Violinist and Social Entrepreneur Aaron Dworkin

Working for inclusion, diversity and excellence in classical music
A man laghigng.

Photo by Dwight Cendrowski.


Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Aaron Dworkin: When we know, unfortunately still, less than one percent of all of the works performed by all American orchestras are by any composer of color, every single audience member-- white, black, Native American, Asian, whatever it might be-- are done a disservice, because they now are prevented from experiencing the music, the artistic creations, that reflect those cultures, those stories. We are all robbed of the artistry that could otherwise impact our lives.


Jo Reed: That is violinist, social entrepreneur, professor, author, MacArthur Fellow and member of the National Council on the Arts, Aaron Dworkin. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. As you heard, Aaron Dworkin is a man of many talents. He’s also a man with conviction, passion and the ability to turn ideas into reality. A violinist from early childhood, Dworkin realized while an undergraduate he saw very few African-American and Latinx musicians in orchestras and those same orchestra rarely played music by people of color. Most people would have grumbled about this, but Aaron Dworkin got to work. In 1997, he founded the Sphinx Organization whose goal was to address the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music. Beginning as a competition for African-American and Latinx string instrumentalists, Sphinx has grown into a force in classical music. It’s developed four program areas reaching over 100,000 students and musicians annually. Its aim is to develop and support Black and Latinx talent in classical music at every level: from music education, to performing artists to repertoire. From arts leadership to administrators to audiences… It still has the Sphinx competition but the organization also has its orchestra known as the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, composed of Black and Latinx professionals from around the U.S and supports five other ensembles. It is a powerhouse of inclusion in the classical world. 


In 2015, Aaron stepped back from leadership at Sphinx but he keeps on fighting the good fight. He became dean at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance; University of Michigan--where he is now a Professor of Arts Leadership & Entrepreneurship as well as a professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at the Business School. He is also the author of several books, including the recent The Entrepreneurial Artist: Lessons from Highly Successful Creatives and he is the host of the weekly public television show Arts Engines. And believe me, I’m just scratching the surface of his remarkable accomplishments.

While in the past year, many organizations including arts organizations, have been working on coming to terms with racial inequity and a lack of diversity, Aaron has been deeply involved with these issues for decades. And I was lucky enough to speak with him as 2020 was coming to an end….


Here’s our conversation

Jo Reed: Aaron-- well, first of all, thank you so much for giving me your time in this week between Christmas and New Year's. But there is a confluence of events that you seem singularly positioned to speak to: the pandemic and its impact on the performing arts happening with the long-overdue racial reckoning that is being felt throughout society, including-- maybe even particularly-- in the arts. So maybe we should begin with the Sphinx Organization, which you founded in 1997, which really speaks to this.

Aaron Dworkin: Absolutely. And first of all, it's just wonderful to be able to be here with you, and to, of course, have such an important conversation at a unique time. And I completely agree. I would say that, in my lifetime, there's never been both a time period of kind of greater strife and division related to racial issues and disparities, but also a time of greater opportunity-- and I really very much believe that-- and of the change that I've been at least seeing in terms of change beginning. Whether there will be follow-through, we'll have to see. So, but yeah, over 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to found the Sphinx Organization, which was really built out of my own experiences as an African-American, biracial violinist, and my experiences in the field of the arts; and looking at the field in its entirety, and seeing, is there something we can do to at least move the needle to make this extraordinary art form more inclusive and representative?

Jo Reed: Well, we all have great ideas, but birthing them in the real world, then, is the big part, too. And I'd just like you to talk a little bit about some of the steps you took that brought the Sphinx Organization into being, and that you see as necessary for any endeavor like this. Because I think this is also a time where we're all thinking, we're all talking, but we also have to start doing.

