Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, came to the U.S. at the age of 17. She didn’t learn English, her fourth language, until she was 18, speaking her native Russian and the languages of her mother, who was from Azerbaijan, and her dad, who was a Persian Jew from Iran, while growing up.
A professional violinist, she was early in her college career at the University of Michigan when she met Sphinx founder Aaron Dworkin in 1995. She fell in love with the organization’s mission — and him. She joined Sphinx as an intern and never left, moving through its ranks to president when her husband departed.
For the past nine years, Dworkin, 46, has led Sphinx’s work to increase diversity in the classical music field, including a program to build the pipeline of Black and Latinx administrators in the field, a $1.5 million venture fund that’s making investments in similar efforts to build diversity in classical music around the country and more recently, a plan for an undisclosed gift from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.
Dworkin said she sharpened her culinary prowess during the COVID-19 pandemic and cooks at least one new meal every week, which is paired with a custom menu and related poem or trivia contributed by her husband.
Dworkin’s remarks have been edited for space and clarity.
- What kind of impact has Sphinx had in its first 25 years?
The number of youth impacted so far by our programming is 150,000 over 25 years. Not including the early educational programming, we also have more than 1,000 alumni. We’ve invested more than $10 million into artist grants and scholarships to our alumni and members of the Sphinx artists family, and our overall digital imprint, which is about 60 million.
- In the last several years, Sphinx launched a pipeline development program aimed at diversifying the corner office in the classical music field. Where does that stand?
We launched that program four and a half years ago, and it was the first effort that did not focus on music, education or performance. It focused on administrative empowerment. The (John S. and James L.) Knight Foundation found the idea compelling, and they gave us seed money, a $1.5 million pilot grant, to launch what we now refer to as Sphinx LEAD (Leaders in Excellence, Arts and Diversity.) We launched a two-year fellowship program for 20 fellows a year. They get together four times a year for learning retreats, where they learn everything from how to compile or interpret budget documents to how to program a concert, do contract negotiations, public speaking and networking. We pair each leader with a coach, a mentor and ultimately, we help them gain positions in the C-suite level. Fifty people have come through the program. Today, there are six LEAD alumni who occupy C suite positions in major orchestras, conservatories, music schools, who now come back routinely to Sphinx and help co-curate content for our year-round digital curriculum that we deliver online and at Sphinx Connect, the largest and longest standing convening that we run in Detroit. It’s not formally announced yet but will be in the next couple of weeks, Knight has renewed and slightly increased its commitment to the LEAD program. And that’s a great vote of confidence.
- Just before the pandemic, Sphinx created a venture fund. What sorts of investments has it made?
We’ve made a million-and-a-half-dollar commitment to the sector. It’s essentially a re-granting effort, and it’s in place because we know that the systemic sector-wide change that we’re trying to affect cannot be done directly by Sphinx alone. Examples of some successful things that we’ve granted in the last couple of years include a national solo vocal competition that was launched by one of our alumni in partnership with the Manhattan School of Music, a conglomerate of 30 orchestras that partnered together to create commissions by Black and Brown composers and have committed to perform these new works during their main season and a national piano competition launched last year by the Cincinnati Symphony, Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and an African American pianist. The Sphinx Venture Fund is an important effort because it’s trying to encourage people to think big, big systemic change with kind of big high impact and large numbers. So that’s kind of an important area of Sphinx’s programming that I feel positions on much more in the next 25 years as an organization that’s not just doing the work alone, but is working with the entire sector and also serving the field.
- The Sphinx Virtuosi just made its international debut in Sao Paulo, a fitting accomplishment to celebrate your 25th anniversary. Will there be more international performances for Sphinx ensembles?
The hope is absolutely. It’s an objective, and I do foresee us returning abroad and performing not just in South and Central America but also elsewhere abroad and in Europe and hopefully the African continent as well. It’s important and meaningful to the artists because they get to bring their craft, their artistry to the world and because the work they do is synonymous and sort of an extension of Sphinx’s mission, at the core of it being that excellence and diversity are wrapped together.
- How do you feel about what Sphinx has accomplished during its first 25 years, and is there work yet to be done?
Sphinx has grown from a small singular initiative into something that’s a whole conglomerate of programs that spans not just a country but has now been taken global. It’s something that I think is a movement, not a program or an organization. But there is a ton more work to be done. I think our work stops when our stages, our music, our conservatory community schools and corner offices are occupied by a diverse number of leaders. And until such time as that occurs, the work is not done. We’ve still got quite a long way to go. So I see the next 25 years as really doing a lot of advocacy work, tripling and quadrupling down on partnerships so that diversity and inclusion doesn’t just become a thing that Sphinx does and encourages others to do… but it’s now not only showing others how to do it but also working together with large conglomerates of our sector so that we continue to do this work together.
- Sphinx is among the local charities benefiting from an unexpected donation from billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott. Can you share what your plans are for that?
We have elected not to disclose the amount but the gift was used to create the Next Stage Fund, which is designed to invest in a special initiative each year for the next five years to take an element of our work to the next stage or level. Among the first projects is a series of recordings to document, preserve and disseminate music by Black and Latinx composers, performed by our premiere touring ensembles
- You said you improved your culinary prowess during the pandemic. What kind of prowess are we talking about?
My repertoire is expanding in terms of genres and types of culinary techniques that I’ve never tried because of course, I have more time at home. I have learned how to do a whole lot more things with vegetables. And in fact, during the pandemic, I’ve turned entirely vegetarian. … During the pandemic, Aaron and I started a weekly newsletter to share recipes with our friends and family and paired them with a piece of music and also created an online menu for folks. What we still practice even now, at least weekly, is we create a printed menu with a detailed description and a theme for each evening. And then Aaron pairs a piece of poetry or researches a fun fact, trivia that’s associated with a new dish. I feel like it’s still a special time for the two of us every day no matter what. And the other thing is that it’s entertaining and educational.