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The First 100 Days

by Marilou Carlin01/12/2016

Twenty years ago, Aaron Dworkin arrived at the University of Michigan as a junior transfer student from Penn State, intent on getting everything he could out of his final years of study.

"I came to Michigan with a purpose," he said. "Whatever I was going to do with my life, my skill sets were going to evolve here. I decided to utilize any and every opportunity in any way, shape, or form."

Even with that objective in mind, Dworkin couldn't know how transformative his Michigan experience would be. It was here that he launched his career as an arts entrepreneur and diversity advocate, setting him on the path to becoming one of the country's most respected leaders in the performing arts.

Now this musical Wolverine (BA '97, MM '98, violin) has come full circle and is bringing the extraordinary experience he amassed as founder and president of the Sphinx Organization to firmly establish SMTD as the premier performing arts school of the 21st century.

In the first three months of Dworkin's tenure-the all-important "first 100 days," against which leadership dynamism is often measured-a whirlwind of ideas and action quickly became the order of the day. He had clearly been thinking long and hard about the contributions he could make to the School as dean.

Upon arriving in late July, Dworkin announced an ambitious agenda, supported by a well-thought-out strategic plan for making SMTD the most 'relevant' performing arts school in the world. At the heart of this goal is the desire to empower students to engage in rewarding careers in their field of study, something he believes can be achieved by significantly increasing career development capacity at the School while also influencing the performing arts landscape in our culture.

Toward that end, Dworkin has implemented several key initiatives including the EXCEL Program (Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment & Leadership); the Michigan Artist Citizen (MAC) program, to build on SMTD's existing music education collaboration with Ann Arbor Public Schools; a new Department of Chamber Music, to enhance and expand an already vital component of the music program; and M-Prize, an international chamber arts competition with an unprecedented grand prize of $100,000, instantly making the School a game-changer in the genre and a leader in building awareness of and appreciation for chamber arts. (See sidebar, p. xx, for more information on these programs).

In addition, Dworkin is investigating ways to more deeply intertwine and connect the important scholarly work being done at the school with performance. He has also restructured some of the School's top administrative duties to put more focus on career development, community partnerships, and diversity, and he's hired a chief administrative officer, a director of inclusion, and a career services coordinator. And, to insure that the students' burgeoning talent is shared far and wide, he has prioritized the development of video and the online streaming of performances by hiring a full-time videographer/broadcast media specialist.

The changes were implemented to provide the best possible foundation for developing performing artists poised to achieve career success and have a positive influence on the world.

"One of my big hopes is to inspire our students to view their time with a sense of urgency and to soak up as much as we have to offer them," said Dworkin. "We need to provide an intentional environment that supports them in building a personal enterprise around their art form. So when they leave us, they are relevant to their art form and to their community. Because if they're relevant, they'll make a living. Our society provides compensation for what is valued."

Dworkin comes to this belief through personal experience: he founded the Sphinx Organization to address the lack of diversity in classical music, a long-neglected effort that the performing arts world and society at large were eager to embrace. Starting with little more than an idea, he merged his passion, knowledge of the field, and the skills he had gained before landing at U-M to create a groundbreaking and influential organization.

Dworkin jokes that pursuing diversity issues was inevitable given his roots. Born to a white Irish Catholic mother and a black Jehovah's Witness father, he was given up for adoption as an infant to a white Jewish couple, both neuroscientists. "I am the definition of diversity," he used to tell audiences at Sphinx presentations. "I don't have a choice but to do what I do."

Growing up in New York City and then Hershey, Penn., Dworkin took to music early and was a top violinist by the time he attended the Interlochen Center for the Arts during his junior and senior years of high school. To this day, he credits Interlochen with "saving his life," for it was there that he found a sense of community among his artist peers.

Before graduating, however, he convinced himself that making a career of music would spoil the "purity" of his relationship to it. "I was very idealistic," he said, laughing. "We were all finding ourselves. It's so crazy, because now I'm so deeply focused on how to empower our students to make a living from their art!"

Intent on honoring his 'pure' love for music, Dworkin enrolled at Penn State as a business major-a decision he immediately regretted. Feeling lost, he dropped out of college. The next four years took him on a jagged road to his destiny, beginning with a move to Lansing, Mich. where he canvassed door-to-door for an environmental group, an experience that proved pivotal.

"I've never had a job that was harder than canvassing," he said. "It teaches you how to articulate something to a total stranger in a short amount of time, an issue that you feel passionate about. You try to engage them-convince them to do something of significance: sign their name to support some sort of legislation and give you money for it. From my perspective, everyone should spend a summer canvassing."

