Sunday, July 21, 2013

Interview with Aaron Dworkin - President and CEO of the Sphinx Organization

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................."

Aaron Dworkin bio:  Named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, a Member of the Obama National Arts Policy Committee and President Obama’s first appointee 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 titled “Uncommon Rhythm: A Black, White, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness, Irish Catholic Adoptee's Journey to Leadership” was recently released through Aquarius Press.

He has been featured in People Magazine, on NBC’s Today Show and Nightly News with Brian Williams, named one of Newsweek’s 15 People Who Make America Great.  He is the recipient of the National Governors Association 2005 Distinguished Service to State Government Award, Detroit Symphony’s 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003 Michiganian of the Year, Crain’s 40 Under 40, BET’s History Makers in the Making Award and AT&T Excellence in Education Award.

Mr. 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”.

Mr. Dworkin currently serves on the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras, National Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, National Guild for Community Schools of the Arts, National Society for the Gifted and Talented, Artserve Michigan, WRCJ 90.9 Detroit Classical and Jazz Radio and the NEW (Non-Profit Enterprise at Work) Center. He is also serves on the Advisory Board of ASTA Alternative Strings Awards, Rachel Barton Pine Foundation and the Avery Fisher Artist Program, and Editorial Board of Downtown New York Magazine, Independent Sector’s NGwen Awards Committee. 

Here is the Interview:

BARRY:  You founded Sphinx based on really a simple purpose.  Growing up as a serious student of classical violin, you looked around and never saw other people of color doing what you were doing.  Later, much later, at the University of Michigan, you were finally exposed to black classical composers, and you wondered why you were never exposed to those artists before.  Sphinx was created to address that reality by first launching a national competition for serious black and latino string artists, and has now developed a host of other programs and projects that pursue that original mission.  How important do you think it is to have a defined, focus purpose when trying to start something new?  Is there a tendency for launches to try to be too many things, to too many people, too soon?  What are your two or three big take-away lessons from your experience with launching and growing Sphinx?

AARON:  I think that one’s ability to define a purpose, a specific mission when launching something is absolutely critical.   First, it helps set a clear trajectory toward the ultimate goal, allowing to tell a story with integrity and authenticity.  In a world where non-profits struggle to survive and resources are scarce, it can, indeed, be a challenge to stay aware of that line between embracing opportunities and becoming too many things to too many people.  Some meaningful take-aways for me include that a vision must be singular, unique and powerful.  A mission, once defined, can and should evolve and change to betterunderstand and embrace the atmosphere in which it operates.  Another lesson to share is that persistence is the absolute key to success.  There is an ocean of rejections for every small lake of affirmations when it comes to securing the resources necessary to carry out to the work.  It is critically important to persevere and keep the telling the story when it is a compelling one.  If the research, integrity and hard work are there, the results will pay off.

BARRY:  You call yourself a social entrepreneur, and eschew the label of manager or administrator.  Now that Sphinx has grown from its embryonic launch, you, of course, have staff people who shepherd its operations and growth, who might be legitimately termed managers and administrators.  How do we develop and nurture more arts social entrepreneurs?  Can it be taught?  What is the role of ‘risk’ in successful entrepreneurship?

AARON:  Entrepreneurship itself may be difficult to teach, however, to some degree, that quality within many may not be recognized.  For example, a dedicated music teacher may be an entrepreneur: launching a studio, creating a mission, developing a set of criteria for success for her/his studio, building a microcosm within which to operate.  A young person starting a student organization, a community program: examples are plentiful.  I do believe that entrepreneurship may be a combination of acute creativity, passion and courage to see it through. Those are valuable qualities, but even when natural to some, they must be nurtured, cultivated, developed.  Success does not come overnight, and when it does, it may not be there to stay: so again, perseverance is key.  Risk is almost inherent in a world of an entrepreneur, but the key is knowing when to take it: one’s ability to calculate all risks becomes the key to survival.  I do believe that it is equally as important to develop administrators and those who take great pride in their work and carry out a mission defined by someone else using all of their talents, diligence and ingenuity.  The non-profit world would not survive without that balance.

BARRY:  At one point in your memoirs “Uncommon Rhythm” you note that you were impatient - “very, very impatient” in your youth, but that you think that impatience helped you to build Sphinx.  But Sphinx wasn’t the first attempt in your life to start a social organization that would address some important societal need and hopefully make the world a little better.  Those earlier attempts - for a variety of reasons, chief among them insurmountable funding challenges - were unsuccessful (or at least weren’t sustainable).   What were the key lessons you learned from those experiences and how important do you think they were in your success with Sphinx?