Aaron Dworkin: Yes, yes. Unfortunately, all too often, I hear a lot of people talk, or especially complain. And then, when I always ask, "Oh, what are you doing about that?", then there's usually a lot more silence, unfortunately. So, yes, a lot more doing, and unfortunately, dreams are not enough. And so when I had this dream that our world in the arts could be more inclusive, and could be diverse and representative of our overall population, that dream is pretty much, other than something to fall asleep to, is pretty useless to the rest of society, and certainly to any of the issues at hand, right? We have to translate that dream into reality. So, several things. One is that I certainly went about building the infrastructure, so that implementing the dream could take place; so, i.e. actually building an organization, and incorporating, and building a board, and understanding who are not only going to be the volunteer board members and people who could help begin to make this a reality, but also people who are either going to volunteer as staff, or initially intern or be paid, to be able to begin to do this work. So all of that, plus, of course, my own work in the issue, and in research, and in understanding what happened, and all of that, and then really laying out a thoughtful plan of how we could begin to make a difference. And so I think those types of steps are just critically important, because without that, you're really not going to be able to bring about substantive, sustainable change, in terms of whatever it is that you're trying to build.

Jo Reed: One of your first contributions, also, came from the head of the World Bank, and I'd like you to talk a little bit about that, because I think it's that mixture of taking every step you can, and just rolling dice. That's also really important when you're trying to build something.

Aaron Dworkin: Absolutely. Absolutely, and that did come out of that, and that was James Wolfensohn, who at the time was President of the World Bank-- and unfortunately, just very recently, passed-- and played an extraordinary role. To this day, I think that, potentially, absent of his commitment, it is substantially less likely that Sphinx would even exist as an organization. And so I didn't know him at the time, and so one of those functional things that I was doing, that you can actually plan for, is talking to whoever you can talk to about these issues, and about who should I be in touch with, and all of those types of things. So in the course of those conversations, someone said to me, "Well, you know, you should really reach out to James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank." I'm like, "Hmm. Okay." Because he happens to be a cellist. So, yes, he's got all this finance role, but he understands and cares about music, and social issues, and equity, and all of these types of things. And so I did. So even though, as a student, I was able to engage, and he ended up responding, saying, "You know what? Here's a one-time $10,000 contribution. This seems like a good project. Go to it." And, of course, that set the stage for a year later, me having to go back and say, "Ah, I know you said one time, but because persistence is absolutely key for any good social entrepreneur." But his belief in a yet-unproven project was truly extraordinary. And so I think it's both the methodical approach of, "Okay, who's funding these other organizations in the arts? Who's funding diversity initiatives? Let's reach out to them with very targeted outreach, et cetera. But also, let's have these conversations, and let's just throw the dice with some very potentially unlikely sources, because you never know when you might be able to make that connection."

Jo Reed: Now, as you said, you came to this as a musician, initially, and you were a violinist; are a violinist. You still play the violin. How did you come to the violin?

Aaron Dworkin: So, I actually began when I was five. My mother, my adoptive mother, was an amateur violinist, and she had been listening to this recording of Nathan Milstein playing the unaccompanied Bach, which are amazing to this day. But there was a connection that she really had, and it kind of reinvigorated her own playing, and I loved it and picked it up. And I had an extraordinary opportunity very early on to have a great teacher, Vladimir Graffman, who really helped plant those initial seeds for me on the violin.

Jo Reed: And that's when you were living in New York City. And then your parents moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania, which was difficult, because race really became front and center for you, for the first time.

Aaron Dworkin: Oh, yeah. So, 10 years old, literally moved from midtown Manhattan, where you see everyone, right, and all kinds of people, and all kinds of colors and shapes and sizes and all that, to Hershey, Pennsylvania, which, at the time, one black family in my school. And me, big afro, last name Dworkin, played the violin, definitely didn't appear to others to be black-- actually biracial. And so, yeah, it led to wonderful learning experiences and character-building. <laughs> I like to reflect back on it, but at the time, certainly very tough, very ostracizing, and my music, my instrument, was a key solace for me.

