Diversifying Arts Institutions, Exploding the Canon, and Educating the Next Generation

An Interview With Aaron Dworkin, Dance/USA’s 2013 Conference Keynote Speaker

Interview by Lisa Traiger

Aaron Dworkin, by Mike MouradianA 2005 MacArthur Fellow, a former member of the Obama National Arts Policy Committee, and President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts, Aaron P. Dworkin is the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, the leading national arts organization that focuses on youth development and diversity in classical music. An author, social entrepreneur, artist-citizen, and an avid youth education advocate, he has received extensive national recognition for his vast accomplishments. His memoir Uncommon Rhythm: A Black, White, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Irish Catholic Adoptee’s Journey to Leadership was recently released through Aquarius Press.

Dworkin authored an autobiographical poetry collection entitled They Said I Wasn’t Really Black as well as a children’s book entitled The 1st Adventure of Chilli Pepperz. His writings have been featured in Symphony Magazine, Polyphonic.org, Andante, an online music industry magazine and others. He has contributed to the first English edition of Superior Bowing Technique, a treatise by legendary violinist Lucien Capet, and authored the foreword to William Grant Still’s Violin Collection published by WGS Music. Dworkin founded and served as publisher and editor-in-chief of The Bard, a literary magazine with a readership of over 40,000 throughout southeast Michigan.

He has produced and recorded two CDs entitled Ebony Rhythm and Bar-Talk, in addition to producing and directing the independent film entitled “Deliberation.” He has also transcribed works for electric strings and developed Electric String 201, a college-level preparatory course in electric string performance.

An accomplished electric and acoustic violinist, Dworkin received his bachelors of music and masters of music in violin performance from the University of Michigan School of Music, graduating with high honors. He attended the Peabody Institute, the Philadelphia New School and the Interlochen Arts Academy, studying with Vladimir Graffman, Berl Senofsky, Jascha Brodsky, John Eaken, Renata Knific, Donald Hopkins, and Stephen Shipps.

A lifelong musician, Dworkin is also a spoken-word and visual artist. He has strong interests in politics, world history and issues of economic and social injustice. In addition to various genres of music, he enjoys travel and culinary arts.

D/USA: Aaron, please introduce yourself to Dance/USA with your elevator speech.
Dworkin: I’ll focus on my organization, Sphinx. I’m the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, which is a national and international organization focusing on diversity in the performing arts with a heavy focus on music. We have programs from literally putting instruments into the hands of under-served young people for the very first time, all the way up through providing pre-professional and professional development experience for rising musicians. From our Overture program, which is exactly that frontline program of starting young students on instruments who otherwise would never have the opportunity, to our intensive summer programs, which are at Oberlin, Ohio, and Northwestern in Chicago, we work with students ages 11 to 17 helping prepare them to be able to do music at the collegiate level.
The Sphinx Organization conducts educational programs for elementary school-aged children, courtesy Sphinx OrganizationOne of our flagship programs is the National Sphinx Competition for young black and Latino string players. We have our junior division, which is under the age of 18, and our senior division, which is 18 to 26. Students come from all over the country to participate in those semi-final and final rounds and then our top four go on and solo with some the top-30 of the major orchestras around the country. When they do that we train them to be teaching artists so they actually carry out residency work at the various communities that they go to. We also have our Sphinx Virtuosi, which is our chamber orchestra, comprised solely of alumni of the competition. They tour every fall, a 15-city tour around the country and we have three anchors on that tour: Carnegie Hall, the Harris Theater in Chicago as well as the New World Center in Miami. And every city our virtuosi go to, they also carry out residency work, because education weaves its way through everything we do. Then we have a city competition for Detroit, which includes all instrument categories for competitors under the age of 18. There we’re really focusing on showcasing the diverse pool of young talent in the city and helping to prepare them to be able to follow their musical dreams. And lastly, and this is the aspect that cuts across all of the performing arts for us, is SphinxCon. This is the international convening on diversity and the performing arts where we bring in leaders from around the country to come together and speak on these key issues of diversity in the various fields of music, theater, and dance.

