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The following is a conversation between Deborah Rutter, the President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: One of the most well-respected and revered institutions in all of America is The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. And for me, if I can name just one organization that I would be curious to know more about, that would be the one…in part because there is just so much to know. And that is why I am absolutely delighted that we have with us this evening their president, Deborah Rutter.
Good evening, Deborah, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Deborah: Thank you. I am so delighted to be here.
Denver: Let us start by having you tell us about the history of The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and how it all came to be.
Deborah: Actually, this is a very interesting history that I didn’t know before I came to The Center. In fact, George Washington, when they were planning the City of Washington, had it in his mind that they should have a cultural center, but priorities got a little distracted at that time and it took until the 1950s. Eisenhower actually signed authorization to create a cultural center for the United States of America and sent it off for the people to raise money, and very little money was raised.
When John F. Kennedy became president, having a cultural center became very important, both for his wife, Jacqueline, who of course was a big lover of the arts, but for him as well. And so, at that time, under their leadership, they helped to really promote this idea of having a national cultural center.
There’s a famous video of a fundraiser where Leonard Bernstein is hosting an event; a 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma and his sister are playing for the President and Mrs. Kennedy. And you can go on YouTube and find it today; it’s adorable. But it brings full circle what this is all about for us at The Center. After he was assassinated, Mrs. Kennedy was asked by Congress: How would you like your husband to be memorialized? And she said, “I would like to have the nation’s cultural center named after him.” At that point, they started raising the money, designing, and really going full force on the construction of the project. Now, it took a long time.
Denver: They always do.
Deborah: So, there’s a famous picture of Johnson with a shovel… but it didn’t open until 1971. So, quite a long time from his death to the opening, but we have been celebrating John F. Kennedy ever since.
We have a resident opera company, The Washington National Opera. We have a resident symphony orchestra, The National Symphony Orchestra. We have a full season of ballet, a huge dance program, one of the largest jazz programs in the country, chamber music, contemporary music, and contemporary jazz music. We have international programming. We have spectacular theatre, musical theatre program. We have international festivals and 40 programs for education, including theatre for young audiences and all the traditional young people’s kinds of programs. We have a program every single day, 365 days a year at 6 p.m., free to the public.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, The Kennedy Center does such an amazing range of things that I sometimes wonder, Deborah, if the people in the building are even aware of all of them. Give us a snapshot, if you can, of the breadth and scope of all that you do.
Deborah: It is something that until you have lived and worked in D.C. and at The Kennedy Center for a period of time, you can’t really grasp. At the moment, and I say that because we’re expanding our footprint, but today, we have nine performance spaces. Three are major, large venues — from a concert hall of 2,300 to an opera house of 2,100 to a small theatre with 350 seats. But we also have very informal black box spaces…ones that can transform into other spaces.
We have a resident opera company – The Washington National Opera. We have a resident symphony orchestra – The National Symphony Orchestra. We have a full season of ballet, a huge dance program, one of the largest jazz programs in the country, chamber music, contemporary music, and contemporary jazz music. We have international programming. We have spectacular theatre, musical theatre program. We have international festivals and 40 programs for education, including theatre for young audiences and all the traditional young people’s kinds of programs. We have a program every single day, 365 days a year at 6 p.m., free to the public.
Denver: Oh, wow.
Deborah: So, we are really for everybody. Just recently, we expanded all of that programming to now include a major comedy season and just added hip-hop to our regular programming. So in addition to all of what you expect at a performing arts center, we’ve added to really complement what we already have, but also in response to what we have learned from our audiences what they’re interested in.
So, we’re thrilled with the expansion of our programming in this way, and we believe there is something for everybody at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as he would want it to be.
Denver: Sounds that way to me. A lot of institutions rolled into one. Speaking of John Kennedy, it was earlier this year… I think it was May 29… that we commemorated the 100th anniversary of his birth. It certainly was the time for your organization to reflect and recommit to the original vision of The Kennedy Center. What were some of the things that came out of that, Deborah?
Deborah: Anniversaries are great moments for reflecting on the legacy of an individual, and performing arts organizations frequently do that around big dates of some sort. So, think of having a celebration around Mozart or Dvořák or Beethoven or a choreographer or a playwright.
