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Classical Music’s Diversity Crisis
Episode 21

Classical Music’s Diversity Crisis

CI to Eye with Afa Dworkin

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Afa discuss the very real structural barriers that limit inclusion, how most American orchestras present works by mostly white men, and why risk-averse leaders must make big changes in staffing and programming to align their organizations with changing demographic realities in order to keep classical music relevant and alive in this country.

Erik Gensler: Welcome to CI to Eye. I’m Erik Gensler. I’m an entrepreneur, an arts marketer, and on a lifelong quest to learn and grow personally and professionally. In this podcast, I interview leaders and thinkers inside and outside of arts marketing to understand how we can grow to be the best we can be. My goal? To see eye to eye. I recently sat down with Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, whose mission is to transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts. Named one of musical America’s top 30 influencers and Detroit Crain’s 40 under 40, Afa is a musical thought leader, driving efforts that promote diversity in classical music.

Afa Dworkin: The time for exploring, as our field loves to say, considering, discussing, writing another white paper, searching for another set of data statistics, you know, marinating as folks say these days, all that’s—the time for that has gone. I would say as much as we dislike metrics and as much as we dislike, um, numbers and what feels like quota, I believe in tangible, quantifiable change. So regardless, without regard of what the level of your position is, you know, I would say make a commitment to inclusion being a priority, even if not the priority, certainly a priority in your work. And then do something.

Erik Gensler: We talked about the very real societal structural barriers that limit inclusion, how most American orchestras present works by mostly white men, and why risk averse leaders must make big changes in staffing and programming to align their organizations with changing demographic realities in order to keep classical music relevant and alive in this country. This was a remote interview and the audio is slightly spotty at times. We apologize for this, but hopefully you can still enjoy this powerful conversation with Afa Dworkin. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

Afa Dworkin: Sure. It’s a pleasure.

Erik Gensler: You were awarded a Kennedy Center award for the human spirit at the spring gala in May of this year. And I saw the year before you went to the White House, and I saw a picture with you and Michelle Obama. That’s amazing. It must feel really good to be recognized for your great work.

Afa Dworkin: It is definitely an honor. Um, both were just incredibly impactful and something that we’ll always, of course, remember. I think in the case of the White House, of course it was momentous not only for myself and some of my colleagues, but very much for the students who had the opportunity to travel to the White House and perform for the First Lady. Um, that’s definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity and it’s certainly a highlight of their entire lives. And it’s just really wonderful to see that kind of grassroots work that we do year round, um, in Detroit, in our home community and elsewhere and nationally too. And it’s wonderful to be able to see that recognized nationally, and in the case of the Kennedy Center, that was absolutely momentous also, but I think it’s fairly recent that they’ve begun to recognize folks they call ‘citizen artists.’ So not just performing artists who do good and contribute to kind of betterment of the society through their art directly, but also through advocacy work and creative programming and really contributing to thought work. Um, and just being able to lead in that way and develop the next generation of our leaders as well. So that was really tremendous for both my husband and I to be there, um, and be recognized.

Erik Gensler: For the last two years, people have caught on and started to pay attention. So for the listeners who may not know about the Sphinx Organization, can you just give us a little background about exactly what it is that you do, and the mission of the organization?

Afa Dworkin: Sphinx is a national organization that’s headquartered in Detroit, but our reach is really global. Our mission is transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. We tackle the lack of inclusion, participation, and diversity in the field of the arts and more specifically classical music through the sense of kind of a pipeline approach from the very early steps of introducing and literally placing instruments in the hands of young people at an elementary school age, all the way through kind of pre-college and then, um, college career, professional, and all the way to artist development throughout all of our programming, reaching approximately 10,000 young people and more than two and a half million in live and broadcast audiences. Sphinx has been around for a couple of decades. In fact, we’re at the very tail end of celebrating our 20th anniversary. And our national tour of the Sphinx Virtuosi, which is our premier ensemble, just came to a conclusion last week.

Erik Gensler: You’re exposing young people to music. Can you provide some examples of, or if you’ve seen any studies or have any anecdotal evidence of, the importance of participation in the arts and music for young people and how that impacts them later in life?