Jo Reed: And you spent two very formative years at Interlochen, a school for young artists in Michigan, the beginning of your love affair with Michigan. Tell me why those couple of years were so important to you.

Aaron Dworkin: Well, to this day, I still credit the Interlochen Arts Academy with saving my life. In Hershey at the time, I was really-- I was beginning to get into some trouble, becoming very rebellious, all of those types of things, and in large part because I felt so isolated and disconnected. There were the various cliques in school, and all of that, and I was just kind of outcast. And even in my violin, I felt outcast with other musicians, because I was the only black person in the orchestra, even though I was concertmaster of the Harrisburg Youth Symphony. And the musicians wouldn't-- other kids in the orchestra, for example, wouldn't be quiet when I got up to tune the orchestra, and things like that. And so I just was really, really having a tough time, and I think, if not for Interlochen, could've absolutely-- not only could've, but most likely would have-- gone down a much darker road and darker path, I think. Because there wouldn't have been a solace, or a point of comfort and empathy, for what I was experiencing. I certainly wasn't finding that anywhere. And at Interlochen, not only did I develop friendships that continue to this day, in terms of my closest friends are friends from Interlochen, but it was the first time I was surrounded by everyone who was in the arts. And so it was no longer, "Are you part of this clique or that clique?", but, "Are you a creative writer?" Right? "Are you a dancer? Are you an actor? Are you a musician?" Right? And so it was more about your art form and your artmaking that was kind of defining you, and I guess it gave me an opportunity to redefine myself. Whereas in Hershey, I really couldn't help but have others define me, at Interlochen, it was kind of the first opportunity in my life where I could define myself, and met extraordinary people with whom I've been able to kind of be on this wild adventure and journey of life together.

Jo Reed: You had seen yourself as having a solo career as a violinist-- when you were younger, when you were a teenager, high school. According to your memoir, you even had dreams of bringing the Cold War to an end, through the force of your music. But then you moved from the stage to being the founder and director of Sphinx. Was that a difficult transition for you?

Aaron Dworkin: <chuckles> So, yeah, and probably, I am sure that some could-- you know, in therapy, would probably say, at the very least, delusions of grandeur, if not worse, growing up, in terms of... you know, I really-- I was like, "I'm going to be the world's greatest soloist, and yes, not only bring together" -- because, as the first great black violin soloist, not only would I bring together people of all races in America, but I'd be the first to win the Tchaikovsky Competition, and bring Russia and America together with my music. So, yeah, just slight ambitions relating to my violin playing.

Jo Reed: Yeah, but I loved it.

Aaron Dworkin: And so, needless to say, they didn't bear out. And what actually occurred was that I started out at Penn State, and then actually ended up needing to drop out, which is a whole long story, but dropped out for four years and got a lot of real-world experience. But during that time, I also was not practicing very much. And so then, when I had the opportunity to go back to school at Michigan, I was now four years older than my peers. And basically, I came back as a transfer student, so, for my junior year, undergraduate, at Michigan. And at that time, all those things that used to be so easy for me to do on the violin-- and it was really just a matter of, was I practicing enough? But I could do anything I wanted, I felt like, and in almost all of the musical environments I was in, I felt like I could be first chair or whatever, as long as I put the work in. But now I was putting the work in, and the results were not coming, certainly, nearly as fast. And so that was very humbling, and it really kind of got me thinking about, what was I going to do? And I realized that if I really was going to either be a soloist-- and by that time, those dreams had kind of dialed back to, you know, get into a major orchestra, <laughs> which is, of course, extraordinarily competitive-- 10 times more competitive than getting into an Ivy League school. And so, I thought, reasonably so—I could get into a major orchestra. But the work that it would take, at that point-- certainly, at least six to seven hours a day in the practice room-- I realized that I did not love-- I had actually never loved practicing. It was always one of my big issues. I loved playing the violin, but not practicing. I did it, but grudgingly and minimally, so that I could play the violin well in public. And so I looked, and I said, "You know, I don't want to sit in a practice room and do that work. And around that time, I began thinking about my race and my violin, and the cultural experiences I was having, and the fact that there were almost no musicians of color in any of these circumstances, or that I didn't know there were any black composers, or go to any major orchestra concerts and not see anyone on stage or in the audience who looked like me. And so all of those thoughts started coalescing. And then that, of course, led to this idea of, "Well, what if I could do something about it? What if there was a competition for young black and Latinx string players, and we could come together, play music by composers of color? And if we do that, the whole world of classical music will become diverse." Again, I still had the delusions of grandeur. This time it wasn't about my own personal ability as a violinist, but now it was the impact that this idea could have. And so, as that was beginning to build, that question that you raised of, "Well, what about the volatility, the competition between my own playing and building this organization?" began to come about. And what I found was that I was spending more than six to seven hours a day on the organization, and loving it. Even though it was very, very hard, I loved it, and I felt driven to do it. And so I'd be up, two or three o'clock in the morning or later, very, very often, most days of the week, working on building Sphinx-- something I never would have done on the violin. I just never would've been in the practice room, two to three o'clock in the morning. And so I started thinking about that, and then one day, it completely dawned on me that Sphinx had become my primary instrument. And then I began looking at it as an actual, functional instrument that I needed to dedicate myself to. And when I made that switch, it became very clear, and I really did not regret, then, really backing away from a lot of my violin work.