AARON:  I have indeed started a good number of other social endeavors: some looking at challenges as fundamental as homelessness and environmental issues.  Those efforts, while valuable, were not sustainable, however, I could not be more thankful in retrospect.  Those experiences afforded me a great deal of incredible skillsets, they widened my horizons, teaching me the importance of looking at the world through a prism of creative problem solving.  Starting Sphinx was also a risk, as there was no way to initially tell whether the vision would resonate with the community of constituents, funders, supporters.  A combination of luck, hard work and passion helped me pave a different path.

BARRY:  Certainly, as you note, being designated a MacArthur fellow (the oft-called “Genius grant”) opened doors for you that, at the very least, it might have taken longer to open.  But few will ever have the benefit of that kind of recognition.  You have had uncommon success in getting major corporations to lend their financial support to Sphinx, but most arts organizations have had precious little success in attracting corporate buy-in to their visions.  You success may be due in part to the sheer power of your personal passion, and to the fact that Sphinx’s mission may have dovetailed perfectly with certain corporation’s specific goals.  How can people get those doors to open who aren’t singled out with the prestigious Genius designation?  Do you have any advice for them?

AARON:  While it is a great honor to have been named a MacArthur Fellow, I do believe that there is much more to the story of Sphinx’s success.  In my view, it is essential to stay true to what one believes in and do great work when no one is watching.  At Sphinx, we work everyday to ensure that the story is told continuously, growing our programmatic impact, dealing with challenges of funding and resources: despite the importance of our mission, we continue to seek funding year-to-year, without that much needed underlying support.  So, without question: it is a tough environment for non-profits, but if the cause is important, it is worth a good fight.  Ultimately, one of the keys to Sphinx’s success has been a strong team of experts who comprise the Sphinx family: their energy, patience and creativity make it possible for us to reach almost 20,000 young people and 2 million in live and broadcast audiences, annually.

BARRY:  Obviously your own personal identity - self described as a “Black, White, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness, Irish Catholic Adoptee” (who plays the violin) has given you a unique perspective on diversity.  There has been increasing dialogue within the arts sector over the past couple of years about race, racism, equity (in allocation of resources, audience access, and basic support), and how the arts exist within the overall White Frame of Reference operable in America.

As someone with a personal reference point in both the (benefits and negatives) of White and Black frames of reference growing up, what are your thoughts about how the field can do more to insure we move towards a fair and equitable, and representative (given the demographic composition of America as a whole) distribution of funding and nurturing to the largely still underserved multicultural wing of the wider nonprofit arts sphere?  Another issue (apart from more support for multicultural arts organizations) within the equity question, is whether the funding paradigm (public and foundation support) ought not to try to fund everybody as there is clearly not enough funds to meet the demand, and that trying to spread the available money too thinly serves no one well.  What are your thoughts on the thinking of that camp?

AARON:  The question of funding is a complex one: there are, of course, limited resources and a great deal more organizations who require them in order to do the work that they do.  But it does fall upon the funding community to recognize the merit in smaller deserving organizations.  Too often, the larger non-profits receive much larger grants: while logical, that leaves smaller organizations with little room for growth and realization of their full potential.  It is my sense that grants should be given based on merits of the work that they do and the impact that they are having, to fully empower smaller organization to expand the depth of their work.

BARRY:  Do you think the existent nonprofit arts administrative infrastructure serves artists well?  Where is it successful, and where does it come up short?  What are the biggest needs of both emerging / developing and working / established artists - and are those needs being effectively met?

AARON:  Ultimately, this generation of artists perform and function in a different world.  Therefore, the biggest responsibility falls upon the artists themselves to understand that they need a different set of skills, one where they have a defined mission and a clear understanding of how they fit into the community which they serve.  All too often artists look to their managers, administrators, to do the majority of the work.  However, the notion of a “pure” artist, without the sense and context of the broader society, the role that artists serve, is archaic and not-sustainable.

BARRY:  What do you see that the arts organizations in our field that are thriving (not just surviving) are doing that those organizations that are struggling and floundering are not doing?  When you think about the future of the arts in America, what worries you the most?

AARON: To thrive in today’s environment is to understand how your unique mission fits into the greater community, its needs and its future.  The organizations that succeed today are discovering how to be relevant, inclusive, embracing.  They do represent a minority: I am concerned about the relevance and value of the arts as an integral facet of the development and survival of our society.  Public support for the arts is critical: we rank astonishingly low in that realm as compared to most developed countries.  The arts are a part of the solution, hopefully in the future: it falls upon us as the field to make that case.

BARRY:  You seem to be gifted at working the bully pulpit.  What advice to give to others in that pursuit.