Afa Dworkin: The National Endowment for the Arts has really some wonderful repositories of that kind of literature. Um, and data that’s been assembled over the years by various institutions and individuals working in this space. There’s definitely a very clear correlation between studying and hands-on participation, especially with music and the arts, and areas of development that include discipline, scholastic achievement, and aptitude, and how young people develop, but also quality of life, particularly in underserved communities. The other piece that’s been really rewarding for us: studying music has actually been predisposing many of our students to creative problem solving and creativity and creative thought overall. Um, we find that in the beginning, you know, we just introduced instruments and instrumental studies to young people. They’re rather shy. Um, and they’re still kind of trying to find the exact relevance piece of what happens with an instrument and kind of producing the sound and the diligence that it takes kind of cause consistent practice.

But as they develop, we find that what’s occurring is that they’re really looking forward to their lessons. They’re looking forward to that, um, kind of group activity and the fellowship and the camaraderie that’s built when that kind of communal learning is occurring. But importantly it translates into the rest of their work at school. Uh, they do better with attendance, with retention, they do better with their grades. They find that performing on and studying and pursuing, um, a classical music instrument actually provides them with an avenue that’s an expressive voice and goes beyond their ability to make music, but also goes toward their ability to present themselves to be more confident, and I think more interested in the world around them.

Erik Gensler: We just hear a lot of reports about arts education being cut from schools, and it’s almost become a privilege to have an art class or a music class. So have you found that organizations like yours have been called on to fill the gap from the American education system? And it also very much seems access to these things are tied to some level of economic privilege.

Afa Dworkin: Definitely the case, I would say. I’ve observed that not only with our organization, but with many of our partners in peer institutions. And the only thing I might say is that I’m not sure that we’ve been called upon to fill in a gap, which is quite a tall order, of course, but I think we’ve found a way to do this more so on our own self-initiative because we’ve found through our work that it’s an, it’s an incredibly impactful way to be able to access and contribute to the life quality of young people. And if anything, um, classical music education and overall arts education has been only declining in terms of numbers, uh, particularly so at the elementary, but then also middle school level as well. So we’ve been able to step in and provide something where nothing actually exists, um, in place of it. So it’s both a privilege but also a necessity, very much so. And it’s unfortunate that arts education is something to be eliminated first, and part of what we try to do through our advocacy work and through that commitment is not only the exposure but really the excellence piece. We’re trying to illustrate that we cannot afford as a community, as a nation, to make it extra-curricular. That arts education as an aspect of a young person’s development is absolutely essential and foremost—in the way that social sciences are, in a way that math and reading would be. So we’re trying to very much step in and provide something where nothing exists, but I should make it clear that we’re nowhere near being able to truly fulfill the need that’s out there.

Erik Gensler: Definitely. I read a report, stepping a bit away from the education piece of it, from the League of American Orchestras that said just over 4% of our musicians are African-American and Latino. And when it comes to orchestra boards and CEOs, the numbers are even starker: only 1%. And I think diversity is a rare sight among guest soloists. And why is this?
Afa Dworkin: Pretty complicated question. We’re lucky that the League assembles that kind of data. And you’re right that on the administrative side, that ultimate leadership, not only executive leadership, but really with artistic administration as well as even community engagement and director of education—all of those numbers are quite a bit small. None of that gets beyond three or 4% in terms of representation and really, with the executive directors with artistic administrators, statistically 0%. So very, very small numbers. And ultimately there are of course a myriad of very complex reasons that contribute to this as an issue that we all should own as a community, but also as a field. Some of it has to do with the fact that it is really a privilege to have access to classical music as a domain or as a part of one’s development.

And it has to do with economic privilege, access to quality training, because of course that overall is expensive. And it’s also a huge time commitment and an investment on behalf of parents, many of whom simply can’t do that. The fact that it’s absent from schools is a really huge issue. And the other piece, of course, is that even though we’ve made some progress, marginal as it might be, over the course of the last few decades or the last two decades… Certainly still there is this implicit bias that exists amongst those who are decision makers. And really that false commitment to excellence where there’s this myth that gets perpetuated that if we get more diverse, that we’re somehow sacrificing our commitment to excellence and that artistic merit, and nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s absolutely myth and fantastical thinking. Every year, Sphinx assembles the Sphinx Symphony, which is an all Black and Latino professional orchestra that comes together to perform, to mentor, and really help develop our next generation of young artists.