Jo Reed: Of course, the Sphinx Organization went far beyond a competition. It’s a major player in classical music. Sphinx has vast programing in education, artistic development, entrepreneurial skills, arts leadership among other programs…Sphinx hosts major convenings. So, you have thought long and hard about inclusion and diversity. I’d like you to tell us why, "A," it's important to see someone who looks like you on a stage, in an orchestra, and why it's important for all of us to see the great diversity that is America on a stage.

Aaron Dworkin: Absolutely.Yes. So, I love Chimamanda Adichie, and she has this wonderful quote about the danger of a single story. And she says that the danger of a single story is not that it is untrue, but that it is incomplete. And the stories that we weave in the arts, in our nation, are incomplete. They are not sharing the breadth of the diverse mosaic that comprises the tapestry that is the American experience and the American culture. And... so, for example, when we know, unfortunately still, less than one percent of all of the works performed by all American orchestras are by any composer of color, every single audience member-- white, black, Native American, Asian, whatever it might be-- are done a disservice, because they now are prevented from experiencing the music, the artistic creations, that reflect those cultures, those stories. We are all robbed of the artistry that could otherwise impact our lives. And so one of the things that I would always share with orchestras, I say, "If your goal as an orchestra"-- because there is always this thing, people say, "Well, we have artistic excellence. If we get more diverse, we won't have as much artistic excellence." And I always shared, I said, "Well, if your definition of being an excellent orchestra is by playing the music from Western Europe very excellently well to a subset of your community that represents less than three percent of your community, and you do that very well, and that that is how you define excellence-- playing a sliver of music to a sliver of people-- then yes, great. You're doing great at that. But if your goal of excellence is to perform the breadth of great orchestral classical music at the highest artistic level, you are failing significantly at that. Because there is this breadth of music that, "A," exists; and/or that, "B," you could be participating in the creation of, through commissioning that you are not engaged in. And is that work not part of what is the artistic excellence of what it means to be an American orchestra?" And so that's just kind of, say, on the creation part. But then, also, absolutely, of course, if you take a young person of color, and you bring them into an amazing orchestra hall, and they sit there, and they listen to this extraordinary music and symphony, and they look, and they don't see themselves, while they will be moved by the music-- I certainly was the first time, when I was eight years old, and we went to Carnegie Hall-- but then you look on stage, and you go, "Do I belong? No one there looks like me, so clearly I'm not welcome." And it brings in all of those. So, there is both, if you will, the impact relating to specific communities of color, but then there is something that is robbed of all of us, as a society, when we don't hear the breadth of all of the stories that are able to be told by Americans and others around the world.

