Aaron P. Dworkin
As a graduate student at the University of Michigan in 1997, violinist Aaron Dworkin walked into the office of the dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and laid out his vision for the Sphinx Competition dedicated to promoting minorities in classical music.
Eighteen years later, after creating the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization and turning it into a national force for diversity, Dworkin is returning to that same U-M office.
Dworkin, 44, was named named dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance for a five-year term effective July 20.
The U-M Board of Regents approved the move Thursday. Dworkin becomes the first African American to lead the school, which is consistently ranked among the country's leading performing arts programs. He also becomes only the second black to lead a major American music school.
"I wasn't looking to leave Sphinx," said Dworkin, the organization's founding president. "But this job gives me the opportunity to make a difference and have an impact on a broader scale. Schools are at a critical time in thinking about what it means to have a life in the performing arts."
Dworkin is an out-of-the-box choice, and his race may be the least of it. He comes to the post not as academic or performer. He is an arts entrepreneur and advocate who has been on the front lines of challenging the status quo. He takes over the school at a time of seismic cultural and technological change across the landscape of the performing arts in America.
Old funding models, artistic hierarchies and traditional career paths are breaking down. Audiences are dwindling. University arts-training programs, like the professional fields themselves, have struggled to reinvent themselves to better prepare students for the realities of the 21st Century. In hiring Dworkin, U-M is making a pitch to take on a leadership role.
"Having entrepreneurial skills are critical for students today," said Dworkin, who won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 for his work with Sphinx. "There are many other paths to an artistically and financially rewarding career in the arts beyond getting job with a major orchestra, a theater or dance company. The institution needs to explore how we're helping students develop the skill sets to do that."
Dworkin declined to discuss specifics — he wants to first meet with faculty and students to gather ideas and build consensus — but he did say he wants to pursue partnerships with other divisions on campus like the business school, as well as with professional organizations beyond the borders of Ann Arbor.