Black History: Dworkin turbo-charges UM arts school

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Dean Aaron Dworkin: “I don’t believe opportunities in the performing arts are dramatically decreasing; they’re just changing.”

Aaron Dworkin is a man in a hurry.

Deans at the University of Michigan are limited to a maximum of 10 years, explains the new dean of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

“You get two five-year terms, so I don’t believe I have the luxury of time,” says Dworkin, who also was President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts. “I feel a real sense of urgency.”

Small surprise that he hit the ground running. Consider what the 2005 MacArthur “genius grant” winner checked off in just his first seven months:

The 45-year-old founder of Detroit’s famed Sphinx Organization created a new Department of Chamber Music, launched EXCEL, a school-wide program to burnish students’ entrepreneurial skills, established a new Director of Inclusion to boost minority enrollment, and ramped up involvement with the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

And in perhaps his most startling initiative, Dworkin announced a new international chamber-music competition, the M-Prize, that will be held on campus every May with a cash prize of $100,000.

“In his first two weeks on the job,” says an amused Professor Stephen Shipps, who heads the school’s Department of Strings and taught Dworkin when he was an undergraduate and graduate student, “Aaron raised money for this huge new chamber competition — the most lucrative in the world.”

Shipps sees the same qualities he spotted back then. “I never had a student work harder,” he says.

Funding to support M-Prize, says Dworkin, is all “new money,” contributed by the Provost’s office and an anonymous donor. “No current school resources were used,” he adds.

Students appear to be picking up on the new energy emanating from the dean’s office.

“The vibe seems good,” says Katie Stephen, a first-year master’s candidate in trumpet. “He seems like a really down-to-earth guy.”

Making no small plans, Dworkin’s ambition is to ensure that the School of Music, Theatre and Dance is both the nation’s premier performing-arts training ground and, in one of his favorite terms, the most “relevant.”

He wants to boost minority enrollment, and says he hopes his presence will help.

“I’m only the second African-American dean among the top 10 performing arts schools in the U.S.,” he says. The first, he adds, was Toni-Marie Montgomery at Northwestern University, “who’s just fabulous.”

He envisions a school that works overtime to equip students with the creativity and personal resourcefulness they’ll need to thrive in a fast-changing jobs environment.

“I want to make sure we prepare them for jobs that do exist,” Dworkin says, “and for the new jobs that will exist by the time they graduate. I don’t believe opportunities in the performing arts are dramatically decreasing; they’re just changing.”

The dean himself, of course, is a case study in creating one’s own opportunities.

While in graduate school, Dworkin was struck by the need to get more kids of color like himself performing classical music — which he says basically saved his life.

That brainstorm grew into the Sphinx Organization, today a $4.4 million a year operation that’s helped propel tens of thousands of young black and Latino students into classical music, many of whom have found careers there. (U-M violin Professor Danielle Belen was the 2008 Sphinx Competition winner.)

Violinist Maria Sanderson took home the $10,000 top prize in the 2016 Sphinx Competition’s Junior Division.

“Aaron came to me with the Sphinx idea,” Shipps recalls, “and it was quite amazing.” But Shipps played devil’s advocate, poking holes in the plan and pointing out weaknesses.

“Aaron came back 24 hours later,” he says, “and he’d worked out all those problems — how to raise money, how to market it, and so on.”

So Shipps made an appointment for the two of them with the dean at the time, Paul Boylan.

“Paul listened for a long time and was taken,” Shipps recall. “So he called Ken Fischer at University Musical Society, and that was the group that helped put things together.”

When Dworkin came back to his professor months later with a $10,000 personal check from James Wolfensohn, at the time the head of the World Bank, Shipps knew his student was well on his way.

“Wolfensohn was a cellist,” Dworkin says. “I wrote him out of the blue.” He smiles. “I wrote a lot of people out of the blue. “Most everyone else said no.”

Cellist Thomas Mesa won $50,000 as the senior division winner at the 2016 Sphinx Competition.

The first Sphinx Competition was held in Hill Auditorium in 1998. (The 17th annual competition just concluded Sunday at Orchestra Hall.)

Stepping away from his creation was hard, Dworkin says. “Obviously I love Sphinx,” he says. “It’s been my life. But I knew it could continue on without me.”

The current president and artistic director is Dworkin’s wife, Afa, who’s been with the organization since 1999. Her husband’s opportunity at Michigan, she says, came along at just the right moment.

“Sphinx has now developed a brand that’s gone beyond its founder,” Afa says, “and that’s one of the greatest accomplishments any founder can claim.”

She’d never thought of her husband as a prospective academic, but now she calls it a great match.

“Aaron has a real knack for taking a complex problem and distilling it to something simple on which he can act,” Afa says. “It’s a rare trait, and a real asset in the academic world.”

Another asset is Dworkin’s famously genial personality.

“As I told the faculty when I came in,” he says, “we need to be having fun. Because if Music, Theatre and Dance aren’t having fun, we have a problem.”

Aaron Dworkin

Job: Dean, School of Music, Theatre and Dance, University of Michigan

Previous job: Founder and president, Detroit’s Sphinx Organization

Honors: 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellow; President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts

Education: Bachelor’s degree in music (1997) and master’s degree in music in violin (1998), both at University of Michigan

Family: Wife, Afa; sons Noah, 15, and Amani, 7.