And not only do we have absolutely no trouble filling the roster, there’s usually kind of a very complex and a sensitive process to have to turn down perfectly qualified musicians who were ready to come in and teach and give back and participate, but just due to economics and numbers, it’s not possible. So in other words, there’s a plethora of well qualified, well prepared musicians of color who would absolutely only better the quality of what we’re able to produce on stage. Not only in terms of orchestral players, orchestral music, but also in the field of chamber music in terms of pedagogy and otherwise. But one of the things that we’re finding with our young musicians, especially, is that they’re certainly well poised, well qualified, but there is a decline in the desire to join these collectives, such as orchestras, and to remain—kind of for the majority of their career—to remain the only one. It’s a very alienating experience. It’s certainly another very welcoming proposition. So as a result, folks look for alternative ways to build a career, many times turning to kind of an entrepreneurial approach, combining various aspects of what they can do as artists and as citizens and turning away from these traditional careers, because they feel that the climate, frankly, isn’t very welcoming. It’s not very empathetic and not very understanding.

Erik Gensler: When we spoke last, you mentioned the number of nonwhite musicians or people of color in some of the major orchestras. And I was really astounded by those numbers.

Afa Dworkin: I think, as you were reading with the League’s data, we’ve got 4.4% of blacks and Latinos combined, of course, with Latinos now growing tremendously, probably comprising now nationally 18% and with African Americans, of course, being the other predominant group. And the numbers are very similar in academia. And what’s really unfortunate is that we see the numbers declining as we observe and study kind of the participation throughout the pipeline. So the numbers in youth orchestras are higher than they are in undergraduate studies. The numbers in undergraduate psych studies are higher than advanced degrees. And then once we get to the actual professional level of participation, then we’re at this low number. And I think if we had to summarize very simplistically, we would have to say that systemically this field has not embraced lack of inclusion and lack of diversity as our priority problem. If we had, we would have had this progress be not marginal, but really substantive. Because you know, we can kind of observe some of the similar issues, although they’re slightly unrelated, with the lack of diversity of gender historically in our field overall.
And of course, Europe still struggles with it quite a bit more. Um, we’ve made quite a bit of progress here in the States, but you know, that did not start until the seventies. It’s unlikely that sometime in the seventies, the field woke up and the women somehow overnight became better orchestral players. Highly unlikely, but the system changed to essentially make way and not only permit women to enter orchestral ranks, but also encourage and create opportunities where they would be given specifically to women to address this stark issue of lack of representation. Now, that kind of thing has not yet occurred, for musicians of color. And it would take a very drastic systemic change in terms of early access, then real commitment to the rigor that is necessary throughout their schooling, and then really cultivating that desire and commitment to earn a spot in an orchestra.

And that takes not only resources and time, but really a great deal of mentorship. And currently these systems only exist very sporadically and episodically and not at all systemically, which is why, because there’s that kind of a lack of follow through. We don’t see a notable change yet in our numbers. Believe one thing that happened in the seventies was this turn to blind auditions. Can you talk a bit about that? Yeah, so essentially in the seventies, um, there was a reform in the audition process and that all auditions for orchestral for professional orchestras would occur behind a screen. So as to disguise or eliminate the factor of knowing which gender this is, and everyone would sort of have, you know, um, allegedly, uh, a level playing field and it has made a difference, I would say in representation of women in orchestras, I think that’s pretty apparent really across the board, both with smaller and regional orchestras, but also major orchestras have seen quite a bit of an increase, um, which is really great.
Whenever someone asks me, why didn’t that make a real difference, not a tremendous difference for black and Latino musicians, because I think these are suffered problems. Women did not really have lesser access to music education, not in terms of differentiation by gender, that there may be other factors that would have implicitly discriminated or provided less opportunities. There’s certainly that, but, but these are not kind of comparable values because still what we’re not addressing is access for blacks and Latinos to early training. Um, and then that sort of, you know, the commitment to mentorship and to developing these young people. And since there’s a lack of systemic inclusion at every level, then by the time we get to a level of auditioning for orchestras there are all these factors that have already contributed to that alienation and lack of desire and sometimes readiness to audition for professional orchestras. So if we, if we care to equalize it, you know, it would be next to impossible because of course our societal problems with historical discrimination and lack of equity, um, unfortunately don’t compare.

Erik Gensler: It is staggering that it took blind auditions too, apart from the other issue, not necessarily a gender issue, but the issue of race and all those systemic prompts you’re talking about, but just to take the blind auditions and what it did for women in the field, it really is staggering. And I don’t know if you have any of those statistics at hand, but how it really increased, um, women moving further along the path to getting a job and how biased these people in a seemingly, you know, evolve place and field who are professional musicians are still have this massive level of implicit bias or maybe explicit bias.

