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Straight from The Source, a regular interview series taking you behind-the-scenes to Southeast Michigan’s cultural destinations to hear from the curators, programmers, leaders, doers and makers.

What are you best known for?

At Sphinx, I’m best known for being the oldest person that’s been around from the beginning. When my team needs historical knowledge beyond basic guidance, they’ll ask, ‘do you remember?’ It’s always the questions from how it used to be at the very beginning. 

What would you like to be known for?

I’d love to be known as the person who was able to wrap our organizational arms around all of the great work that’s been done [by Sphinx], and most importantly, wrap our arms around our alumni, the artists we’ve been able to support and nurture. I’d love to be known as a person who found a way to bring all that talent and accomplishments and all these amazing stories directly to the source, which is the field, and find a way to make Sphinx a very practical conduit between the artists and the industry. 

For the past 20 years, Sphinx’s vision has been transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts, and specifically it is to augment and promote diversity in the performing arts with a real and meaningful emphasis on classical music. And while we’ve been doing this for a long time, I see the next 20 years as a way to not only perpetuate all of that, but to really engage, in terms of actually taking the success stories and bringing that straight to the source, connecting that to the industry, and letting the industry know and experience the fact that there really is this incredible diversity and talent pool, and finding a way to establish that, unless our beloved art form begins to represent the community that it serves, it’s not going to thrive. 

What does a vibrant arts and cultural community mean to you?

To me, a vibrant scene means that the performing arts organizations, artists, individual efforts—all those entrepreneurial spirits that have been growing so much through our fields— that the field represents the community, and the community finds the field relevant. It is the recognition that there is this beautiful reciprocity between the arts and the community, and that alone we don’t thrive, but together, we feed off of one another. 

Sphinx is in the center of that, finding its mission directly at the intersection of social justice and the arts. I think we’re fortunate to work in this space, and especially today within the climate that is so divisive and dangerous. I think more than that, there’s no more powerful tool, or weapon so to speak, than our instruments and the art itself through which we can not only speak but through which we can engage our young people and help them find their own vehicle for expression. Now is the time where the arts are what unites all of us.

"I think more than that, there’s no more powerful tool, or weapon so to speak, than our instruments and the art itself through which we can not only speak but through which we can engage our young people and help them find their own vehicle for expression. Now is the time where the arts are what unites all of us."

What does diversity in the arts mean to you and the Sphinx Organization, and has that definition changed over the past 20 years?

It’s a definition that I would say is a broad one, and with the respect of giving a full picture, diversity does not just mean one thing. 

With the purpose of Sphinx’s mission, we focus on cultural diversity, and even more specific to that, from our very inception, we looked at cultural minority groups that are most strongly represented within our population here in this country and most dramatically underrepresented in our field [of classical music]. And when we did that, simply, purely statistically speaking, we see that blacks and Latinos combined today represent just over four percent in American orchestras and throughout the classical music field. At the inception of Sphinx, we were at about one-and-a-half percent. So there’s been growth, but the growth has been incremental—I would say it’s not been as dramatic as we would like to see, but it’s been steady. 

I think that just as importantly, there has been a shift in the conversation, it’s tone, a sense of urgency, and of this commitment to making inclusion and meaningful diversity a priority for the field. And I think that’s definitely in large part due to our consistent messaging and our direct hands-on work that we’ve been doing throughout the pipeline from the very beginning. From placing violins in the hands of young people in elementary schools in Detroit and Flint, to this intermediate level that we do through our boot camps in the summer to close the achievement gap, within young people who show aptitude but lack resources, and all the way to the adult level where we work with kids and young people who are at this emerging stage but really show true promise and a real commitment to staying in classical music, we’ll provide them with resources, performance opportunities, educational opportunities, scholarships, and really this sense that there’s a family and a mechanism behind them to continue to nurture and support their commitment to succeed in classical music. 

Afa and HannahAfa Dworkin presenting Hannah White with the Sanford Allen Award, photo courtesy of Nan Melville.Heading into the 20th year of the Sphinx Organization (which officially kicks off in January 2017), what are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of? 

On the eve of the 20th anniversary, there are so many things I’m proud of. I’m most proud of this team that is just a collection of leaders who, alone and together, have been able to have such an impact that otherwise would only be thought possible by a large cultural institution. We reach 20,000 young people a year through our educational programming, and I’m so proud of them because this means that many lives are touched, transformed, and uplifted. With our educational programming here in Detroit, when we started, we could barely get five or 10 kids in one space on a weekly basis to study violin. We have dozens on waiting lists now. 

