5 Questions to Afa Dworkin (President & Artistic Director, Sphinx Organization)

Afa Sadykhly Dworkin is the President and Artistic Director of Detroit’s Sphinx Organization. Born in Moscow and raised in Azerbaijan, Dworkin earned undergraduate and Master’s degrees in violin performance at the University of Michigan, and in 2015, she was named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Influencers. Dworkin is married to violinist and social entrepreneur Aaron Dworkin, who founded the Sphinx Organization in 1997 to address the lack of diversity in classical music. In 2017, the Dworkins jointly received the Kennedy Center’s Citizen Artist Award for their work leading and founding the Sphinx Organization.

From January 28-30, 2021, Sphinx will hold its fifth annual SphinxConnect conference and competition, virtually connecting musicians, activists, and arts leaders in diversity. Speakers include radio personalities Garrett McQueen and Terrance McKnight, as well as Ed Yim–formerly of the New York Philharmonic and American Composers Orchestra–who was recently appointed Chief Content Officer and Senior Vice President at WQXR. They will be joined by Deborah Borda, President and CEO of the New York Philharmonic, composer and National Sawdust Co-Founder Paola Prestini, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter, Carnegie Hall’s Director of Artistic Planning, Abhijit Sengupta and its Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson, as well as a host of other distinguished speakers and guests.

SphinxConnect sounds like an extraordinary initiative with the potential to unite incredible artists and thinkers. What connections and outcomes have you seen from previous iterations?

SphinxConnect has been a transformative program that has positioned Sphinx as a leader in the world of DEI for our sector. As a service-to-the-field organization, Sphinx has been able to convene artists, leaders, and allies, and catalyze new initiatives and alliances at SphinxConnect. Drawing nearly 1,000 people annually, the convening has been the epicenter for new ideas, best practices, courageous conversations, and performances showcasing the best of Black and Latinx artists. Partners of pathway initiatives, El Sistema USA, GIA members, and leaders from many sister organizations, along with 80+ orchestras and dozens of conservatory leaders have met and engaged at SphinxConnect, taking lessons and new standards of excellence back to their communities. 

Afa Dworkin delivers the Opening Plenary at SphinxConnect 2020--Photo by Craig Gorkiewicz

Afa Dworkin delivers the Opening Plenary at SphinxConnect 2020–Photo by Craig Gorkiewicz

What was it like for you to come to the United States from Azerbaijan, and how have your experiences shaped your ideas about diversity and inclusion in classical music?

I was profoundly fortunate to be a recipient of excellent musical training  growing up as a young multiracial person in the former Soviet Union. Access to the arts was not limited by one’s ethnicity or zip code, and those lessons shaped my thinking about talent and opportunity here in my adopted country. That foundation has motivated me to work harder to bring quality training and excellence in partnership with our teaching artists to communities like Detroit and Flint, Michigan. 

Fundamentally, my thinking on diversity and inclusion today is an evolution from the early concepts of solidarity, conformity, and unity with which I grew up. The National Association of Schools of Music illustrates that our early music education institutions are as diverse as our communities. The concern is the transition to pre-college phase and beyond. We need to retain, engage, and support our talented young people by working together to ensure that no one is left behind. Enriching the pathway together is the answer, rather than citing an amorphous “pipeline” problem as the reason for our disconnect from our communities as a field. 

From an identity standpoint, American classical music has tremendously rich roots. We all have both a duty and a privilege to study, teach, and share this music, representing the heritage of Black and Latinx voices. This new canon is the future of classical music in America and the key to its reflection and service to the community. Without that reciprocity, we lose something significant. 

What essential conversations about race and other identities are we missing in classical music?

I think that the most critical piece is encapsulated in action. We have the privilege to act for more than ourselves. After centuries of exclusion and neglect, we have every platform and opportunity to engage, uplift, and celebrate. Sphinx has been able to illustrate that talent, pipeline, and readiness are not the reasons why our field isn’t more reflective of our communities. Today, we must recognize that a conversation on race does not mean a diminishment of artistic merit–diversity is, in fact, inseparable from excellence. If we care for our art form to not only survive but thrive, we must make it inclusive. Otherwise, it ceases to become relevant to who we are today as a society.

Afa Dworkin--Photo by Craig Gorkiewicz

Afa Dworkin–Photo by Craig Gorkiewicz

The artistic directors of America’s legacy orchestras and venues are still overwhelmingly white men, and according to a 2016 League of American Orchestras study, African Americans make up just 1.2% of the performers in major American orchestras. How can we achieve greater diversity and meritocratic appointments in institutions that are historically white and male and that were built for white audiences?

Through the National Alliance for Audition Support, we have found an impressive cadre of talented and motivated artists who are serious about their pursuit of orchestral careers. Orchestras will diversify when they are prepared to look at diversity as a priority: by attracting and recruiting a pool of applicants that is at least 25% non-white, by ensuring absolute objectivity in auditions, and by recognizing that today’s artists are also community ambassadors, and as such, should have those skillsets assessed and valued. To do so, orchestras will need to develop or invite new competencies, allocating real resources to evolving their own cultures and approach to diversity. 

SphinxLEAD develops the next generation of leaders of color who can help guide us toward a more inclusive future from administrative seats: orchestras can draw upon this group (whose applicant pool grew by 60% in two years) for forward-looking expertise. We must recognize that our current methods require evolution as they are not rooted in meritocracy: if we want different results, we must act now to employ other methods. It will be uncomfortable, but critically important.

How is the pandemic affecting the work Sphinx is doing in Detroit and across the United States?

Our artists have been silenced worldwide, live concerts canceled and postponed, and our students challenged by a lack of connectivity and resources. It has been an unprecedented era that brought pain, fear, and hardship to our artists. There have also been lessons and opportunities. Sphinx pivoted all of its programs to the digital space, from virtual tour performances to three summer intensives and audition retreats, quadrupling the numbers of artists served and awarding more than $800k in scholarship, career, and relief grants. Our global audiences have grown by nearly 1,000%, and our artists’ resilience has been our inspiration. My main wish for the field is to take these lessons of adaptation and apply them to the changes we feel are essential to make this year in the realm of diversity. 


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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