Reflections on SphinxCon

February 15-17, I attended the inaugural SphinxCon led by Aaron Dworkin along with Academy/Musical Bridges instructor Mark Stauffer.  SphinxCon was designed to create conversations about diversity.  Three-days of sessions were packed with presentations by national leaders in the Arts for 300 artists, leaders and teachers. There was a networking room set up next to the sessions, and all presenters were willing to talk personally.  Participants could also tweet which built a premise for remaining connected.  (Visit me on Twitter).

A few highlights:

Dworkin shared statistics about minority populations in not only orchestras, but also among composers and artistic directors. He made a delightful NFL comparison suggesting that arts organizations should adopt the Rooney Rule in music.  He also cautioned us about the telling of a single story.  Stats here.

Paul Hogle performed a presentation behind a curtain.  He identified attributes of the “Prevailing Orchestra” and suggested the following reasons orchestras are seeing such a deficit: music participation has declined, charitable giving is challenged, excellence is not enough, we romanticize the past and the communities we serve are different.  He proposes that opening up the format of auditions can help build excellence, participation and accountability.

Obviously, there was a theme of engagement.  The word outreach is dated.  To engage implies to understand, activate and build.  Deep collaboration is required for this to occur, not one time visits.  This should involve creating cross sections of community, the arts and simply, opening up new venues for viewing and appreciating art.

Monica Hairston O’Connell shared her Melba Listen Research Initiative.

Chorus America spoke about the notion of creating intentionally inclusive projects vs. unintentionally exclusive silos.  Also, diversity among governing boards was a theme.

Shirley Stancato (of the New Detroit coalition/reformed banker) emphasized that there was no quick solution.  She suggested getting people to agree that there is a problem first, then model the change you want and commit to how to make that happen.

Jawole Zollar was presented the Arthur L. Johnson award and she shared her story from UMKC to Urban Bush Women in detail.  Monica Bauman literally danced out their history. Most poignant for me was her discussion of connecting the ensemble with community through engagement. She talked about entering from a place of respect rather than outreach, which immediately disempowers the audience.  She also acknowledged all of her public support along the way.  She did not demystify.  She attributed much of her success to her community along the way.

“The discomfort of collaboration is the joy… Collaboration is not a compromise; it is a mutual listening process.”  She says that she was not the chosen one.  She believes that leadership development is part of the work.

Marshall Marcus talked about globalization and the networking architecture.  His program was the first international partner of El Sistema in London.  He suggested the following: “don’t push, watch behavior.”  He recommends two Ted talks: Sir Ken Robinson and Paddy Ashdown’s Global Power ShiftI had the opportunity to speak with him individually about Musical Bridges.

“Mirror the streets on stage.”  Think horizontal; the ladder is no longer vertical.  “The most important thing you can do is what you can do with others.”

Horst Abraham advises us to “humanize the art form.”  Leadership = function, not just a role.  Our fundamental goal should be to promote the organization.  Leadership characteristics include: courage, constant reinvention, shift a deficit to an opportunity, constant strategy will be disastrous, start with creativity (not structure), and hire an 18 year old!

Dennis Scholl and the Knight Foundation presented a Random Act of Culture – broke out into opera.

Michael Simanga of the National Black Arts Festival says “the conversation about diversity is actually a creative process… Our greatest capacity is to dream… Creative people are people that imagine a different world and solve problems of how to get there.”

Jim Hirsch of the Chicago Sinfonietta talked about Paul Freeman and his work in Chicago.

Chris Genteel of Google talked about how technology was leveling the playing field. He discussed various intersection points to access the digital age through scale (top circle), social media (left circle) and tools for artists (right circle).  He acknowledged that he was inspired by Mark Clague.

DelRoy Lindo: “My job as an actor is not to judge, but to humanize.”  What is your story and how are going to tell it?!

MK Wegman of the National Performance Network talked about cultural equity.  She identified that the distribution must be equal making a bigger pie.  She believes that is should be led by a refinanced, more robust NEA.

On the contrary, others like Robert Lynch felt the NEA was not the problem since over 60% of total income for non-profits is through earned income.  In fact NEA funding only makes up a small percentage of the pie.  We should instead take a closer look at how we can creatively bolster up the earned income.  He systematically went through American history to relay that art is a series of setbacks and pushes forward.  I really liked his diagram which emphasized how interconnected all the parts really are: Leadership, Audience, PROGRAMING, Staff and Written Policy.  Arrows flow both ways and emerge from the program.  What I took away: we can control our destiny by embracing the earned income part of the equation.  In fact, we NEED to do this in order to maximize our resources.

Jesse Rosen (League of American Orchestras) shared a wonderful resource through his organization: a list of best practices.  Great start!

John Herman of the National Guild for Community Arts emphasized four key points in promoting diversity in the arts: community assets, listening, collaboration and art (as a verb – something we actively DO).  He described a theater project in Detroit called Mosaic and how they made their success through six steps:

1. Assess need (focus on potential, make opportunities),

2. Reflect and adapt (i.e. treat students like professionals – this is a very empowering point that I have seen in action through MB),

3. Design engaging/high interest programs,

4. Choose the Right teaching artists and staff,

5. Identify and address boundaries of participation and

6. Commit to being involved for the long haul and expect mistakes.

One difference he identified between non-profits and academia is that non-profits embrace all three levels equally: funding, artistry and teaching.  Fair points I believe.  Check out his presentation here.

Andrea Hoffman talked about how the ethnic population will change by 2050.  We can go kicking and screaming, or we can go willingly.

Toni-Marie Montgomery spoke specifically to the  NASM HEADS report and celebrated University of Michigan as a model.  She attributes several reasons for success back at Northwestern, thus shifting diversity representation.

1. She named a Dean of Community Engagement who specifically recruits under-represented populations,

2. Named a Dean of Prep Programs,

3. Built programs modeled off of Eastman’s Pathway program (scholarship program for underrepresented populations)

4. Juilliard’s Music Advancement program; side note, they just received a 5 million dollar grant.  I had the pleasure of meeting Alison Scott-Williams, Dean of Diversity and Campus Life.

5. Partnered with Sphinx to host a summer session.

No surprise, Chamber Music America spoke specifically to diversifying chamber music with the desired outcomes: stage, audience, programming and satisfying goals.

Ken Fisher (University Music Society) shared 10 lessons in diversifying arts organizations:

  1. Overarching philosophy of inclusion and will to put it in action
  2. Start where you are
  3. Learn from experiences of others and ask for help
  4. Get out of the tower and into the community
  5. Build personal relationships with community leaders
  6. Create authentic partnership (involving communication, cooperation, vulnerability and reciprocity) and do not use the word outreach
  7. Ask three questions: What do you want?  What you I want?  What do we want together?
  8. Invite feedback regularly
  9. Remember that change takes time
  10. Keep at it and persist

We also enjoyed presentations by Sandra Gibson and Farai Chideya

Dworkin finished up with a plea to ACT.  He asked us to email ourselves.  After about a week, the instructions were to then review the message.  I thought I would do this through this document.  Next, I plan to follow up with Mark Clague, Aaron Dworkin and Alison Scott-Williams, and so many others.

Dworkin also shared his ROW concept – creating a Results Oriented Workplace.  He opened the conference/conversation with his anagram FIERCE (For InterrogatE Reality, provoke learning, tackle tough Challenges and Enrich relationships).  Good models.

The weekend ended with the 16th annual Sphinx competition, which we had the privilege to attend.  Results posted here.  For details about the any speakers, visit SphinxCon.