Jo Reed: You have long made clear that you think a big factor why African Americans and Latinx musicians have not been accepted into the top ranks of orchestras is that orchestras have not made inclusion a priority—either on stage or in the repertoire.

Aaron Dworkin: So, there is a complexity to that. So, there are parts where I would say it is very clear. For example, composition, the repertoire. The fact that less than one percent of all the repertoire performed by all American orchestras is any composer of color, absolutely, the music director and president of any orchestra could change that next week. I absolutely hold them 100-percent accountable. The music exists. Great music exists. Of course, a whole bunch of amazing new music could be commissioned by all of the extraordinary composers of color that are working today, or hoping and wishing they could work today, if they were receiving those commissions. And that decision could absolutely be made by orchestras, immediately. They could absolutely change their repertoire. I do hold them 100-percent accountable. Now, when it comes to the representation, say, of, let's just say, black musicians on stage as full-time members of the orchestra, there are additional complexities there, related to, of course, tenure; related to screened audition process; related to how we determine musicians. But also-- so those are things that could be affected by orchestral administrations, players' committees, audition committees, et cetera. But, absolutely, there is a smaller pool of musicians, because when we look at young people and their ability and access to high-quality instructions, to high-quality instruments at an early age, we see those disparities. So there it brings in a lot of other factors that we have to look at, and that is part of, of course, what drove the breadth of Sphinx's programs; that we can't just come together with orchestras and say, "Let's partner and really begin to rethink and to evolve our field," but we have to look at elementary schools and say, "As we look at young kids who are having the opportunity to be able to pick up a violin, what percentage are black and Latinx, and why is that, and what can we do about that?" Because, of course, if you don't start at an early age, your ability to advance to a high level by graduation, and get into a major music school, will be less. So, then, summer programs. What are summer programs doing, right? So we have all of these levels, and this is why Sphinx now has programming at the elementary-school level in cities like Detroit and Flint. It has summer programs addressing middle-school and high-school students, and helping to prepare them and develop them so they can be competitive for the top music schools in the country; and then, of course, scholarship programs and other support programs, like the competition, for those who are in college; and then programs to help from the transition from college into the professional world. So the reality is, is that there is complexity to systemic change, and what I would posit to orchestras is there are certain components they could absolutely do, and it's simply they are not either willing, able, or courageous enough to make those changes, like repertoire, that are relatively easy; but then, as it relates to the membership of orchestras and/or their staffing, which is a little bit easier, that, I would say, that certainly, obviously, from my perspective, most orchestras could do more. And that's my role, as a catalyst, to say that. And I would say it would be pretty impossible for them to ever be doing as much as I think they should be doing. So my role is to encourage, cajole, pressure, and to make the case so that they can understand why, financially, ethically, morally, these types of commitments of resources and of initiatives are imperative.

Jo Reed: Adding to this complexity is the fact for the past few decades arts education in public schools has been gutted, is just being gutted, and because often there's an economic disparity that is aligned with race, the impact on students of color is profound.

Aaron Dworkin: Completely. <laughs> And so it's a huge issue, and why not only should, of course, Sphinx and other similar organizations be doing this work that is, let's face it, supplemental in our public schools-- and then there's some work that's being done in private schools-- but we have to do what we can to encourage and to make the case to those who are determining public policy, and especially education policy, the importance of the arts, and that the arts are integral; that we should be moving from STEM to STEAM, and what are the arts requirements in our schools? And, obviously, the National Endowment for the Arts and other agencies are working on this. There is a STEM to STEAM Caucus in Congress. There is additional work that needs to be done, but we do need to look at public policy, because that is also, of course, as it relates to education, the only real way we're going to bring about the type of systemic change that is necessary. One of the things I mention a lot is I talk about Motown, right? Because we've got Detroit here, and such an extraordinary musical history. I often make the case that I think that the equivalent of Motown would be very, very difficult to replicate today. Because Motown was able to from the extraordinary music education that was taking place in schools, and the swath of young musicians and those who had extraordinary artistic talents that were able to be furthered and developed in school, and be able to build upon that with Motown.