Denver: Bernstein next year, right?
Deborah: And for us now, Leonard Bernstein. And so when it came to the concept of coming up to the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy, we thought, “Okay, well, the library is going to do something…” The Kennedy name is everywhere around our world. What will a performing arts center do for a president? We can’t really speak to his legacy per se in terms of his specific actions, but what we could do is celebrate what he stood for: What were his ideals? What do we think of when you think of John F. Kennedy?
And so we decided to build our programming and our celebration of John F. Kennedy around what he stood for and his ideals. So, our team thought about this at great length, did a lot of reading and research and came up with a concept of celebrating his ideals of service, courage, freedom, justice. And then, after we spoke to the family to review this, to make sure we were on point, we added gratitude because that was really about who they were as a family and who John F. Kennedy was.
So, building on those kinds of ideals, what do programmers do? We had such creativity from our really brilliant programmers. We did programs around Cesar Chavez. We did the operas Dead Man Walking and Champion. We commissioned a new dance work. We featured a whole program of repertoire and commissioned a new work from our composer and resident, Mason Bates, who used the words of John F. Kennedy and Walt Whitman to envision what a future would look like with John F. Kennedy, and it was really fantastic. So, a lot of creativity in all of the art forms.
On the weekend, which happened to be Memorial Day, we had a fantastic huge open house with just wild things happening. Dancers… the great dance group, Bandaloop, dancing on the side of the building, and every kind of art and theater and music in all of the spaces around the building. So we had 15,000 visitors over one day on Memorial Day weekend. And then on the day itself, we had a beautiful sort of retrospective of who he was — videos, language, music, reflections on who he was and his words themselves. It was really a wonderful way for us to really bring John F. Kennedy back to life in a very real, tangible way.
When you are the living memorial to a fallen president, sometimes, as we who walk around the building all the time, might take it for granted. And we really wanted to remind people about the fact that the Kennedy Center is a memorial to President Kennedy and why. Why would a performing arts center be named after a president? And this was a great opportunity for us. We’re really excited about this as really, frankly an ongoing approach to our programming.
Denver: Sounds absolutely splendid. Well, The Kennedy Center has grown so since it opened in 1971, and it can also be tricky to get to, particularly with the Potomac River at its back. So, there has been an ambitious expansion project that began a number of years ago. What will this expansion mean to the Kennedy Center, to the audiences that come visit? And where does that project currently stand?
Deborah: Thank you so much for asking that question. This expansion of The Kennedy Center is really about thinking about audiences of the future and how do audiences want to engage with art and artists. How can they participate more deeply themselves? How can we take the grandeur of The Kennedy Center and its truly awesome experience? And I say that because as a newcomer walking into the building, you have that jaw-dropping moment when you see the scale and the vastness of the beauty of the place… and it is a little intimidating just because of the sheer size. And the more you get to know it, the scope of activity… we wanted to bring all of that experience to a more human scale. We wanted to open the doors a little bit more freely.
So we have, in parallel to the nine spaces at The Kennedy Center, which are a little bit more formal, we will have nine spaces in a much more informal setting — all of them light-filled, all of them very accessible, day-in, day-out, to bring audiences and artists closer together. So that you as an audience member can actually see rehearsals taking place, maybe have the opportunity to visit while a work is being created or being put together, to participate in the process, and to have more small-scale artistic experiences.
So instead of having a formal stage where a string quartet might be and the audience sitting in seats, you might sit in a beautiful acoustic space with the string quartet in the middle of the room, and that you’re sitting all around it, and that young people might sit on the floor. Or you might be able to be a part of a dance workshop or a poetry slam in a much more accessible, intimate experience.
So what we have come to understand about audiences is that they actually want to have a more personal, maybe intimate experience with the art as it’s taking place.
Denver: Yeah. Younger people especially.
Deborah: Younger people especially. So this is about how artists and audiences will participate in the arts in the future.
Denver: And when is that expansion going to be completed?
Deborah: It’ll be another year to a year and a half.
Denver: So not that far away.
Deborah: It’s not too far away. We just have this year and the next six months… we’re in the big crunch of programming to prepare for its opening a season later.
Denver: Sounds cool.
