Sphinx LEAD: Inaugural Program Launched to Train Arts Leaders and Administrators

Sphinx LEAD: Inaugural Program Launched to Train Arts Leaders and Administrators

I first introduced the Sphinx Organization to the readers of Arts and Culture Connections last year with a blog about its founder Aaron Dworkin. The organization has helped foster and cultivate thousands of classically-trained musicians of color, who have gone on to win national competitions and perform in many of the country’s greatest orchestras. As a matter of fact, a quartet of Sphinx artists gave the closing performance at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Now, I’m excited to report that the Sphinx Organization is expanding its footprint with this month’s launch of its professional development program, Sphinx LEAD. LEAD stands for Leaders in Excellence, Arts & Diversity. Ten outstanding young leaders from eight states and representing a broad cross-section of classical music have been selected to participate in the inaugural two-year program.

I reached out to Stanford Thompson, who is the new Dean of Sphinx LEAD, to learn more about his plans for the program. Mr. Thompson, whose personal mission is to create harmony and social opportunity through music, is a renowned musician and educator. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Play On Philly and founding Board Chairman of El Sistema USA, bringing music education to students in underserved areas throughout Philadelphia and beyond. Recognized as a 2017 TED Fellow, Mr. Thompson believes that music education is a powerful tool for both positive personal and community change. In addition, he is on the faculties of the Global Leaders Program and SAAVY Arts Venture. A native of Atlanta, he holds degrees from The Curtis Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory’s Sistema Fellows Program. The following is our conversation.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?

Stanford Thompson: Through my parents, who are retired music educators and professional musicians. In high school, I co-created the Atlanta Trumpet Festival-in-residence at Emory University. While a student at The Curtis Institute of Music, I volunteered for community engagement activities throughout Philadelphia and founded a one-week summer camp in Reading, PA. In my last semester at Curtis, I learned about the music education and social development program of Venezuela called El Sistemo, and would later enroll in the Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory. Upon completion of that program, I returned to Philadelphia to launch Play On Philly, where I am Executive Director.

Donna: How did you become with involved with Sphinx LEAD?

Stanford: In 2018, I approached the Sphinx Organization with an idea to convene arts administrators of color in the summer over a three-day period. Aaron and Afa Dworkin encouraged me to think beyond a three-day retreat and dream bigger. Together we developed the framework for a leadership program, for which the Knight Foundation would later provide the seed money to finance the first five years. I accepted the Sphinx Organization’s offer to lead the program as its Dean.

Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in the field to develop arts administrators of color?

Stanford: I think there are more people of color interested and currently working as arts administrators than we fully recognize. I would argue that people of color run most of the arts-related organizations that are small nonprofit. So first, we must demystify the idea that they don’t exist. Second, many of these leaders are not being recognized and are not being given opportunities for professional growth. This creates an issue, because oftentimes the arts leaders of color working with smaller organizations don’t have access to the resources to sustain their work or their livelihood. Or sometimes they just don’t feel comfortable working with the bigger organizations.

The legacy and impact of the larger arts and cultural institutions, such as Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, are important. But there is a severe lack of diversity in the administration of these organizations, and yet there are a tremendous number of arts administrators of color who are doing amazing work with little or no resources.

Donna: What is the impact you hope to have?

Stanford: The best impact that I hope for is to show that we exist and to acknowledge these arts leaders of color currently working without resources or opportunity; to create opportunities for them for professional growth and equity in the field.

Equity in arts leadership means something different for leaders of color, and especially for those who run their own organizations. My own story of opportunity and resources is that one of Philadelphia’s leading philanthropists, Carole Haas Gravagno, believed in my work and my idea for Play on Philly and she wanted to be a co-founder. She lent her name and became my founding board chairperson. She made her network of people of people available. She also attended performances, board meetings and meetings with other partners. When Ms. Gravagno needed to put her foot down she did it. She demanded that organizations partner with organizations of color. Leveraging privilege in the system and acknowledging that these issues exist is critical. More important is leveraging privilege to create opportunities for equity.