Afa Dworkin: Yeah, it’s, it’s tough to, to kind of label whether a bias is explicit or implicit, but there’s presence of both. Um, certainly not difficult to observe, not just intuitive, but very, very apparent. In other words, when something as drastic as a blind audition, which in theory, you know, from an independent perspective probably sounds highly ridiculous because the idea that we would choose a living, breathing leader, human being, um, someone who had contributed to kind of the health of a collective, which is an orchestra, um, and we’re, this is essentially creating a family of cohort of musicians who had spent so much time together creating music, sharing it, engaging with the community, developing the next generation of listeners and participants. The idea that we would elect to ask them for a snippet of their artistry behind the screen, just so that we can actually be objective, you know, probably no other field does this, that I’ve heard of.

Certainly, you know, the idea that we would, that that’s the kind of leadership and, and, and those are the kinds of conditions we have to place upon ourselves to try to be objective, um, is, is, it’s certainly disappointing, but that’s what a talk, but I think I’m also an internal optimist and I looked at it and say, while that seems almost draconic and unrealistic, but what it does show is that drastic, systemic, intentional change can bring about impact and results. It’s really high time and much overdue to do the same for, um, cultural inclusion and ethnic diversity. Because I think I strongly believe that unless our field not just work stress, but our field overload overall, unless it finds a way to make itself relevant, it’s not going to survive. And it certainly is not likely to thrive, um, live a Fastly fast changing world that we have around us and all these incredible distractions and already classical music audiences, very much changing and dwindling. Um, I think we do have to concern ourselves with relevance to the next generation, not only of listeners and participants,

Erik Gensler: We’re living in a country that is increasingly becoming more and more diverse. And to me, the lack of diversity within orchestras across the country is going to be a real problem for audience development, because I think people want to see people that look like them on stage. And if you’re only presenting, um, an all white group of musicians that lack diversity, I think it’s really going to cause problems with audience development. I’m wondering if you’ve seen that already, or if there’s any evidence of that or your thoughts on that?

Afa Dworkin: I think it’s one of the things that we’ve been able to see, and that creates certainly a great deal of concern for longevity and ability of our field to survive is that it lacks relevance. We’re already seeing that our audiences are dwindling and certainly traditional patrons of classical music are leaving it for natural reasons. But what we haven’t done as a field is we haven’t looked at it to say, how are we developing the next generation of not only audiences, but participants and stakeholders and how are we going to be relevant if we’re not inclusive and representative? I think it’s absolutely true that folks want to see themselves represented on stage, which isn’t possible in some ways, if those behind the curtain and those behind the scenes are also not representative. So in other words, it’s everything it’s sort of permeating and self perpetuating in many ways, because we don’t have leadership with that acumen, and we don’t have leadership with either an ability to see that important connection between the community and we do on stage. It’s very difficult to imagine that unless you come from that community or have that specific perspective, the big worry is that it’s not just audiences, but also participants who aren’t going to be reflective. And the minute that we’re not reflective, we’re not relevant. And the minute we’re not relevant, we cease to exist. Um, so it’s, what’s really urgent now is to be able to see inclusion and diversity as a very necessary ingredient in the recipe to survival. And that unfortunately has not yet occurred.

Erik Gensler: I think it’s also about programming and preparing for this interview. I read some articles and I saw an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that you might’ve seen. It was from March of this year. And they looked at the 2017 and 2018 season for major symphonies. And from September through June, the orchestra is going to present more than 200 concerts with music by more than 50 composers. And only one of them is a woman all the rest without exception are white men. And that symphony wasn’t an outlier in the research that this journalist did. And he talked to, I guess, this guy, Brian, um, Laurenson, who’s a broadcaster with the LA classical music station KUSC, and he’s been tracking gender breakdowns of composers represented on the upcoming season schedules of lots of American orchestras and opera companies. And, um, the picture, uh, his numbers paint, isn’t pretty at all. And he found that most of the major orchestras across the country are planning, you know, all male or almost all male seasons. So my question for you is, are there organizations that are doing that better, that are making progress there?

Afa Dworkin: So it’s tough to say because besides gender representation, we also have the most recent formal statistic from the League of American Orchestras that says that essentially American orchestras perform less than 1% and have works during their entire season as representative by composers of color. Um, and that’s, unfortunately, that statistic has remained stagnant, um, for a number of years. So we’ve got a long way to go. I mean, even if we wanted to say that we want 1% to become our first benchmark, then a growth, you know, even that hasn’t been achieved. So I would say no, there aren’t organizations. I can’t think of organizations who do that specifically better. One of the big problems is that someone has to, you know, and it does need to be a major orchestra. This is a field of force. It does need to be the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia orchestra or another, you know, kind of one of the top five orchestras.

