Detroit-Based Sphinx Organization Provides Art Education for Black and Latinx Musicians

The local husband and wife behind the Sphinx Organization has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young musicians in Detroit.
Photo courtesy of the Sphinx Organization

Twenty-five years ago, Aaron Dworkin, a Black 26-year-old University of Michigan student had an idea: What if he started a competition for classical musicians of color as a way to increase representation in professional orchestras?

The first Sphinx Competition took place in 1998 at Hill Auditorium, providing a competitive performance opportunity for the most talented young Black and Latinx string musicians in the country. Aaron chose the name “Sphinx” because it reflected to him “the power, wisdom, and persistence of those who would participate and the enigmatic and interpretive nature of music and art.”

From that first competition, Detroit-based Sphinx Organization has grown into an international social justice organization that focuses on education and access; development and presentation of performing artists; and arts leadership.

It’s now run by Aaron’s wife, Afa Dworkin, Sphinx’s first employee at its founding. Sphinx now serves everyone from beginner students in Detroit and Flint to seasoned classical music professionals, as well as cultural entrepreneurs and administrators.

Sphinx Organization founders Aaron and Afa Dworkin
Sphinx Organization founders Aaron and Afa Dworkin. Photo by Shawn Lee.

“Sphinx started as a single program and evolved into a movement,” says Aaron, whose career also evolved into a lifetime of creativity. In 2005, he was named a MacArthur fellow and was President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts (where he still serves). He later became the first Black dean of his alma mater, U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, before becoming the school’s current professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship.

Now, he is also a filmmaker (An American Prophecy was nominated for an Emmy) and the author of an arts entrepreneurship book and a memoir. The latter recounts his journey being born to a white Catholic mother and a Black Jehovah’s Witness father before being adopted by a Jewish couple, and how his experiences led to the formation of Sphinx.

Along with hosting one of the most widely viewed nationally broadcast arts shows, Arts Engines, featuring Aaron interviewing thought leaders in the field, he also tours the country as a prominent spoken-word artist.

Calling himself a “poetjournalist,” which he defines as a person who engages in “journalism in which a news story is presented in poetic form incorporating elements of emotion, opinion, and creative illustration,” he is a poet in residence at a number of organizations, including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History here in Detroit.

Afa, who became the president and artistic director of Sphinx in 2015 when Aaron became SMTD’s dean, has a fascinating life and career of her own.

Born in Moscow and raised in Azerbaijan, she is of Azeri and Persian Jewish heritage. A professional violinist, she attended the prestigious Azerbaijan National Conservatory, and as a freshman at SMTD, she joined the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, managing at the same time to earn both her undergraduate degree and a graduate degree from U-M in violin performance. Since joining Sphinx, her role has been to create and develop programming.

In 2016, Sphinx received a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, affording a quartet of students the opportunity to perform at the White House to a standing ovation from then-first lady Michelle Obama and other distinguished guests.

Today, Afa travels internationally, speaking at arts festivals and conferences on the changing landscape of the classical music industry and the importance of diversity in the arts. When the couple are not on the road, they enjoy spending time with their two sons, two cats, and dog.

“It has been inspiring to see our work grow into a conglomerate of educational, artistic, and C-suite leadership programs,” says Afa, reflecting on Sphinx’s 25th anniversary. “Effectively, we have changed the face and the trajectory of classical music and its impact on our communities.”

Sphinx’s impact is best described by alumni. One of those is Detroit native and violinist Melissa White. A first-place laureate of the Sphinx Competition in 2001, White now performs with leading orchestras across the country, tours regularly internationally, and has played alongside Pharrell Williams, Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys, and Lauryn Hill.

“Sphinx has created an abundance of opportunities that have catapulted my career as a performing artist, a businessperson, and a strong Black woman,” White says. “I’m honored to be a member of the Sphinx Familia.”

Will Liverman, a Sphinx alum who starred at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2021 production Fire Shut Up in My Bones (an opera written by a Black composer based on the memoir of New York Timescolumnist Charles M. Blow about growing up in rural Louisiana), now also serves as a spokesperson for Sphinx.

“I deeply believe in the mission of the Sphinx Organization to nurture relationships, foster growth, and encourage young artists,” Liverman says.

Looking back, Aaron says he feels an “indescribable sense of joy and pride having watched Sphinx grow to serve our artists and communities in a profound way.”

Looking forward, Afa says, “I cannot wait to see how our artists will build and contribute in the next 25 years.”

Sphinx’s Impact

  • $4.5 Million invested in the careers of Black and Latinx classical artists.
  • 250+ artistic partners across the country.
  • 150,000 young people who have received tuition-free musical training and community engagement.
  • 8,000 full scholarships to education programs.
  • 40+ commissioned works by Black and Latinx composers.
  • 850+ Sphinx alumni.
  • 12 countries reached through global programming.

This story is from the October 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.