AARON:  I believe in the transformational power of the arts, in their ability to change lives, inspire people, sparkcreativity.  I also believe in the arts reflecting the diversity inherent in our society today: that gives me the courage and a sense of purpose to speak on the issue as much as I am able.  It falls upon each and everyone of us to use the bully pulpit on whatever scale is feasible: one’s school, one’s organization, community center, place of worship, service organization, national publications and beyond.  Think about the value that the arts have had in your life, your sphere, your world and then assess the potential impact of their absence.  Everyone must become a spokesperson, an advocate, a leader, a catalyst for change.

BARRY:  Do you think there is too much emphasis placed by arts advocates on the economic benefits of the arts as contrasted with the joy of creativity? We have embraced the economic impact argument as the centerpiece of our advocacy for well over a decade.  Many are increasingly criticizing this approach.  For example:  Michael Rushton who directs the Arts Administration programs at Indiana University in Bloomington said in a recent blog:
“This is what is most commonly thought of in the United States when we hear the words “economic impact.” The arts is an economic sector with consumer spending and employment and can be fitted into input-output tables of demand, whereby spending in the sector is factored up by a “multiplier” to find the total economic impact. Americans for the Arts have built a small cottage industry from persuading local and regional governments and arts advocates to construct such studies. And the numbers contained within the studies are of no worth whatsoever. First of all, every sector – hair stylists, dry cleaners, furniture makers, taxi drivers – has an “economic impact” that could be calculated by similar means. These studies are a waste of resources.” Others think the   economic impact argument marginalizes the best argument for the arts, to wit:   the irreplaceable beauty and joy creativity brings to humankind.  Art itself is the real benefit, not economic benefit. “ 
Your thoughts?

AARON:  The arts are an active facet of a functioning society.  Understanding their economic impact can only help inform their value, not decrease it.  In a world where everything has an assigned value and there is a real, tangible limitation of resources available, understanding that the arts bring value to the bottom line of a city, state, country is valuable data, yet understudied.  I would love for the arts to be thought of for the intrinsic value of beauty, fulfillment and spiritual empowerment.  However, our society looks at ways to expend resources and return on every investment, almost out of necessity.  The message of the ROI for the arts has not been crafted cohesively and in a way that is easy to understand, accept and advocate.

BARRY:  Have you had any recent epiphanies or ‘Aha’ moments?

AARON:  I have spent some time thinking about the link between the arts and creativity.  While creativity exists on its own and is a broader concept (for example, dealing with science, innovation and other sectors), I have been thinking about how creativity is energized, sparked by, magnified by the arts.  The arts are still seen by too many as an element of luxury, extracurricular, optional, purist and not essential.  Creativity, however, is, valued by the broader society, as a means to solve real-life problems and address primary needs.  If we can find a way to better demonstrate the link between the two and how one helps the other emerge, I think the impact may be profound.

BARRY:  In your poem Picture Perfect - a deeply personal and heartfelt homage to your adopted mother after her death, you said:  “.......I know you better than I did when you were alive. I want to try harder......”  I deeply related to that, as I think many do, and wonder if it is not a profound truth for all of us - to better know and really understand our parents after they are gone.   What lessons, if there are any, can we help teach our children before we are gone, that might make the void of that realization less painful for them?  Or is it that very experience that may ultimately make us better parents - knowing full well that there are some life lessons and epiphanies that you cannot give to your children - they will simply come to them or not when the time is right?

AARON:  That is a deeply personal and poignantly difficult question to answer.  I do believe that there are some lessons our children learn in their own time.  I do also believe (as a father to two most amazing boys) that we have the ultimate responsibility to arm them with the skillsets necessary to face the world from a very early age.  Work ethic and quest for excellence are a couple of those qualities that my mother helped develop in me.  I also believe in honesty, direct feedback, coupled with unconditional love: something I strive to exercise as a parent.

BARRY:  I did a recent interview with Arlene Goldbard, and in one of her two new recently published books, she cites this report:
“A 2011 National Endowment for The Arts (NEA) study reports that:
“[T]he decline in the rate of childhood arts education among white children is relatively insignificant from 1982 to 2008, just five percent, while the declines in the rate among African American and Hispanic children are quite substantial — 49 percent for African American and 40 percent for Hispanic children. These statistics support the conclusion that almost the entire decline in childhood arts education between the 1982 and 2008 SPPAs was absorbed by African American and Hispanic children.”  
That is a very deeply disturbing reality, emblematic of the ever growing divide of “have” and “have nots” - and the result is surely at least one and maybe two or more generations of black and latino kids denied the same exposure and opportunity to see, study and practice art in the formative years of their lives.  What can we do?  How can this be allowed to continue?