I’m also proud that, as we head into the 20th anniversary, we can say that our leading artists perform with major American institutions 20-30 times a year, every year, and prior to Sphinx, that was unheard of. 

I’m also proud that a number of our artists hold coveted positions in major orchestras across the country, from Philadelphia to Oregon, in Detroit, and places in between, so that’s something to be proud of. I think five of our alumni hold tenure track faculty positions in major music schools. It’s great to see this because what it does is it shows that the pipeline and the efforts that we have consistency applied over the course of the past 20 years, those efforts are beginning to pay off and the pipeline is in fact growing, it’s thriving, and we’re beginning to see incredible success stories. 

What local cultural destination have you visited recently?

I was just at Orchestra Hall, which is of course a beloved home for our big signature marquee event, the finals concert. It’s always exciting to be at that majestic place. I’m planning a trip with our youngest to the DIA, which is always fun on the weekend. And I’m always excited to be able to talk to friends from other cultural and arts institutions, and I have been meeting with a dear mentor, who’s also the outgoing president of UMS, Ken Fischer, and that’s always a time I look forward to.

Today’s scene in Detroit and Southeastern Michigan is so rich, there are the staples, so to speak, like the Opera House and Music Hall and Orchestra Hall, but there’s also some of the smaller institutions that are definitely surfacing onto the main stage and playing just as vibrant a role, and I think what we do so well here in Detroit is we’re able to uplift some of the smaller institutions that may be culturally specific, but really regard them as major players, and I think that’s what makes Detroit so special. 

Who, to you, epitomizes arts and culture in Michigan? 

I think we’re lucky that there’s not a singular answer to that in Michigan. For me, we have so many pivotal players, from our friends at Mosaic [Youth] Theatre of Detroit, which is such a unique and important organization. We’re lucky to have a world-class orchestra and an opera house here in Detroit. Of course I’m biased entirely about the vibrancy and the energy that’s emanating from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, because it’s my alma mater, but also because our founder [and husband] is leading the institution in a new direction, a bold one. We’re always thrilled to partner with folks at UMS, who’ve played such a pivotal role in uplifting our own educational programming. And of course, not to be forgotten, the Arab American National Museum and all of the work that they do for our community. 

When you have visitors in from out of town, what is the one cultural destination you make sure they see during their visit? 

Anyone who comes from out of the country, I say they must see the DIA, it’s just a loss if they don’t. Because we’re local to Ann Arbor, we love the Kerrytown Concert House, it’s got so much going on there, and it’s just literally walking distance from our house. If I have a family visiting with young people, I make sure they see either a show at Mosaic or a Tiny Tots series at DSO, one of their educational concerts. 

What are the biggest changes you have witnessed in Metro Detroit’s cultural landscape in recent years?

What’s been so impressive is the consistent artistic integrity with which our peers stay committed to their programming. From the Detroit Symphony to the Opera House to Mosaic Detroit, the Arab American Museum, of course things beyond the performing arts like the Wright Museum of African American History, I would say what’s been so impressive is the vibrancy, the artistic integrity and the embrace of community that’s been able to be exhibited on behalf of all these incredible cultural institutions, and we’ve been thrilled to be a part of that. 

But I see that the challenge that we’ve faced is that there’s been a lot of interest in the vibrancy of Detroit, it’s future, and investment and it’s well-being. I would say what’s been disappointing and frustrating is the lack of fundamental success or change that all of us have been able to effect for our public schools. I think the state of our elementary and secondary education is certainly very disappointing, and it’s not where it needs to be. I feel that the greatest urgency of the next five to 10 years is going to be our schools, and that we need to find a constructive, hands-on way to make a difference. I know that many of our peers are doing just that. Sphinx is certainly trying to do that, to fill the grandiose gap that exists there. And I’m at this point talking about things beyond arts education and beyond music education, more in terms of just well-being of our students and the coherency in which they are taught. I think unless we’re able to make that shift, and unless there is the sense of structural accountability and real change in this area, I think the ultimate success and growth and health of this community is always going to be stalled pretty significantly because I think that’s really the most important place in which to invest. 

What excites you most about the future of Southeast Michigan’s arts and culture scene? 

What excites me most about it is its wealth and, no pun intended, diversity. We have everything from incredible individual artists, from visual art to fine arts to musicians of all genres.

"I think what we get so well here in Detroit is the relevance piece..."

Our larger institutions are turning inward towards the community and engaging the community and that’s terrific. Everything from bringing the art into the community to involving the community in artmaking, I think that’s the future of our field. I would say our city does that so well, there’s so many inspiring examples, and I’m most excited about being a part of that. I think what we get so well here in Detroit is the relevance piece, that’s probably the envy of many other large cities.