Sphinx Founder Becomes a Dean

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Sphinx Founder Becomes DeanAs a student at the University of Michigan in 1997, violinist Aaron Dworkin walked into the office of the dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and laid out his vision for a competition dedicated to promoting minorities in classical music.

Eighteen years later, after creating the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization and turning it into a national force for diversity, Dworkin is returning to that same U-M office.

Dworkin, 44, was named dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance for a five-year term effective July 20.

The U-M Board of Regents approved the move Thursday. Dworkin becomes the first African American to lead the school, which is consistently ranked among the country’s leading performing arts programs. He also becomes only the second black leader of a major American music school.

“I wasn’t looking to leave Sphinx,” said Dworkin, the organization’s founding president. “But this job gives me the opportunity to make a difference and have an impact on a broader scale. Schools are at a critical time in thinking about what it means to have a life in the performing arts.”

Dworkin is an out-of-the-box choice, and his race may be the least of it. He comes to the post not as academic or performer. He is an arts entrepreneur and advocate who has been on the front lines of challenging the status quo. He takes over the school at a time of seismic cultural and technological change across the landscape of the performing arts in America.

Old funding models, artistic hierarchies and traditional career paths are breaking down. Audiences are dwindling. University arts-training programs, like the professional fields themselves, have struggled to reinvent themselves to better prepare students for the realities of the 21st Century. In hiring Dworkin, U-M is making a pitch to take on a leadership role.

“Having entrepreneurial skills are critical for students today,” said Dworkin, who won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 for his work with Sphinx. “There are many other paths to an artistically and financially rewarding career in the arts beyond getting a job with a major orchestra, a theater or dance company. The institution needs to explore how we’re helping students develop the skill sets to do that.”

Dworkin declined to discuss specifics — he wants to first meet with faculty and students to gather ideas and build consensus — but he did say he wants to pursue partnerships with other divisions on campus like the business school, as well as with professional organizations beyond the borders of Ann Arbor.

He spoke of business-of-the-arts courses, hands-on internships, diversity, fostering honest conversations between students and faculty about the changing profession and cultivating entrepreneurial skills as a core objective not an afterthought. At the same time, he emphasized that traditional conservatory training also would remain a core value.

“Michigan has and should continue to prepare students for leading orchestras, theaters, dance companies and academic institutions. It’s not about shifting away from that; it’s about additive values.”

As the new dean, Dworkin will oversee a budget of $44 million, a $140-million endowment and more than 200 faculty and staff. He succeeds Christopher Kendall, who is stepping down after 10 years, the current university limit. Kendall will remain at the school as professor of conducting.

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a conductor long committed to reinventing American orchestras, praised Dworkin’s appointment.

Slatkin noted that adjusting to academia is not always easy, but that Dworkin was a quick study and was likely to make his mark swiftly.

“It is hard to know exactly how a university can make changes to a rapidly changing artistic landscape,” Slatkin said. “One sets a curriculum down, then the arts world alters itself again. The key for Aaron is finding that degree of flexibility within the system that will allow him to implement his concepts.”

Read more at the Detroit Free Press.