AARON:  The statistics are abhorrent, without a question.  Ultimately, I feel it would take a fundamental change within our system of education on a multitude of levels, including, teacher qualification, arts integrated curricula (met with some success in cities like Chicago and elsewhere already), managing class sizes and cutting in places other than our children’s education.  Until these statistics begin to mean something to the system, not just the “choir” to whom they are being preached, I am afraid that change will remain marginal.  What happens at home matters: we do not all come from the leveled playing field.  The issues of access are real and we all know that social-economic challenges are acute in minority communities.  Therefore, teaching everyone in the same way has not and will not work: we are setting our young people up for failure, which is tragic.  A lack of equity in the education we provide needs to become everyone’s problem, tackled by each of us on all possible levels.

BARRY:  Former Superintendent of Public Instruction in California, Delaine Eastin use to tell the story of when she would address audiences of various groups, and, at the outset, ask them:  “How many artists are in the audience today?”  that invariably maybe five or six hands (out of every hundred people) would go up.  Then she would tell them that when she asked a kindergarten class the same question, every hand would go up, every time.  Very young children intuitively know that they are artists.  Yet when she asked the same question in a sixth grade class, only ten or fifteen percent of the hands would go up.  Something happens between kindergarten and the sixth grade to convince kids they aren’t artists (anymore), or that being an artist isn’t ‘cool.”

Why do you think that is and what do you think we can do about it?

AARON:  My sense is that when we are very young and yet untainted by preconceived and false notions of what it means to be an artist, we are free to experience the magic of creating something.  We draw, we sing, we make music and we derive ultimate joy when a parent, a neighbor a teacher reacts with a smile.  There is purity in that immersion in the arts: I see it with our young people at Sphinx, at an introductory level, I see it with my own 6-year-old.  Being an artist is associated with positive reinforcement, a smile, a feeling of accomplishment.  Then we enter a school setting where arts are marginalized or extinct.  We continue through our educational experience where the arts eventually are associated with something unnecessary, non-essential, purist, elitist, extracurricular (with some exceptions, of course).  Part of this is due to costs associated with taking music, dance, art lessons and how from the very beginning, one must be driven and creative as a parent to find a way to cultivate that passion, that aptitude within their child.  It takes a great deal of personal resources, time and persistence.  Then, given that such opportunities are not afforded to many, arts become less and less relevant and present for us through adolescence, high school, college and beyond.  Since such has been the historical precedent, stories like that one you shared have become common (however unfortunate).

BARRY:  Why do you think audiences for the arts have been declining, or do you think that the audiences are actually growing, but that they way audiences now access the art has dramatically changed?

AARON:  Part of the answer to this question is offered above: audiences are participants.  If what is presented on stage is not reflective of myself and the experience that I consider “mine”, if my contact with the arts is non-existent to minimal, I am not likely to participate.  Less than 1% of repertoire performed by American orchestras is by composers of color: I think that statistic alone may shed light on the reasons behind dwindling participation.

BARRY:  In your memoirs you offer one of your “most beloved quotes”:  “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”  Later you say:  “As I review all of the challenges presented to me on the path of launching and building the Sphinx Organization, I can say that I took every obstacle and turned them into opportunities.  One of the core values I have instilled in my team has been the ability to adapt.”  Can you elaborate?

AARON:  First, I do love quotes and often look for insight from great minds for inspiration.  As it relates to one’s ability to adapt, I have always felt that to be essential.  The environment in which we live is ever-changing, the challenges that present themselves can become opportunities, and it is so important to recognize and seize those.  As an example, amidst the economic downturn, Sphinx was about to lose an in-kind host for our summer program, affording full scholarship string training to young aspiring musicians of color.  We were resourceful, we adapted to the change and chose to fully explore options with all of our partners.  As a result, we identified 2 additional in-kind partners, now doubling the student reach through our summer program.

BARRY:  You say in your memoir:
“At this point in my life, Sphinx is more than a full-time job; it is my life’s work.   However, it is important to note that I am certainly a multidimensional human being, a creative and artistic personality.  I actually look at the Sphinx organization itself as my primary artistic instrument, one that requires not just a pragmatic and analytical and organizational approach, but equally, if not more importantly, a creative an artistic one.” 
Do you think arts leaders, administrators, managers, entrepreneurs are artists themselves, or can be in pursuit of their careers behind the scenes?

AARON:  Absolutely, administrators can be creative people and use their medium to express themselves literally through empowering careers of other artists, or, in some instances, be artists themselves.  I continue to perform my spoken word art and write extensively.  A number of wonderful administrators I know, including those on the Sphinx Team are active, accomplished artists, as well.

NOTE:  I asked Aaron several questions that had to do with the NEA and the National Council on the Arts, but given his position on the latter body, he thought it inappropriate to respond to those pointed inquires, and I understand and accept his position.

Thank you very much Aaron.

Have a great week everyone.

Don't Quit