You have called yourself “black, white, Jewish, a Jehovah’s Witness, Irish-Catholic.” I’m curious about your childhood background and how your multiple identities influenced you in creating Sphinx and all these complementary programs that reach out to diverse and under-served youths, in particular.
Dworkin: Of course, during my presentation at the conference I will talk about this and how my personal experience informed and got me to launch the organization. In my presentation I’m specifically going to describe all of that: how I am black, white, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Irish Catholic, all of the above, and had a big afro to boot. I talk about that and about being adopted and how my adoptive mother was an amateur violinist and that connected me to playing. I talk about my first teacher a little bit also, so I’ll really get into those aspects [of training] and how my background informs my music and how it specifically informed me in wanting to start Sphinx. From being biracial and a variety of experiences I had, including literally being in a lesson one day where my teacher began exposing me to works by composers of color, which I wasn’t aware of, all of that did inform and shape me.

  Let’s talk about terminology. Some people like the term diversity, some prefer racial equity, others use different terms. What language do you prefer to use in discussing these issues that you address.?
Dworkin: That’s a great question. From a Sphinx perspective we have tended to say and refer to our work as “building diversity.” But I think that depending on a specific work that an organization or person is doing, they might be able to use different language. I would say that one of the chief focuses for us has been that we’re not, and I never founded Sphinx to be, an affirmative action mechanism. My goal was never to uplift a particular culture, group, or even an under-served group. But, rather, I was looking at this art form that I love passionately and wanting to make it more reflective and representative of all of the communities in our nation. My goal was never to uplift a particular culture, group, or even an
under-served group. But, rather, I was looking at this art form that I
love passionately and wanting to make it more reflective and
representative of all of the communities in our nation.As part of looking at that, the most under-represented groups [in classical music] – those representing percentages in the overall population – are blacks and Latinos. So that’s why so much of our work has been focused on those particular areas. But the overall goal of all of our work is to build that representation, build that diversity in the art form itself. I would say further that I think that many traditional organizations — the big opera, theater or dance company in a particular city, for example — if you look at the demographics of that city and the people they serve as a public institution, if they are not reflective of the community in which they reside, I think it makes it very challenging to really fulfill a mission of artistic excellence if you don’t reflect that community, in your audience, in the actual make-up of the staffing of the organization, and in the artists you employ.

D/USA: Let’s go a bit deeper with the term diversity, because for many people it includes more than race, for example, there’s age, gender, sexual orientation, geography, socio-economic, and more. Do those come into the conversation too when discussing diversity?
Dworkin: Overall certainly all aspects of diversity come into play and certainly the work we do with SphinxCon and, looking at that, we want all of those voices and ideas about diversity to enter into that sphere. For the majority of our programmatic initiatives at Sphinx, our focus tends to be primarily cultural diversity, or socio-economic diversity. Especially for the educational work that we’re doing, we are identifying those who without our program would not have the access [to music education]. We’re trying to fill a void, fill a hole, fill a lack of opportunity, and create that opportunity for those who otherwise would not have it.

D/USA: You found one model to address this issue within the area of education, focusing on those from age 5 through 26. Aside from the participatory aspect of diversifying the classical music field, there’s also the issue of the canon. How can we explore diversifying the canon of our performing arts?
Dworkin: It’s a huge issue. Less than 1 percent of the works performed by American orchestras are by composers of color. Even if you break out just North American composers that are performed, it’s still less than 1 percent of that. So very little music is being explored or revealed from composers of color, even though there are many composers [of color] going back to contemporaries of Mozart: Joseph Boulogne St. George was an Afro-French composer of the same time period. So there are these composers whose works are simply not showcased. Sphinx has had a commissioning consortium and we do our own commissioning as well. So we’re very actively engaged in trying to increase both the creation of new works as well as the performance of existing works by composers of color. There is just an amazing repertoire that has not been showcased or performed.

The Sphinx Virtuosi is a conductorless ensemble comprised of alumni from the Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latino string players, courtesy Sphinx OrganizationThe reasons for that include a number of different factors, but a large part of it is that the people who make the decisions of what to perform are simply not aware of the music. They don’t learn about it in music school, unless for some reason they took a specific course in ethnomusicology or something along that line. And if you look at orchestra staffing, typically 0 percent of artistic administrators are black or Latino, so you don’t have people who represent any of those cultural backgrounds in these positions, and, regardless of these backgrounds, you don’t have people who are familiar or knowledgeable in these more diverse areas of repertoire. That ends up being a huge problem and a huge barrier. Classical institutions tend to be risk averse and as a result we find that these works are simply not performed. We find it a great tragedy and a limitation to our art form. One of the issues I mentioned at SphinxCon recently is sharing a statement from Nigerian author Chinua Achebe about the idea of the danger of a single story. We are simply not sharing all of the stories that are to be told in our art forms, and as a result that does limit our art.