And eventually if five or 10 of them do it, the field will follow. We’re very much a field of folks who look upon kind of great examples of what is proven and what is not likely to fail and in a world of kind of risks and lack of predictability with some of these elements and where understandably, a lot of orchestras are looking at survival and wondering how to sustain themselves and look ahead for a long range planning. But repertoire will matter very much. I would say, I don’t know of an orchestra that has made that leap, um, to really set true examples. Um, and it’s very much overdue.

Erik Gensler: So you’ve talked about the challenges, young musicians to get access. We talked about lack of, um, diversity within the administration of orchestras. We talked about the lack of diversity within the programming. We talked about some steps being made within the auditioning process, but lots of work to be done there. So I’d like to play a game here and let’s just pretend you can wave a magic wand and change three things that perhaps could lead to helping with some of these problems. What would those three things be?

Afa Dworkin: Huh. Great. I like that game. I would say first, first and foremost, I might say the actual audition process I’d want to see that reform. I’d want to see that reflective of our actual goals of diversifying. So I’d want us as a field to come together and decide first that what we do right now, isn’t working, um, and it is outdated and is irrelevant. And I’d love for us to figure out a way to identify, nurture and audition musicians of color in a manner that’s going to be authentic, effective, supportive, and ultimately impactful. Um, I’d love to see that paradigm change in terms of leadership. I would love to see leaders of color take on the reins of artistic administration, community engagement, executive directorship, you know, and, and leading on boards of various orchestras where there’s that governance and leadership from that ultimate perspective. And I’d love to see programming change as well. I want to see, you know, a third of the program being representative of composers of color, women composers, you know, in accordance to the kind of each community and tailoring the work in a way that’s going to be relevant. Um, I’d love to see that reflective. I want to see orchestras reflect those. They’re supposed to serve.

Erik Gensler: That’s a great answer and taking a step a little bit closer towards the ground. It’s great to flex our imagination for a second, but the listeners of those podcasts are mostly arts administrators working in arts organizations. And if you can give them some advice, um, you know, how could organizations start working to combat this?

Afa Dworkin: Whether you’re a young administrator or someone who has been in this business for, um, for decades like I have, I would say, do something the time for, you know, exploring as our field loves to say, you know, considering discussing, writing another white paper, searching for another set of data statistics, you know, marinating as folks say these days, all of that’s the time for that has gone. I would say as much as we dislike metrics and as much as we dislike, um, numbers and what feels like quota, I believe in tangible quantifiable change. So regardless of what the level of your position is, you know, I would say make a commitment to inclusion, being a priority, even if not the priority, certainly a priority in your work, and then do something. If you’ve got the power to program things, program a work by a composer of color by a woman, if you’re teaching well, that’s great.

You know, there’s this incredible, um, incredible literature and repertoire and volumes of music that, um, that are available that would just incredibly expand the repertoire of any student. And every time there’s an opportunity, I would teach work by a composer of color. Um, if you have any power to kind of Institute anything in the, in the early educational preparatory programs seek out young kids who, you know, whose lives can be touched by what we provide through music education and invest from that early age and do it well, and do it consistently. And with dedication, I would say just the overall message is to act now.

Erik Gensler: Have you felt like you’ve been given a lot of opportunities at major industry conferences and the ability to talk to some of these leaders and share some of these, you know, all of these statistics and, and wonderful ideas, um, is it that people just are not there? They’re just not thinking about it. Like for example, I know, you know, we do an annual conference, a digital marketing boot camp for the arts. Every October, I’m really working hard to get great speakers. And one year we programmed the conference and I got a comment on Twitter that it was mostly white men speaking, and that opened my eyes to that issue. And then I’ve really tried to more explicitly be thoughtful about having more women represented this year at bootcamp. We had more women speakers than men. Um, but we didn’t have a very diverse group.

So now, and, and that was very clear to me. And now I’m working on that for next year. So I feel like first you have to, you know, be made aware of that as an issue. Cause you’re, there’s so many factors at play, um, from just getting the work done and, and, and all the other things you’re trying to do. So I’m just curious. Do you think that a lot of these decision makers in positions just haven’t heard this, or do you think they’re just not, I don’t want to say taken seriously or pointing any fingers, but curious what your thoughts are on that?

