Nice to Meet You, Mikhail Baryshnikov

Laurie Carter still gets star-struck on the Juilliard campus

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - May 2009 magazine

By Karen Jones on April 10, 2009


It is not unusual for Laurie Carter to spot famous faces at The Juilliard School in New York City, whose illustrious alumni include Wynton Marsalis, Robin Williams, Leontyne Price, Van Cliburn and Yo-Yo Ma, but bumping into Mikhail Baryshnikov in the elevator was quite another matter.

“I was thrilled but didn’t speak to him,” says Carter, Juilliard’s vice president, general counsel and executive director of jazz studies. “I met him sometime later in the president’s office. He was being awarded an honorary doctorate. I said it was a pleasure to meet him and he was very gracious.”

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 soon established its place in modern society. Its acceptance rate—about 7 percent—is lower than those of Harvard and Yale. The school attracts and shapes talent from nearly 50 countries.

“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, 46, came to Juilliard in 1988 as director of student affairs, and subsequently launched the school’s legal department and helped spearhead its jazz studies program. Consider that the institution puts on 700 live performances a year, a number of which Carter is required to attend, and it’s no surprise when she says she’s “been on call for 20 years.”


An appreciation for the arts came from Carter’s mother, Harriet, who enrolled her daughter in dance lessons at age 5. Jazz and R&B music always filled the house. The small, working-class town of Rutherford, N.J., wasn’t privileged, but Carter’s parents ensured 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 putting herself through college and graduate school. 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. Working as a janitor in the Bergen County Courthouse inspired her penchant for the law. “I remember sneaking into the courtroom during breaks to listen to cases,” she says.

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 had little sense of community. That changed, though, with the 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. (The school is currently in the midst of an ambitious 39,000-foot, $193 million expansion and renovation.)

At the time, actresses Laura Linney and Jeanne Tripplehorn were Juilliard students. “It is always strange for me to see these students develop into stardom,” says Carter, who also recalls such famous faculty as Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.; the late dance legend Martha Hill; and the late violinist Dorothy DeLay on campus during those years. The school was establishing itself as a revered institution.

Even so, a friend suggested Carter keep her options open, and she 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. 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.” That initiative, combined with increased staff- and faculty-related legal matters, warranted Carter’s continued expertise.

“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.”

Carter counts diversifying the campus as 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.” During her tenure, the minority population has increased from 3 to 13 percent. “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 toward 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 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. She works closely with the human resources department on a variety of employment issues and oversees the proper usage of the Juilliard trademark.

“We have not capitalized on our name and now is the best time to do that,” says Carter, who is looking for new ways to license the Juilliard trademark. The school already has a deal with Mattel (in the form of a High School Musical 3 doll wearing a Juilliard sweatshirt), and plans to sell educational DVDs and digital album liner notes are in the works.

She also 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. Carter hasn’t encountered litigation since she took her post. “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 now considers herself a jazz connoisseur, with a special fondness for Marsalis, Benny Golsch and Hank Jones. Of the many concerts she attends annually, two stand out: “A Tribute to the Legends of Jazz,” honoring Dr. Billy Taylor, Joe Wilder, James Moody, Frank Wess and Clark Terry; and “A Tribute to Luther Henderson,” because she got to meet actress Ruby Dee. “I try to be respectful of artists when I see them, but when Ruby Dee came, I had to get a picture with her,” she says enthusiastically. Similarly, Carter says she will never forget meeting Leontyne Price, whom she calls “bigger than life,” and James Conlon, who conducted an opera with a small group of students in Spoleto, Italy.

Carter and her husband, Gary Robinson, a police detective in the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, have a 10-year-old son who is already studying trumpet. Asked if she would support a career in music, Carter says without hesitation, “If that’s what he wants to do, absolutely.”

The arts, she says, are for everyone, and anyone, no matter what his or her circumstances, has a chance to 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 who 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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