Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Getting to Know Aaron Dworkin

Aaron Dworkin. Photo by Mike Mouradian

"Every challenge is an opportunity for artistic creativity...." --- Aaron Dworkin

This past August, Aaron Dworkin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the newest member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body to the NEA. An accomplished violinist and educator, among (many!) other things Dworkin heads the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based not-for-profit that "envisions a world in which classical music reflects cultural diversity and plays a role in the everyday lives of youth." Dworkin also performs as a spoken word artist and has recently published his memoir, Uncommon Rhythm: A Black, White, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness. Irish Catholic Adoptee's Journey to Leadership. We spoke with Dworkin via e-mail just before he joined us in Washington, DC for his first National Council on the Arts meeting

NEA: What’s your version of the artist life?

AARON DWORKIN: In my life, I am fortunate to combine several artistic outlets. First and foremost, I consider Sphinx my primary artistic instrument and key creative outlet. The very notion of an organization which strives to breakdown cultural stereotypes, provide unprecedented opportunities for underserved youth, and infuse classical music repertoire with incredible works that are little known and rarely performed constitutes a creative challenge. Every challenge is an opportunity for artistic creativity, and I feel lucky to be able to address it as an artist-citizen, a life-long violinist who has a passion for equity and diversity. On a separate note, I am also an acoustic and electric violinist by training. Currently, I am also a spoken word artist, combining my original poetry with classical music selections in live multimedia performances.

NEA: What’s your earliest memory of engaging with/experiencing the arts?

DWORKIN: I began studying violin at age five, inspired by my adoptive mother, who was an amateur violinist. Having heard Nathan Milstein's recording of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, she was inspired to play her violin again. I recall the sensation of hearing the instrument and falling in love with the sound. Soon after, I was lucky to begin studying with Vladimir Graffman, one of the legendary violin pedagogues.

NEA: What’s been the most significant arts experience of your life to date?

DWORKIN: While there have been so many incredible experiences, one of the most notable ones is the debut of Sphinx Virtuosi at the New World Center in Miami. Part of the reason that this experience stands out amongst many, is the way in which the cutting edge image of this ensemble of soloists fit into the most magnificent setting of a venue, whose purpose it is make music accessible to the widest possible audiences. Sphinx Virtuosi aims to break down the stereotypes of classical music being elitist and one-dimensional, by performing diverse repertoire of classics and rare gems by composers of color. The New World Center is a state-of-the-art facility, which achieves similar objectives by expanding the horizons of our audiences and engaging them through an incredible visual and auditory experience. A venue such as this one is a dream of any artistic organization, and I was incredibly moved and proud to witness the first-rate performance of the Sphinx Virtuosi there.

NEA: What decision has most impacted your arts career?

DWORKIN: One of the foremost decisions in my life was to pursue the dream of building the Sphinx Organization as my primary focus in life, versus continuing to build my career as a full-time violinist. Ultimately, while at heart, the violin remains the very foundation of me as an artist, my focus shifted to founding Sphinx and having that be my creative outlet. I felt that my efforts in this area were much needed and had the capacity to have a profound impact, which would have relevance far beyond me as an individual or an artist.

NEA: You have a long list of accomplishments. What are you most proud of to date?

DWORKIN: I have been fortunate to be recognized as one of the MacArthur Foundation fellows for creativity in education. I am humbled by the opportunity to serve on the National Council on the Arts. However, I am most proud of the excellence displayed on stage by our top alumni on some of the greatest stages in the world, from Carnegie Hall to performances with the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra. I am proud of Sphinx's work in reaching over 20,000 young people through its educational efforts. I am proud of our artists, who work tireless every day to change the face and future of classical music.

NEA: What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the National Council on the Arts?

DWORKIN: This a complex question, the answer for which, I am sure, will fully formulate itself over a period of time. But the simple answer is that I hope to play at least a small part in changing the way in which the arts and music are perceived by and engaged within our society. The arts are not trivial, elective, nor optional. They must be viewed as essential, crucial, and fundamental. Until arts disciplines are embraced by our society for their intrinsic value (public value), for their ability to transform and enrich lives, true change will be slow to come. On the other side, music and the arts must evolve and reinvent themselves to engage the voices from communities otherwise alienated from them. That process will ultimately take strong will and motivation from arts leaders, who believe in the critical necessity of the arts to become more relevant to the community. I hope to help lead this process to ultimate success.

NEA: What’s the role of the artist in the community?

DWORKIN: First and foremost, I believe, the artist is an ambassador into the community. It is the duty of an artist to serve the community through their art and to engage their community in the art that they practice. Arts have the power to heal, transform, inspire, challenge, motivate, and build understanding across differences. At a time when the potential risks of divisiveness are at a significantly increased level, our communities need this now more than ever, and it falls upon the artists to serve that purpose.

NEA: Conversely, what’s the responsibility of the community to the artist?

DWORKIN: I feel that the community must open its hearts and minds to artists and share the ideals of common understanding on the value of the arts. It falls upon parents, teachers, mentors, community, and business leaders to work with artists in bringing the arts to the masses and making them accessible.

NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to the discipline of music---or even the arts as a whole---what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work you, or musicians as a community, are doing that isn’t yet there?

DWORKIN: For me, we are missing two critical components. As a society, we are far away from recognizing the fact that without the arts, our progress in the areas of education, youth development and creativity will be significantly hindered. By cutting arts and music exposure in schools, we are placing our young people at a fundamental disadvantage in terms of achievement. Creativity, intellectual curiosity, well-rounded development are all products of exposure to the arts. The arts must be recognized as a discipline, rather than the elective, which is afforded as a means of luxury. The second component relates to music and the arts directly: now, more than ever, we have an uphill battle to fight, which means we must ask ourselves the question of what our primary goal needs to be. If our goal is to not only sustain ourselves as a field, but also, to become relevant to the communities we serve, we must look at our image and ask ourselves how we can integrate into the society, rather than perpetuate the idea of the arts being an elitist, highly inaccessible field.

NEA: What does “Art Works” mean to you?

DWORKIN: In my mind, Art Works is a great way to remind us about the relevance of the arts, their impact on the society, its health, economy, and future. It is a great way to demonstrate how essential, current and real the arts are, and how important it is to challenge what we think of arts and their power.

NEA: Anything you wish we'd asked? (And how would you answer?)

DWORKIN: A number of people have talked about how budgets are "moral documents." In this context, we must question the "morality" that we apply to the representative value we place on the arts when, on the federal level, we allocate only .005 percent of our GDP to the arts. While I understand the significant limitations that our current economic situation places upon us, when our "budgetary morale" values the arts in such a minute fashion, we must at least ask ourselves how that defines our collective values as a society and potentially strive to evolve to a more balanced approach.

Can't join us in person for the public meeting of the National Council on the Arts on Friday, October 28? Then tune into the live webcast. Visit our News Room for details.

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