Afa Dworkin: Yeah, that’s a great question. I will say with gratitude that I’ve been offered exceedingly more opportunities to speak on behalf of, um, not only Sphinx but also our mission and a greater vision for what we’re hoping to do. So that’s been a privilege and it’s been wonderful to be able to at least build awareness and drum up the importance of inclusion within our field. Ultimately, why I think, and I can’t say that nothing has changed. I would say the volume at which we’re speaking about inclusion has changed. There are, um, a good number of certainly orchestras and music schools who are consciously raising their hand and doing something. I’m not saying we’re doing everything great, but we are trying whether that’s fellowships. And I know they have mixed reviews or, um, special scholarship opportunities among music schools. I would say there has definitely been a momentum that’s been created.

And, uh, I’m, I’m very heartened to see that now why ultimately we haven’t systemically brought that to scale. I have a very unpopular opinion on this. Um, unfortunately, and that is that as human beings, we don’t tend to change things drastically or dramatically unless something’s at stake. Well, nothing is at stake at the moment. We can show incremental change. We can illustrate effort and generally speak in a manner that shows our funders and our constituents that we care. But ultimately if we are not held to specific standards and results, and if nothing is revolved, say, you know, major funding from larger institutions who are funded habitually to do the work that they do without being accountable for diversity and inclusion. So to me that wouldn’t be the game changer. That would be the paradigm. For example, if the philanthropic community got together, say, you know, three or five major foundations, even just to start with and said, we found you, one of the parameters is inclusion.

If we don’t see notable change that we all agree upon and say is measurable and, and definitely achievable, or that you say you aspire to do, you know, we are not going to continue to refund you because it’s an irresponsible use of resources. And I bet you, the minute that happens, we’re going to create some systemic change. That’s going to be brought to scale. I kind of need help from the leadership of philanthropic communities to say, it’s time for accountability, not in awards, but like systemic accountability. Yes. And if we’re not held to it, and if we’re not delivering, then you know, there needs to be a consequence that is related to resources because resources are limited.

Erik Gensler: Definitely. Do you feel like the funding community is aware of this? Do you feel like they’re having these conversations, the people who are really decision makers within these large foundations, are they have, have they been exposed to these types of conversations?

Afa Dworkin: I think increasingly so, um, certainly there are major foundations. Who’ve been doing the work and supporting this in these inclusion efforts, uh, longer than I’ve been in the business. And I, and then, uh, definitely credit them by saying there’s been enough of an interest on their behalf to know about this and understand that it’s an issue. Um, you know, I think by and large, nothing has been done publicly, but at the very least, I think we’re all collectively aware. It’s a really big problem that hasn’t really moved the needle in the way that matters.

Erik Gensler: I mean, on my side of the business, we’re arts marketers, and it’s so much about ticket sales. And I remember ever since I read that statistic about the white male composers in these orchestras, it just seems, I mean, I know change is hard. If you look at the demographics in this country and how they’re changing, and then you, you put that up against the kind of programming you’re doing. It almost, it’s like a no brainer, but I’m in… it’s 2017. And I think, I think the larger political climate is making these kinds of things. At least in my mind, more urgently, I’m becoming much more aware of the systemic racism and fear of, of, of strong women. And, you know, we’re in this moment where this is illustrated in the news every day. So you think this would bolster organizations to take action.

Afa Dworkin: It’s a very cyclical sort of a problem. The one thing that does make a difference is that, you know, we are talking about it and the field is aware and I’ve certainly had more leadership from schools and orchestras reach out, asking what folks can do. And, um, I think certainly there’s a good deal of variability about them following that. Um, but there’s, there’s these definite realities, some of which we just tend to combat alone and can only do collectively as a group. And I think now’s the time when everyone needs to assume, in my opinion, a greater degree of leadership and decision making ability. And by that, I mean, is that, um, you know, we all have limitations. And I think one of the core things I’ve noticed is that as a field, we tend to collectively say or implicitly say, unless I can make a difference at this level, or unless I can have, you know, a grant of this size to launch a program, or unless I can bring it to scale here, or, you know, just have this much money to get into something it’s not worth doing.

And I’m saying we can no longer afford that exactly in this climate is the time that we need to find a way, um, to mobilize and empower our young people and exactly in this climate is when we find ways in which we can be the same rather than different. And that takes different kinds of leadership and just more of it. And I think, um, in some ways, one can look at it as a time of empowerment because every one of us in every different position can do something. Um, and eventually those consents concentric circles, I think bring us to the greater good overall,

Erik Gensler: Do you have any resources to share for listeners who really care about this topic?