D/USA: What can be done, then, to break open the canon in mainstream orchestras and arts organizations?
Dworkin: A key thing is to inform themselves of the work. Just like any works, including composers of color, there’s some great stuff and some pretty bad stuff. [Music directors] have to make themselves knowledgeable, which takes motivation, time and resources to do. And then to learn those works and to have the conductors and musicians learn these works. We look at a lot of the work we do and we say it’s not necessarily rocket science in terms of the complexity of what needs to be done, but it’s rocket science in terms of getting it done. That is really the problem. It starts with an institution looking at and understanding the issues of diversity as it relates to that institution and then making a decision to do something about it. And it matters. Far too many institutions either don’t look at it at all or don’t really want to ask the question. Or they ask it and maybe put something down on paper that goes into a filing cabinet somewhere and then don’t really do anything about it. Then there are a few that actually define goals and set about actually making a change and making a difference.

I wouldn’t want to name names, but we partner with 30 orchestras and more than 100 artistic organizations. I will say it is a woefully tiny number of organizations that are doing any type of meaningful work or are taking any meaningful steps in the area of diversity. I have very strong statements to make about it as a sector as a whole. It is very difficult to find examples of “mainstream” key institutions in any performing art that are actually making meaningful substantial progress in the field of diversity.

D/USA:  Let’s turn to dance and Dance/USA’s our core audience. It’s interesting that I continue to hear, “Why are we still talking about the issue of blacks and ballet?” from some of our members, insinuating that since we are seeing more dancers of color, and we have companies like Dance Theater of Harlem, that the issue is closed. What is your answer to a comment like that?
Dworkin: First, I will say that when speaking to a classical music audience, I will often reference ballet and point to [New York] City Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem and Alvin Ailey [American Dance Theater], and precedents like Native American ballerina Maria Tallchief. The key is that the dance world has broken some ground. Then I go on to say that those are unfortunately anecdotes, but when you look at the entire field the question you have to ask yourself is as a field, do dance institutions reflect and embrace the communities in which they reside. While you could off maybe two dance companies that have made progress – and in my presentation I talk about some of the precursors – but why is it that, even in dance, we don’t have the actual numbers on diversity necessary so that we can track that information. In that area orchestras have done more in terms of researching. Going back to the 1990s, we can actually track and look at that representation in orchestras and see whether it is being affected at all. We know that the actual numbers of blacks and Latinos in orchestras over the past 15 years has doubled. But we can’t even know or look at or understand that trajectory in dance. We may have some anecdotal success stories – how is this, how is that – Dance Theatre of Harlem faced its challenges over the years, those stories are not representative of diversity of a field. Instead let’s look at all of the mainstream traditional companies and while they may have one [dancer of color ] or had one at a particular time, what is the diversity of the company as a whole? What is the diversity of the field? Have we talked about or thought about or looked at the audiences? Now that we see the audiences, we then look at the actual dancers on stage, then we look at the staffing of our institutions and then, the canon. What is it that we’re performing or commissioning? Who are the composers that we’re working with, the choreographers we’re working with? So looking at that entire picture is what actually matters and does give you an understanding of the field itself.

D/USA:  Where would you like to see the field in 10 years?
Dworkin: Ideally, first, far more reflective and immersed in the communities in which our institutions reside. And number two, across all of the arts, I’d like to have more of the American public understand how deep and rich the arts are and how intertwined they are with everyone’s day to day life. All too often we think about the arts as bowtie and the opera, or just ballet and not other dance, or just classical and orchestral music. The arts are so much deeper and so much more intertwined in everyone’s daily lives. I think about both the American public’s increased awareness of how our entire society is immersed in the arts, but also especially I would like to see “traditional and more mainstream arts institutions” become more reflective of the communities in which they reside in every way, from the audience, to the artists they engage, to the staffing and makeup of the institutions themselves, and the canon they perform.
My goal was never to uplift a particular culture, group, or even an
under-served group. But, rather, I was looking at this art form that I
love passionately and wanting to make it more reflective and
representative of all of the communities in our nation.
I’m really looking forward to speaking to the Dance/USA conference and to answering the questions after, which is always such a dynamic time.

Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s eJournal, and writes for a variety of publications, including The Washington Post, Dance, Dance Teacher, The Forward, Washington Jewish Week among others. She was a 2003 New York Times Fellow in dance criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C.


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