Juilliard Without the Drama

How Laurie Carter keeps the performing arts performing

Published in 2009 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

By Karen Jones on September 24, 2009


It’s not unusual for Laurie Carter, general counsel, vice president and executive director of jazz studies at Juilliard, to see famous faces on campus. She’s had memorable run-ins with Leontyne Price (“Bigger than life,” she says) and Mikhail Baryshnikov in an elevator (“I was thrilled but didn’t speak to him,” she says), but she usually keeps her distance. At “A Tribute to Luther Henderson,” a jazz concert held at Juilliard in 2008, however, all bets were off.

“I try to be respectful of artists when I see them,” she says. “But when Ruby Dee came, I had to get a picture with her. I grew up admiring her work, relationship and passion about people.” She adds that women like Dee were not daunted by the obstacles before them. “They forged ahead making way for people like me. I am deeply indebted to them.”

Such are the perks of working for one of the world’s most prestigious performing arts conservatories. Founded in 1905 as an alternative to studying in Paris, London or Vienna, Juilliard quickly established itself as the place for young artists to nurture their talent. The school now attracts students from nearly 50 countries, and its acceptance rate—9 percent—is lower than Harvard’s or Yale’s.

Carter, 46, came to Juilliard in 1988 as director of student affairs, and subsequently launched the school’s legal department and jazz studies program. She says she’s been “on call for 20 years” but isn’t exactly complaining.

“I am one of those people who can every day wake up and say, ‘Thank God I love my job,’” she says. “I love the people I work with, and the students inspire me.”


Carter’s initial appreciation for the arts came from her mother, Harriet, who enrolled her in dance lessons at age 5. Jazz and R&B music frequently filled the house. The small, working-class town of Rutherford, N.J., wasn’t privileged, but Carter’s parents ensured that their five children were “rich in love.” They also stressed the importance of hitting the books. “My mother knew we had to have a college education in order for us to have the life she had dreamed for us,” she says.

That meant work. While studying communications at Clarion University in Pennsylvania and then at William Paterson University in New Jersey, she supplemented student loans with full-time jobs, and working as a janitor in the Bergen County Courthouse helped inspire her penchant for the law. “I was intrigued by the legal process and remember sneaking into the courtroom during breaks to listen to cases,” she says. But it didn’t immediately lead to law school.

Instead, after earning her Master of Arts in 1987, Carter saw a job posting for director of student affairs at Juilliard. “It wasn’t exactly the career path I wanted,” she says, “but I thought, ‘Wow … what a great opportunity.’”

In 1988, Juilliard’s Lincoln Center campus was commuter-only and, according to Carter, had little sense of community. That changed with construction of its first housing unit, Meredith Willson Residence Hall, which opened in 1990. Carter oversaw the massive project while building the student affairs department from the ground up.

At the time, actresses Laura Linney and Jeanne Tripplehorn were Juilliard students, while faculty included such famous names as Michael Kahn, current artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., violinist Dorothy DeLay and the late dance legend Martha Hill.

Keeping her options open, Carter began taking night classes at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, N.J. “My friends and family thought I was crazy,” she says. Upon graduating in 1993, she intended to pursue public interest law, but Juilliard asked her to stay and establish an in-house law department. She did.

Schools of higher learning were facing new and complex requirements, such as addressing student harassment, sensitivity and psychological issues, and providing community outreach and social services. “Most schools already had counseling and health centers,” she says. “Juilliard had a very small health center, but I wanted to create an integrated health and counseling service.”

“Laurie is sensitive, and understands the needs of an institution like Juilliard,” says Joseph W. Polisi, president of the school since 1984. “We are an institution of higher learning, but we are very driven by the arts and the achievement of excellence in the arts through presentation. It’s a very complex, unique environment and Laurie has been able to match her understanding of the law with all of these complexities and her understanding of Juilliard itself.”

Helping diversify the campus was one of her proudest accomplishments. “When I came here, I was the only African-American administrator,” she says. “There were lots of women, but very few people of color.” But during her tenure, the minority student population increased from 3 to 13 percent. “With the president’s support,” she says, “I developed a Juilliard diversity week during which we required students, faculty and staff to attend diversity training.” Further programs were implemented to encourage the recruitment of students and the hiring of staff and faculty from diverse backgrounds. “We have accomplished a great deal but still have more work to do. … It is important to provide constant reminders that there is a great deal to be gained from those with different perspectives.”