Afa Dworkin: Relative to audience statistics, for example, and how the demographics of the country will have a corollary effect on that? One of the greatest places to go would be the national endowment for the arts, um, and just reach out to their research and learning development and learn more on that.
The league of American extras now has a whole resource page. It’s dedicated to diversity and inclusion in various facets. So it’s a great place to go. Um, some of it will link to the things that we do certainly stinks, um, you know, is dedicated, has dedicated his fork over the past 20 years toward diversity and inclusion. We have assembled a good number of data on, um, on repertoire. Certainly have a database of musicians, of color, of various levels of development. And now a network of more than 600 alumni. Another thing to note to said, there’s a wonderful organization. That’s just maybe a little bit older than Spanx. Um, and that’s the gateways festival and out in Rochester, New York, um, that’s dedicated to preserving and empowering and perpetuating the black experience in classical music. And they do have a wonderful biannual festival that attracts some of the greatest talent across the field and instrument categories.

Erik Gensler: So pointing out some rather disappointing statistics. I’m curious if you have any specific examples of where positive changes occurring,

Afa Dworkin: I’m still optimistic because we’re talking about it. And we always say things like, um, you know, change just slowly coming at the same time who look kind of at a more granular level. We can say we’ve seen some wonderful indications, indications or indicators of possible success and hopeful success. You know, certainly, you know, prior to sphinxes work 20 years ago, it’d be unheard of to think of, or see a, um, a young virtual, so of color performing as a soloist with an orchestra. And today it occurs more than 20 or 25 times each year through our soloist program. That’s 20 or 25 orchestras who work with us on an annual basis, you know, to provide that opportunity really for the young talent. Um, so that’s really exciting.

You would’ve been able to award one of them, $4 million in scholarships and artist’s grants to generations of up and coming musicians of color who either perform or teach or lead an extraordinary way. Um, so it’s, it’s directing resources toward that, that very kind of family of musicians who very much need and deserve it and need that kind of empowerment and support. And overall, I think, um, what we can say is that we now have a relationship with every major music school or conservatory in the country with approximately 20 or 25 orchestras as well. And, um, the other piece is that awareness about this work and inclusion, um, has gone, um, beyond even our own shores and that we certainly have about 10 or 20 alumni who live and work and do this kind of work in an advocating for inclusion and the importance of diversity even abroad, um, really ranging from South and central America to Europe and, um, and beyond.

And I think that’s really important because the more we talk about it, the more we show through action and programming that there is excellence and that there is this widespread recognition of this being a priority. And the more we kind of continue to illustrate through, again, through action that, um, that this, these kinds of goals are within reach. Our chamber orchestra, our premier ensembles, Sphinx Virtuosi, that travels around the country has reached more than a hundred thousand people through their own concerts and their outreach, um, you know, in 77 countries communities across the country. So I would say those are all kinds of indicators of not only success, but probably most importantly hope that change is possible.

Erik Gensler: I’d love to turn the conversation to you in your growth as a leader in doing this work. I’m curious, what’s something that you’ve learned in the last year or so that’s been profound and how you work or think,

Afa Dworkin: Well, it’s a constant learning process I would say. And for me, one of the things that I think I’ve come to become more comfortable with is, or actually a couple of things. I would say that persistence, the importance of persistence does not seem to fade. And even when it feels like, um, something is futile and really I’m not getting through, I’m not able to get where I need to go and convince whoever I’m communicating with that. This is really important, um, that it really pays off to the stick-to-it-iveness piece, really pays off.

Erik Gensler: What’s something you think you’re really great at. And what’s one thing you’re working on to improve.

Afa Dworkin: That’s tough. I don’t know what grade I’m working. I’m always, I’m always working on listening and understanding more. That’s a piece. I think that’s sort of a constant for me. Um, because many times I think as busy folks, we just, we do things because we, we think we have it all figured out and we’re proficiency and RevPro kind of getting it done.

But a lot of times in that kind of pursuit, we may miss things by not soliciting that feedback by not inviting an expertise that’s different than ours and sometimes oppositional. Um, so I think that’s a piece I’m still, for me, that’s a piece that continues, continues to be an area of need and desire for me. I didn’t know some other things might come easier for me, and that could be some of that stuff could be programming because I, that’s kind of a, the passionate piece of what I do even I’m involved in various aspects of what Spanx does and really all aspects of its things, but something that I enjoy greatly and have done from the very beginning is the actual repertoire mapping and programming and finding, um, works that might be less known by composers who deserve to be heard, but maybe aren’t yet. Um, so that’s definitely an outlet and something that I’ve done for a while. And definitely, um, that feels like a wheelhouse, even though there’s a lot to learn there as well.

