Smith, two successful New York writers, went a little nuts. Sick of their crowded little Manhattan apartment, they purchased what was reputed to be the largest house in South Carolina, a woefully dilapidated 60-room mansion in Aiken. The house was called, with poetic promise, Joye Cottage. Despite floors so rotten Naifeh fell through one in a first-floor bedroom, they loved the house and the easy lifestyle of the charming town around it. They poured their sweat, their money and seven years into one of the world’s most daunting fixer-uppers, finally restoring it to the elegance it had known 100 years earlier, when the Whitneys of New York had wintered there in glittering opulence.
In 1991, the new Aiken residents did indeed experience joy when they won the Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Jackson Pollock (which would be turned into a film starring Ed Harris). But a year after that, Smith was operated on for a brain tumor. Preparing for the worst, Naifeh and Smith did an amazing thing: They bequeathed their beloved Joye Cottage to the Juilliard School.
“We were worried about what might happen if it fell into less sympathetic hands than ours,” Smith told the New York Times. “Music and art have given us such great joy—in both senses,” the two said after receiving the Pulitzer. “By helping Juilliard in its mission to train musicians and artists and spread the joy to future generations, we can give back a thousand fold.”
Smith has done well in the years since his surgery, but he and Naifeh didn’t want their dreams for Joye and Juilliard to have to wait until after they were gone. Why not build a relationship between Juilliard and Aiken right now?
And so was born, midwifed by the creativity and generosity of the Aiken community, Juilliard in Aiken. The annual week-long arts festival brings Juilliard’s best to Aiken each March. Since 2009, selected students, faculty and alumni from the renowned New York institution have celebrated the gift of Joye by performing in venues all over town and offering concerts and master classes in schools in Aiken and the surrounding counties in South Carolina and Georgia.
Everybody in this relationship wins. Aiken, of course, has the unbelievably good fortune of being the home for a week of some of the most talented musicians, dancers and actors in the world. And for local students, whose schools are increasingly starved for arts programs, it’s that rarest of opportunities to watch and learn from the best.
And Juilliard? “What we came to realize is that at Juilliard, the students’ experience is very limited,” Laurie Carter told The Augusta Chronicle. She is Juilliard’s vice president and general counsel and executive director of jazz studies. “As the world of the arts changes, we have to change with it. It’s no longer the case that a student will graduate and join an orchestra. There just aren’t enough out there anymore. And the students certainly can no longer have the attitude that New York is the only stage that is appropriate. Coming someplace like Aiken reinforces that.”
And as the Juilliard students soon realized, Aiken in March is a glorious, green escape from the sodden, gray and dirty streets of New York. They jog the tree-lined avenues and wander the paths in Hitchcock Woods. And they find audiences in Aiken’s sold-out venues enthusiastic and appreciative.
“Juilliard realizes that this is a confidence-builder for their students,” explains Sandra Field, president of Juilliard in Aiken’s board of directors. “Here they can perform without worrying about New York critics. They can be more fearless and relaxed here because they’re not always worried about what some critic in the audience will write.”
In 2009, the first year of the festival, Field and her board practically had to beg to get 20 performers from Juilliard to spend their spring break in Aiken. But when that crew returned to New York with stories about Aiken’s beauty and hospitality, word spread fast. Now more students vie for that week in South Carolina than the festival can accommodate. For the last two years, planners have had to hold the line at 40.
It’s not cheap buying plane tickets for 40 performers—many of whom need two tickets, one for themselves, one for their instrument. (You don’t want your $25,000 cello riding in the baggage compartment.) Board member Dorothy Ridley finds volunteers to house the young performers. Still, the board had to raise $190,000 last year to finance the festival. All the performances sold out, but ticket sales don’t come close to covering expenses. Besides which Juilliard offers all its concerts free in New York, and the school wants the Aiken organization to do the same as much as possible.
In the first year of the festival, Juilliard was represented by only musicians—singers and instrumentalists. They did six concerts. But Juilliard trains dancers and actors too. In last year’s festival, which was the first in which all three arts were represented, they gave 15 performances.
“We send a wish list,” Field says, “then Juilliard looks at the student roster and makes their decisions. They want to send performers who will perform up to the school’s high standards, of course, but they also want to send people who will be good ambassadors for Juilliard, teaching artists for the community.”
The teaching part was really the primary reason Juilliard agreed to partner with Aiken. Today’s artists must inspire and train the next generation. And popular culture, the economy and the resulting loss of the arts in our schools have created an urgent need that Juilliard wants to address. And so the young musicians and performers do more than practice and put on concerts. They go out to the schools in five counties, work with the students, perform with them, do master classes and workshops, talk to the kids about the challenges and joys of being a musician, a dancer or an actor.
This past March, Juilliard soloists and ensembles did a dance team outreach, an organ master class, master classes for piano and voice, two drama workshops, a concert for elementary students, another for middle school students, a jazz ensemble clinic and an in-school string quartet concert.
In the first year of the festival, such activities reached 500 students. Last year the number was 4,000. “And that’s just within a week,” Field says.
But Juilliard in Aiken is building to a year-round presence of Juilliard in local schools. Juilliard cellist Claire Bryant has organized Aiken residencies lasting anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks: In 2010 a string camp in October, a residency with string players at Aiken High School in January 2010; a three-day musical experience with pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe and string artists Owen Dalby and clarinetist Carol McGonnell in residence at USC Aiken last January, providing the Aiken community both outreach to area schools and performance opportunities in venues across the community.
So the gift of Joye Cottage has grown into something beyond a bequest. Yes, some day it will be a retreat for future generations of Juilliard performers. But right now it is the heart and soul of a celebration of the arts, reaching into the schools of the CSRA and helping to inspire the next generation of artists.
And, of course, in the meantime Joye remains the home of Steve Naifeh and Greg Smith, two writers who continue to pursue their own art. For years they have been researching the life and works of Vincent van Gogh. This October Van Gogh: The Life, will be published. It is the definitive biography of one of the world’s most familiar and beloved artist. Not only that, Naifeh, Smith and their biography will be featured this fall on 60 Minutes. Morley Safer, who came out of retirement to work on the project, has already been to Joye Cottage to do the filming.
Yet despite their lifelong devotion to writing, and to writing about painters, it’s musicians who will eventually fill Joye Cottage. “Five or six musicians can play as loud as they want, anywhere in the house, and not be heard by one another,” Smith told the Times. Smith himself loves to play the piano and he was the assistant conductor of the Harvard Glee Club when he was a student there. “And the ballroom would be great for performances that everybody in Aiken could come to.
“Our gift to Juilliard is nothing compared to Juilliard’s gift to the world. And we are fortunate, indeed, to live in a community that shares our support for arts education and our belief, which is Juilliard’s belief, that the pursuit of excellence—in the arts, as in everything—can truly improve lives.”
Next season’s Juilliard in Aiken festival will take place March 10-16. For more information, or to see videos of past performances, visit the organization’s website at juilliardinaiken.com.