“Juilliard is a school that you don’t decide to come to when you are 16 or 17 years old,” explains Polisi. “You have to work towards it. I said to Laurie it was extremely important we recruit underrepresented students, keep them here and make them feel happy about their community.”

Though Carter makes up half of Juilliard’s in-house legal department—“we use a lot of outside counsel,” she says—she oversees 100 staff, faculty and consultants. Her days are primarily spent drafting and negotiating performance contracts for Juilliard ensembles, agreements with vendors and other arts organizations, liability waivers and licensing matters.

This spring, for example, The Soloist, a film about the relationship between a Los Angeles Times columnist and a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers Jr., who was once a classical music student at Juilliard, played in theaters around the country. The producers, Carter says, “approached us for the right to use our name in their film. They also requested the use of some items and documents; I negotiated the agreement permitting the use. Very often our name is used or misused in films without anyone approaching us [so] it was a pleasure working with people who respected how hard we work to protect our mark.”

That’s part of Carter’s job, too: overseeing the proper usage of the Juilliard trademark. “We have not capitalized on our name and now is the best time to do that,” she says. The school already has a deal with Mattel (in the form of Juilliard-sweatshirt-wearing High School Musical 3 dolls), while educational DVDs are expected to be ready for distribution sometime next year.

Carter also works closely with the human resources department on a variety of employment issues, and advises administrators on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Buckley Amendment, which protects the privacy of students, and ensures the entire community is properly educated on many hot-button issues. One of the biggest issues regarding The Soloist, for example, involved the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prohibits higher-education institutions from releasing nondirectory information to third parties without the consent of the student or alumni. “Consequently,” Carter says, “we were required to obtain permission from Mr. Ayers’ guardian to provide access to the requested files. This required us to identify the guardian, obtain proof of guardianship and secure the consent.”

Such caution is worthwhile: Juilliard has not encountered any litigation during Carter’s tenure. “We are exceedingly careful about what we do,” Polisi says. “We try to do the right thing, and though that is not always a defense against litigation, we have succeeded.”


In 2001, after 90 years of classical-music education, Juilliard unveiled its first jazz studies program. It’s the brainchild of alumnus Wynton Marsalis and Polisi, who says he has an “enormous respect for the art of jazz and wanted to be sure when it came to Juilliard it would be presented in a way that would be pervasive for the entire institution. It wouldn’t be off in its own little corner.” Commissioned to be the program’s executive director, Carter has a special fondness for Marsalis, Benny Golson and Hank Jones.

This year the school unveiled an ambitious 39,000-foot, $193 million expansion and renovation. “The building is absolutely beautiful,” Carter says. “The architectural goal of making the institution more physically transparent has been an incredible success. The new façade is glass so the building is bright and sunny, and there is a stunning new dance studio overlooking Broadway, which permits passersby to observe our artists in action. The most exciting aspect for me is that, for the first time since the program’s inception in 2001, jazz has a dedicated rehearsal space within the building. We inaugurated it in late April with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring our president and jazz legend Benny Golson.”

Carter is married to Gary Robinson, a police detective in the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, and the couple’s 10-year-old son is already studying trumpet. He expressed an interest at 5 and started playing at 9. Wynton Marsalis, whom he has met many times, has invited him to “come over and play for him,” says Carter. But he’s waiting until he feels ready.

Carter feels her own artistic bent is incredibly nurtured by her work, which, lately, has included developing policies to ensure compliance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, and negotiating and drafting agreements with presenters in Japan, Korea, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and, in the U.S., Georgia and Michigan for summer jazz tours. “Imagine a tough day in the office, and being able to walk down the hall and listen to wonderful music or observe a beautiful movement,” she says. “I am never overwhelmed by talent. These faculty and students are ordinary people with extraordinary gifts. They work very hard. Their talent gives me energy and hope.”

The arts, she adds, are for everyone, and anyone, no matter what their circumstances, can share in the Juilliard experience. “I remember the kid who came to music because he had sickle cell anemia and couldn’t really do anything with other kids—and he made it into Juilliard. I think of the girl that grew up in a trailer park and loved to sing and never thought she would make it out of that trailer park but auditioned for our vocal program and got in,” she says. “I think to myself, ‘What a gift it is to be a part of the life and development of these great artists.’”

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