Erik Gensler: You talked about leaders being open to opposing points of view and seeking opposing points of view. And I’m reading this book called persuadable, which argues that traditional leadership is this idea of the steadfast leader who has a clear vision and stops at nothing to push their agenda through. But in this book, they argue that the best leaders are actually ones that, um, are persuadable. So by opening your mind to being more open and opening your mind to, uh, points of view that are different from yours, ultimately you’re going to end up with the best decision. And I think that’s a really modern and important way to look at leadership. And perhaps one that really ties into the mission of what you’re doing.

Afa Dworkin: The only thing I think is really essential and something, no one can give you is dedication to just stay with it. But otherwise, absolutely one has to be able to be persuaded and supported and, you know, and potentially not only, I think it’s important to have the ultimate goal in mind, but in terms of how you get there and whether they’re actually maybe a little bit different, I think it’s almost a necessity. There’s no real way to, um, to work at it. And part of it is just the, what we’re doing. We have to all understand that what we’re doing here in this space, um, has to be different. So leadership has to be different simply because what we’ve done in the past doesn’t quite happen, so if we want different results, we know we have to get there differently.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Where do you look for inspiration?

Afa Dworkin: Well, lots of different places. One of the things is that I’m also in addition to being pretty dedicated to Sphinx. I’m also, um, a pretty dedicated mom. So I, I look at my, um, my family, um, my two funds and my husband, who’s a partner in life and really in everything that I do, I look for, um, that kind of familial bonds and again, learning from them as well for inspiration and spending time together, doing the things that we love to do. Um, I also love to, um, for me, kind of a boost of inspiration is always going out and hearing great music and seeing great art, having just finished the tour of the Sphinx virtuosi, even though I couldn’t possibly be at every concert. I think that was a good dose of inspiration because I heard music making at the highest level. And that’s always fantastic.

And now of course, we’re turning our attention to the Sphinx competition, which is our annual competition. We do here in Detroit. And we’re about to hear, um, you know, kind of two separate generations, the juniors and the senior division of artists who will bring their artistry to Detroit. And that’s always my favorite time of year because of the kinds of the kinds of talent we see and the kinds of lives we’re fortunate to touch. I mean, I think it’s sort of a self perpetuating mechanism for inspiration, and I’m just, I’m grateful that I get to do the kind of work from which I get to derive that inspiration.

Erik Gensler: I was at the national arts marketing project conference in Memphis this last weekend? And I actually tweeted this quote and it was really meaningful. Artists can do the work that politicians can’t do. And so having, you know, the power of art by which to bring this change is incredibly powerful. So the last question is what we call your see eye to eye moment. And the question is if you can, um, broadcast directly to the executive directors, leadership teams and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Afa Dworkin: If it was the singular advice, I’d say don’t be afraid of change. Um, that would be, that would be most important. I’ve come to realize or make provisional peace with myself by thinking that most leaders I encounter are well nature, all intentioned. And they really do mean well. And I think they’d like to see change in this area of work that I really care about. Um, I think the only thing that really truly holds us back is all of the considerations that we make for the fears we have for change that we can’t quite predict, measure or know about. Um, I think we’re all a little too careful and I would say we’ll do it together. And, and certainly, you know, I think that camaraderie and that sense of community and commitment to a process is great, but I think the time to fear change is just gone, but now’s a great time to totally shift the paradigm and lead. And if enough of us do the rest will follow.

Erik Gensler: I love that. Thank you so much.

Afa Dworkin: Absolutely. Thank you for the opportunity.

Erik Gensler: Did you enjoy the podcast, please join capacity interactive on email and on Facebook. So you can be the first to know when we release new episodes, you’ll also get content all about digital marketing for the arts, and you’ll be the first to know about our webinars workshops and our annual digital marketing bootcamp. Thanks for listening.

Erik Gensler: If you’re enjoying CI to Eye, please share it with a colleague. I also invite you to please rate and comment on iTunes, which helps us get discovered. We love hearing from you on Twitter, Facebook, or the contact form on the capacity interactive website. Please don’t be shy and thank you so much for listening.

About Our Guests
Afa Dworkin
Afa Dworkin
President & Artistic Director, Sphinx Organization

Afa Dworkin is the President and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization, whose mission is to transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts.

Read more

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