Jo Reed: You call yourself a social entrepreneur. And in fact, you're a professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan. And you recently wrote a book called The Entrepreneurial Artist: Lessons from Highly Successful Creatives. Tell me about the book, and who you spoke to, and why.

Aaron Dworkin: Yeah. So, one of the things that it wanted to do was to really be able to, again, capture the real world, right? When we're in a classroom, it would be very easy for me to kind of just delve into the techniques of entrepreneurship for my students. But what I wanted to do is connect them as best as possible, through case studies, but of real-world entrepreneurs; mostly current, active, but then also historically. So, what I wanted to do was to go and interview these entrepreneurial artists, engage with them, really reflect their stories, some of their adventures, in a narrative in the book, but through that really pull, what were the best practices that they brought to bear? What did they do that either enabled them to be successful, and/or how did they overcome some of the challenges or failures that existed in their lives? And so each chapter is built around a specific entrepreneurial artist and their experiences, as well as the best practices that are then laid out at the end of that chapter. So I took two historical, in that I wanted to take Mozart and Shakespeare, and so for them I interviewed kind of leading scholars on them, to capture those experiences; but then, also, wanted a breadth of disciplines. So, for example, Bill T. Jones for dance, Lin-Manuel Miranda for musical theater, Jeff Daniels for theater, Marin Alsop for conducting, right? So, really, a nice breadth across disciplines, so that a reader could really delve into these experiences, both for their own specific artistic discipline or interest, but also in a broader sense, too, because I think a violinist could absolutely learn from Bill T. Jones's experiences in dance.

Jo Reed: And you have a weekly public television show, Arts Engines, which, in a way, is an extension of the book. It's conversations with arts administrators. How does that show speak to this moment?

Aaron Dworkin: Yeah. So, there we wanted to take a little bit of a different approach. So, whereas my book is really capturing the entrepreneurialism-- those who are building sustainable enterprises around their artmaking, but, you know, our field is sustained by the engines, right? The administrators who keep all of these organizations going, and hopefully consistently evolving. And they're doing extraordinary work, day in and day out. But oftentimes that work is either lost, in that others aren't aware of it unless, once a year, we come together for a particular conference, and you learn about what a few colleagues are doing. But we were like, "What if we could help develop a platform where we could all be learning from each other, these arts administrators, on a consistent basis throughout the year?" And so that's what that focus is. So I interview a leading arts administrator, and not just on who they are, and why they do what they do, but also, are there any particular initiatives they're currently working on, so that our audience can look and see and learn, and maybe want to replicate or emulate, learn from, what some of the work of their peers are doing around the country.

Jo Reed: And I'm curious. Since you've spoken to so many arts administrators, you really must have a sense about the impact of the pandemic on the performing arts-- on orchestras, for example. What are you hearing?

Aaron Dworkin: Oh, well, it's, of course, just been devastating, and obviously the recent support in the stimulus package includes the Save Our Stages, which will help, to some extent. But, it's been the most devastating thing, I think, to happen, obviously, across our whole nation, but especially, certainly, in the arts field. And artists have been affected to a greater extent. A lot of times, we look and we think of the frontline workers. We think of service workers. We're thinking of restaurants, and so on and so forth, so many of which have had to close and face all of these issues. But musicians and the arts have been affected, statistically, to a greater extent even than the restaurant industry. And so that's why it's so important, and why it's so great, that relief for our field is part of this relief package and stimulus package. So, definitely been devastated, but I think in any of these times, right, it is there are huge areas of opportunity. And so I think that those orchestras, those arts institutions, that just look to say, "Let's just get back. Let's get back to normal." Right? And a lot of people talk about the "new normal," but it is the orchestras, it is the arts organizations, who are now thinking about how they're going to redefine what they do; how they're going to take these experiences and changed behavior, some of which will not completely revert, of what we do as society, and build upon it so that when they come back, they will be better institutions than they were before the pandemic. Because it's those institutions that are going to define the new normal, and are most likely going to be the most successful in the new normal.