You can say what Ms. Gravagno did on my behalf and on behalf of Play on Philly was far beyond what any arts leader would do. What she did was put me on level playing ground and made a significant investment that included salary to ensure that Play on Philly would be successful. I also had mentors who helped me stay on track, professional coaches who guided my steps and senior staff who backed me up.

Donna: In your work with SPHINX Lead, how did you approach thinking about your work and what were the influences.

Stanford: SPHINX Lead is not a program for those who are exploring leadership as a career decision, but rather it is a program for those already involved in arts leadership work. The program requires a two-year commitment. Our approach is to think about how we can identify leaders of color that have great ideas and are already accomplishing a lot with what they are doing. We want to acknowledge that they exist and assess what they need to be successful.

This is not a traditional arts administration program or MBA program. Sphinx LEADers need to develop clarity of vision and they need a network of people to rely on to help advance ideas. They need mentors to help guide them and make sure they are staying on track. They need sponsors to put their name on their projects and advocates who will take action to support these leaders and their ideas. Most importantly, they need to know that each other exists so that they can develop a family and cohorts and support systems for each other.

I hear 9 of our 10 inaugural leaders are women. What I have heard from all of them is that when they put their foot down within their respective organizations, they are perceived as aggressive and angry. They feel as if they have to censor what they say when they speak truth to power; they have to water it down. I can relate to this as a leader of color and have sometimes come across as an angry black man. From their perspective, there are lots of strong African-American women and women of color in the business field and they can help our cohorts grapple with and strategically have their voices heard and recognized. An important question for us is how do we help our cohorts navigate some of their biggest challenges?

Donna: What are the challenges and how are they addressed?

Stanford: Our leaders have the same challenges that any arts leader of a nonprofit has. But on top of those challenges, they are being marginalized; they feel as if they are not being heard or acknowledged; they don’t have the level of resources that they need, and they are challenged with dealing with people around them who do not understanding what equity looks like.

Training, mentoring and advocacy are also important. It’s easy to say that a person is not trained, or they made a mistake so they shouldn’t be promoted. However, if we’re committed to diversifying the field of arts administration beyond the realm of the smaller nonprofits, then we must provide mentors and advocates who will ensure these arts administrators of color are getting the training and resources they need to be on track for advancement.

We must acknowledge that there is a certain exclusivity and comfort level that exists within the larger arts community that goes beyond the boundaries of work to incorporate friendships, social engagements, activities or family outings. Very often, people of color are not included in this network where work is often discussed, or important information is shared. To fit in, do we need to learn to play golf and ski so that we can hang out with some of our peers and possibly develop relationships on a human level so that the next time there is an opportunity for promotion, we can be considered?

You cannot say there are no people of color for these positions. We exist—you just aren’t our friends because we hang out in different places.

Donna: What do you intend to accomplish through this program and how will you measure success?

Stanford: I have two big goals: One, is how can we prepare our cohort to be competitive, articulate and positioned to be taken seriously? How we measure that is by their knowledge and understanding of organizational systems and their understanding of how to build an effective board of directors and fundraising strategy; these are things we can measure. There also are measurement tools for arts administrators in general to use for success. At the end of this process, we will also incorporate those tools which are readily available to us and adapt them to the curriculum we build specifically for Sphinx LEAD.

My second goal is helping arts organizations prepare to embrace these leaders we are training. Specifically, funders and potential board members and organizational leadership to embrace this new group of leaders and their ideas. How do we help them make those adjustments? How do we overcome this challenge? What work do we do? If we don’t have that level of discussion, the playing field can’t be leveled.

Donna: Thank you Stanford. I think it’s important to understand that training is an investment of money and resources. Just as deeply is our conviction to level the field, we also must have the conviction to ensure that there are financial resources available to facilitate our goals for diversity, equity and inclusion. Congratulations to the leadership for forging ahead and opening new horizons for the field.