When Richard Kessler was named dean of Mannes College The New School for Music this summer, it was something of a homecoming. Kessler, who comes to Mannes from The Center for Arts Education and, before that, the American Music Center where he served as executive director, spent two years at Mannes as an undergraduate studying the trombone. Since his student days, Kessler has become a leading advocate for arts education. He was eager to share his memories of Mannes and his vision for the future when he sat down with the New School News.
New School News: What impressions did you have of Mannes when you were a student here?
Richard Kessler: When I think back on the Mannes I knew as a student, one particular phrase comes to mind: nowhere to hide., You see, I also went to Juilliard and taught at the Manhattan School of Music, and Mannes had a rigor to its music coursework that was head and shoulders above what I encountered elsewhere. You couldn’t hide out in a theory or ear training class at Mannes. The instruction was incredibly deep and challenging. Then, as now, there was an old-world depth and ethos at Mannes. It was about much more than how fast or loud you could play; it was about developing the thinking artist, in a variety of ways, critical and analytical thinking, rigorous habits of mind, and much more.
NSN: What brought you back to Mannes?
RK: I got the job!
Kidding aside, with Mannes, I felt that we have a golden opportunity to integrate the best of Mannes’s traditions with the resources of other divisions of The New School. On both a symbolic and practical basis, doing so would advance not only Mannes but serve as an interesting proving ground on the role of the arts in the society.
NSN: What do you see as the most pressing issues in music and arts education today?
RK: I have been deeply concerned about the question of how education keeps pace with the ever-changing world. It’s a big issue for both higher education and K’12. What do graduates need to know and be able to do, for today and tomorrow? And how do we transform curricula, instruction, assessment, and the overall design of our schools to ensure that we are providing an optimal education that draws upon longstanding traditions while being as relevant as possible to today’s needs?
There is a clarion call both within and outside of the arts to better establish relevancy. Today it is difficult for the arts to flourish in a vacuum, and artists and organizations are being asked to be more active partners in community building, civic engagement, K-12 and community education, and much more.
NSN: What vision do you have for Mannes
RK: I want Mannes to take the global lead in redefining the training of artists in the 21st century. It’s a delicate balance, honoring the proven traditions of Mannes, tapping into considerable synergies across The New School, and ultimately staying closely attuned to the world that artists will enter today. It’s a vision that blends innovation, creativity, rigor, and a deep commitment to supporting and expanding the role of artists as citizens of the world.