Photo by Glenn Triest

Arts Champion

News about national debt and spending cuts may have taken most of the headlines coming out of Washington this past month, but the arts managed to grab a place at the table too. In July, the Obama administration named Sphinx Organization Founder and President Aaron Dworkin and Cleveland Orchestra Director of Education and Community Engagement Joan Katz Napoli among the fourteen “Champions of Change” in the field of arts education, inviting them to the White House for a roundtable discussion on the role arts education plays in our society. The “Champions of Change” program brings innovators and prominent advocates in a variety of fields to weekly discussions at the White House, focusing on topics as wide-ranging as immigrant integration, fighting AIDS, and clean energy, with an eye toward keeping the U.S. competitive on the global scene. Other arts education “Champions of Change” included actors Minnie Driver, Patricia Arquette, and Omar Epps.

Dworkin’s Detroit-based Sphinx Organization—which is spotlighted in a “Detroit In Overdrive” TV segment on Planet Green—seeks to increase opportunities for minorities in classical music through its orchestras, annual solo competition, and education programs. Napoli has led the Cleveland Orchestra’s education programs, which reach 7,000 kids annually, for sixteen years, helping to create the organization’s innovative Learning Through Music program (now in its fourteenth year), which uses music to support learning across the K-5 curriculum. Below, Dworkin and Napoli offer their views on arts education through short video blogs also available on the White House’s “Champions of Change” website.

To learn more about “Champions of Change,” SymphonyNOW caught up with Dworkin, a League of American Orchestras board member who is quickly creating a name for himself in the capital as one of Obama’s nominees to sit on the National Council for the Arts, which advises the National Endowment for the Arts chairman on agency policies and programs. (Dworkin was confirmed on August 2, just days after the interview took place.)

Ian VanderMeulen:
What was it like meeting with the other “Champions of Change” at the White House? The list included some real heavy hitters.
Aaron Dworkin:Well, first of all, it was an amazing setting of course, just fantastic. And of it was very inspiring to meet the other Champions of Change. It was great to be able to lend a voice to the discussions about how to integrate the arts into our society, and what role they play in moving America forward and making sure that we’re competitive. So being able to share with the group the programs and initiatives that we’ve worked on at Sphinx for so many years was definitely an honor and just a whole lot of fun.

VanderMeulen: Was there anything that jumped out at you, things that were brought to the table that, for you, were a new twist or new perspective on arts education?
Dworkin: There certainly was reinforcement that the arts do not play as prevalent a role as we think they should—especially arts education. The access and the opportunity that young people have is woefully short, not just to experience the arts but then actually engage in training and development in a particular arts discipline. And then talking pragmatically about what we can do to increase that, because not only does it speak to the quality of life of young people but it has an impact on all youth development aspects—graduation rates, college matriculation. So I think that all of that was very important. And issues specifically facing symphony orchestras—I was able to raise those and bring to the table the idea of the responsibility that we in the field have to share and communicate the public value that classical music and orchestras play in society.

VanderMeulen: Now that you’ve had this opportunity to meet with this group, what’s the next step? How do take those ideas out into the world?
Dworkin: One thing is being able to have a network and communicate with other people who are doing amazing work in the field and be able to learn from each other—what’s working, best practices, those types of things. Another is to build a community voice, to make sure that the voice of all of our constituents is heard and that our constituents speak up, so that the young people and their families in Detroit or in New York or any other city we’re working in speak out when the arts are cut, and speak out when there’s opportunity to have a voice in terms of budget allocation for arts education.

In some ways it would have been better if we could have been more proactive as a field in earlier years before we were in this crisis mode.

VanderMeulen: And you’ve been appointed to the National Council for the Arts?
Dworkin: Not yet. I’m still going through the Senate confirmation process, so hopefully we’ll know very soon.

VanderMeulen: I’m curious what your sense is of the current administration’s position toward the arts. Having fourteen arts education advocates invited to the White House for a roundtable shows commitment, but at the same time there seems to be concern in the arts community about things like funding. What’s your view?
Dworkin: I hope to learn a lot about the perspective of the other Council members and more of the policy and decision-making processes, and hope I can play a part in that. I am very confident that the administration and the President are committed to the arts and the role of arts in society and I think that goes to even before he was in office. We are caught up in this financial crisis, so as a result, where otherwise there were competitive arguments to be made relating to the arts, now we’re needing to make those in literally a crisis environment, which makes it all the more difficult. In some ways it would have been better if we could have been more proactive as a field in earlier years before we were in this crisis mode. Now everything’s being cut and it’s more a question of what gets cut the least as opposed to how can anything even grow. But I think in that environment, what it takes is creativity—exactly what we in the field all practice, in many ways. Can we realistically expect that arts budget allocations are going to significantly increase in any major area? Probably not. So are there other roles that the public sector can play to further infuse the arts in society and enable young people to be able to participate? I think that the President’s appointment of Rocco [Landesman as NEA chairman] and some of the steps that he’s taking are working toward that end. There is obviously a lot of work to be done but there’s no doubt on my part about the President’s commitment to it. But we’re operating in an incredibly difficult landscape.

Aaron Dworkin speaks to students at a Sphinx Competition Honors Concert. Photo by Glenn Triest.

VanderMeulen: Do you think this crisis mode will play a part in that the next Arts Advocacy Day? Will this year have more of a sense of urgency?
Dworkin:Well, I’ve become loathe to predict how things will pan out [laughs]—things are changing literally day by day with the government situation and the budget situation. But I believe we are very much at a crossroads as it relates to the arts and their role in society. And if we don’t make significant changes to the dialogue that we have, the arguments that we make, and the opportunities that we provide for young people, we may reach a point where it will be very difficult to resurrect the role and the preparation of young people and the way that arts integrates with society. Because we’re literally looking at potentially having a generation where the vast majority don’t experience the arts at a young age the way previous generations did. And it will take a long time to recover from that. So I do think that we need to have urgency and we need to be pragmatic about the financial realities that surround us, and get very creative about ways in which we can integrate the arts. That really is a key aspect, that the arts are not seen as ancillary. Let’s not just do it after school, let’s not just do it as this elective.

That really is a key aspect, that the arts are not seen as ancillary. Let’s not just do it after school, let’s not just do it as this elective.

How are the arts integrated into core curriculum? How are the arts integrated into society? So many times people view the arts and say, “Oh, that’s just a museum, that’s just an orchestra,” when it’s not—they experience the arts as soon as they wake up to music from the radio or through whatever book or article they’re reading. The arts do infuse our lives, and if we don’t communicate that to the public, and especially the necessity for young people to actually be exposed to and trained in those arts, then we will literally find ourselves with a generation who aren’t able to express our humanity through this medium.

VanderMeulen: Any closing thoughts?
Dworkin: Just that we should do whatever we can to build the rallying cry and to make the case across the spectrum—dance, music, literary arts—that this is not some luxury that would be nice if we could fund but when times are tough it’s got to be the first thing to go. And to look at how the arts are integral to society—what would our society look like without them and what would our society look like if we were not well-trained in these areas. And pragmatically, looking at our exports, looking at what I would call “creative industries.” We shouldn’t pigeonhole the arts into something that people feel they don’t engage with.

Photos by Glenn Triest


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