Jo Reed: And, Aaron, you're a member of the National Council on the Arts, which I think of as the Arts Endowment's Board of Directors. <laughs> And I wonder how you see the Arts Endowment and the part it plays to both increase diversity in, and accessibility to, the arts, and what else you would like to see the Arts Endowment do.

Aaron Dworkin: I've been deeply honored to be able to serve with some extraordinary colleagues on the council. And obviously, I think, first and foremost, we're the nation's largest arts funder. So I think, first and foremost, and if you ask, I think, any arts organizations, they're going to say, "Honey, the NEA. We want grants, so that we can do the work that we do. We need this help, and we need the support." And so, as an individual, I am a huge advocate and proponent of a significant-- I wouldn't say "increase," I would say "transformation," in the appropriations and funding for our government's, our nation's, support of the arts. And, obviously, in this shape and form, that is the NEA, and I think that that should be transformative. So the resources that we would be able to have at our disposal, I think, really do need to be increased. When we look at them percentage-wise, obviously, they're extraordinarily tiny. So I think the funding role is critically important. Like many government agencies, the agency is built on various disciplines in the arts field, but one of our main focus areas is accessibility. And so looking at that and making sure that the arts are accessible is also critically important, and D&I (diversity and inclusion) is very, very, very important to the agency, to all of the grantmaking that's done. And I think that should not only continue, but continue to be redefined and evolve, especially given a lot of the things that have been learned over the past year. And I think momentum in our field, in the arts, I've been seeing things and organizations and leaders talking and acting in ways that I have not seen in the entire history preexisting that. And so I think we need to build on that momentum and support those who are really looking to evolve their organizations.

Jo Reed: Well, Aaron, I think that is a great place to leave it. Thank you so much.

Aaron Dworkin: Oh, well, thank you. It's been wonderful to be able to be here with you.

Jo Reed: Thank you. That was violinist, social entrepreneur, professor, author, founder of The Sphinx Organization, MacArthur fellow and member of the National Council on the Arts, Aaron Dworkin—You can find his public television show at For more information about The Sphinx Organization, go to


You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and then please leave us a rating on Apple because it will make us happy because it helps people to find us. Kept up the arts endowment by following us on twitter @neaarts or by checking out our website at For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, and thanks for listening.


Aaron Dworkin is a man of many talents: he’s a violinist, social entrepreneur, professor, author, MacArthur Fellow and member of the National Council on the Arts. In this time of a long overdue racial reckoning, many organizations are answering the challenge to interrogate how their own systems address diversity and inclusion. Aaron Dworkin is singularly positioned to speak to this moment: he has been shining a light and doing the work around inequity for decades.   A violinist from early childhood, Dworkin was an undergraduate when he grappled with the implications of the dearth of African-American and Latinx musicians in orchestras as well as  the lack of music by people of color in the repertoire of those same orchestras. Aaron Dworkin got to work and in 1997 founded the Sphinx Organization-- its goal was to address the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music on every level: on the stage, in the repertory, behind the stage, in the front office, and in the audience.  Beginning as a competition for African-American and Latinx string instrumentalists, Sphinx has grown into a force in classical music with its own symphony orchestra, and robust programming that reaches over 100,000 students and artists annually.  In this podcast, Aaron talks about diversity and classical music—what can be addressed immediately and what requires a complex and far-reaching overhaul. We also talk about his own very interesting biography and how it informed his love of music, the centrality of entrepreneurship to the arts today (he wrote a book called The Entrepreneurial Artist), and his public television show Arts Engines in which he talks to arts’ administrators from around the country.  It’s a great conversation with someone whose passion and conviction are matched by his humor.