Taking the Lead to Expand Classical Music’s DEI Efforts


Photo Credit: Brian Hatton

I recently read an exciting report about a new program sponsored by the Sphinx Organization—it is offering grants to expand diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in the world of classical music as a catalyst for initiatives it hopes will create more opportunities for artists of color. The Sphinx Venture Fund will make available $300,000/year over five years to a handful of programs or organizations engaged in innovative DEI efforts—from early education to college and academia—as well as strategic planning advice from Sphinx founder Aaron P. Dworkin.

Established in 1997 and based in Detroit, the Sphinx Organization aims to empower social change with programs that span educational initiatives, scholarships and touring opportunities. Readers of Arts & Culture Connections may recall previous reports about Mr. Dworkin and the Sphinx’s inaugural program to train arts leaders and administrators. The organization continues to push against the barriers that have limited opportunities for artists of color who aspire to or currently perform classical music, as well as those seeking to advance as arts leaders or administrators.

The establishment of the Sphinx Venture Fund is the result of a $3-million grant received from billionaire Robert Smith’s Fund II Foundation. The foundation was established in 2014 for the purpose of making grants to public charities in five areas: 1) preserving the cultural richness of the African-American experience; 2) safeguarding human dignity by giving voice to the voiceless and promoting human rights; 3) conserving the environment, promoting the benefits of the great outdoors to people of all ages and backgrounds; 4) affording music education to nourish both talent and the soul, and 5) sustaining the American values of entrepreneurship.

The grant is the largest in the Sphinx Organization’s history. In addition to the Sphinx Venture Fund, plans for the grant include leadership and development programs for classical musicians, arts administrators and cultural entrepreneurs of color.

“The change we’re trying to make in our sector isn’t possible to be made by just one organization, Sphinx President and Artistic Director Afa Dworkin was quoted as saying in the Crain’s Business Detroit article. “It’s imperative that mainstream organizations of all sizes come up with ways to look at the issue.”

I think this is a bold and innovative endeavor by the Sphinx Organization to add to its mission the helping of other organizations to expand their DEI efforts and their goals. The Sphinx Organization has the expertise and has been at the forefront of this effort for more than 20 years. I believe the disbursement of these grants, coupled with strategic assistance, will establish measurements of success that are challenging, yet achievable. And I believe these efforts will result in our seeing more and more artists of color regularly performing on the classical music stage.

I also believe that the roll-out of this program will offer lessons for other administrators and leaders in the broader arts and culture community. What can be done to expand your organization’s DEI efforts? Are there partnerships that can be forged with arts organizations that serve the communities you’re seeking to engage, or who work with talent that you’re hoping to help foster? Furthermore, how do we continue to expand the dialogue to raise awareness and take concrete steps to change? As Sphinx’s Afa Dworkin noted, everyone will have to step up and work together to find ways to address this issue.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. Please share them below or drop me an email: donna@donnawalkerkuhne.com.

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