But Dworkin's music called to him, so he returned to Penn State, where he spent two years as a music major. Financial setbacks drew him back to the canvassing job, however, which led to a job as director for a consumer lobby in Kalamazoo. He then launched two nonprofits of his own before working his way up from mailroom to middle management in a national marketing and sales company. Finally, he obtained a scholarship and enrolled at SMTD, armed with a "swath of real-life experience."

Stephen Shipps, chair of the Department of Strings, was Dworkin's studio teacher. At the audition, he said, it was clear that Dworkin had been away from his music, yet he possessed something indefinable that convinced Shipps to take a chance.

"I heard something, and I was taken in by his personality," said Shipps. "I love to take chances, and I had no idea if it would pan out. But I have never had a student work harder-ever. He was indefatigable."

It was Shipps who introduced Dworkin to black classical composers, which proved to be a lightning rod moment, setting Dworkin on a mission to learn all he could about every black composer who had ever left a mark. "I knew enough to point him in the right direction," said Shipps, "but we got educated together."

It was just a matter of time, then, before Dworkin arrived at Shipps's studio and said "I have an idea I want to talk to you about." It was his vision for Sphinx.

"I gave him a list of reasons why it wouldn't work," said Shipps. "And the next day, he came back and had it all worked out. He is someone for whom there is no possibility of failure; he figures out a way to turn failure into something better than the original plan."

Shipps secured an appointment with Dean Paul Boylan. "It was supposed to be 15 minutes, but it turned into two hours," he said. "Then Paul called Ken Fisher [president of UMS], got him involved, and the rest was history."

The first Sphinx Competition for young black and Latino classical string players was launched while Dworkin was studying for his master's. The organization has since achieved spectacular success, and now has a full spectrum of programs in education and access, artistic development, performing artist presentations, and arts leadership. With fundraising efforts totaling over $35 million and more than $1 million in prizes and scholarships awarded annually, Sphinx is today the world's leading advocate for young people and diversity in the arts. It is now run by Afa Dworkin (BM '97, MM '99), Aaron's wife, previously the organization's executive and artistic director.

"The development of the Sphinx Organization, and the entire trajectory of my life, would not have been possible without the roles played by so many at the School, including Steve Shipps, Paul Boylan, Willis Patterson, Tony Elliot and many others," said Dworkin.

During Sphinx's ascendance, Dworkin earned a stream of honors. He is a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, a former member of the National Arts Policy Committee, President Obama's first appointment to the National Council on the Arts, and Governor Rick Snyder's appointee to the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. He has chaired or sat on the boards of many prestigious arts organizations and has been honored by many more, including the Royal Philharmonic Society, Harvard University, the National Governors Association, and the Curtis Institute of Music, which awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in 2013.

Dworkin could easily have continued at Sphinx, which, he says, is at its apex. But returning to lead his alma mater was irresistible.

"The only reason I left Sphinx was for the opportunity to make a difference here," he said. "I know Sphinx will continue in its work, to make its difference. But I saw that I could literally increase the impact that I could make in our art form, with students, in an institution that I love. I think about all the students who could have their lives built the way mine was by Michigan-that just blows me away."

A firm believer in the idea that innovation is a matter of timing, Dworkin recognizes the fortuitous confluence of the School's current level of excellence and his particular leadership skills in community engagement, fundraising, diversity, and artist empowerment.

SMTD, he says, is already an institution of impeccable standing that took critical steps, under the direction of his predecessor, Christopher Kendall, to reach new heights through facility upgrades (the just completed renovation of the E.V. Moore Building and its new Brehm Pavilion), interdisciplinary studies (such as ArtsEngine), groundbreaking research (the Gershwin Critical Edition), and exceptional faculty hires.

While he will continue to concentrate efforts in these areas-Dworkin is devoted to building state-of-the-art dance facilities and consolidating all SMTD programs and classes on North Campus to enhance cross-disciplinary collaboration-he is also in an excellent position to focus on new goals, chief of which is making SMTD a leader in molding 21st-century artists. Dworkin believes that the future of performing arts hinges on preparing students to succeed in a landscape that has changed drastically in the last 20 years-where reliable employment models of multiple orchestras and large theatre and dance companies no longer exist.

"I think we can help to define some of those changes moving forward," he said. "For me, that's a huge opportunity. All performing arts schools are playing catch-up in the field, but I think Michigan has a great opportunity to lead the field."

past news

November 2012
June 2012
August 2011

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Photography Credits:

U-M Photo Services

Joe Welsh

Peter Smith

David Smith

Glen Behring

Tom Bower