Deborah: So, we’re very excited about it.
We think of ourselves as both a local, national and international arts organization. And we are the home. This is where you will go to see your orchestra. This is where you will go to see musical theater. So, we absolutely are the living room for all of the people in the DMV.
Denver: How do you balance your role, Deborah, between being the national arts center– the one that people in the field look to for guidance and direction– but really also, the local concert and performance space for the people living in the D.C. metro area?
Deborah: Right. We think of ourselves as both a local, national and international arts organization. And we are the home. This is where you will go to see your orchestra. This is where you will go to see musical theater. So, we absolutely are the living room for all of the people in the DMV. That was something new to me: District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia – DMV. But we also serve quite a lot on a national basis. Both of our affiliate organizations, the opera and the orchestra, have the word national in their name. And the idea is the impact is intended to be across our country. Most importantly, I would say though, is that we have education programs that reach across the country.
Denver: You sure do.
Deborah: We have education programs in all 50 states, and they vary from being convenings and bringing together the best in a community so that we can think about arts education in that community and encourage and empower leaders in local communities to do that work. It’s a program called Any Given Child. We also do training programs for teachers and empower teachers on a statewide basis. We have a program called VSA, which is supporting artists with disabilities and accessibility to the arts for people with disabilities. And that is one of the most important national programs that is perhaps least well-known that’s based at The Kennedy Center–a true resource. Now, this is one that I, in all of my other positions, knew about and we used VSA as a resource for us.
But then we have in-school programs. Turnaround Arts is a part of our family now, and we have arts integration programs that we are taking to nearly 70 schools across the country to demonstrate that schools with arts integrated into the curriculum are going to be stronger and perform at a higher level. So, it’s really those programs, more visible than anything else… other than perhaps our fantastic tour programs for our theater for young audiences… that really make The Kennedy Center a national organization, serving people on a national level.
We believe that we have a responsibility around being a role model in the arts by bringing all of the arts to the nation’s cultural center, but it’s about helping local institutions really appreciate the value of the arts every day is what really makes us the national. On an international level, it’s about touring. It’s about education programs. It’s about partnerships.
Denver: Meeting the budget is a challenge for so many arts organizations, and that is something that you have successfully done. What are your different and various revenue streams that make up The Kennedy Center budget?
Deborah: That’s a subject that most people have no understanding of at all. We are both a federal agency, in some ways, and then a private-nonprofit as well. Because we are the federal memorial to John F. Kennedy, the federal government actually supports the maintenance and operation of the building itself — the memorial itself, of course, and the activities that are associated with the memorial. But all of the other programs, therefore, are then funded like a traditional nonprofit organization.
So that aspect of our work is about $185 million, $190 million depending on the year. And we are different from other organizations just because of the volume of activity that takes place when I mention that all of the operations of all of those activities that I mentioned earlier fall within that $185 million. So, we have $70 million worth of ticket sales. For my colleagues in the arts world, they are probably having a heart attack at this very moment because the budget of the Chicago Symphony where I was before coming to The Kennedy Center was about $75 million.
Denver: Yeah. And you’re doing that in ticket sales.
Deborah: So to sell tickets to the tune of $70 million is not insignificant. We have upwards of two million people buying tickets every year. We raise about another $80-, $85-, $90 million, depending on what’s going on in the year, in contributions, and those are from $25 to $5 million. That is the range. So, everybody is welcome.
Denver: Everybody. Yes.
Deborah: Absolutely everybody.
Denver: Get on board.
Deborah: Everybody is welcome, and every gift is really important because we have just exactly the same issue as any nonprofit. We’re getting down- our fiscal year-end is this week, and we are in the midst of raising the last dollars to balance our budget, and we all have that same issue. We make money on concessions and hall rentals and gift shop and all those things that other people, other nonprofits do as well.
I love it when I see a staff member–and you know them because they’re wearing their badge around their neck–find somebody who’s wandering around lost, saying, “Can I show you to where you are looking? And can I tell you the story of John F. Kennedy?” That is the best way to build friends, and building friends is about raising money as well.
Denver: And one thing that I really admire too is you have created a culture of philanthropy there where everybody in the organization has the mindset that they are a fund-raiser, whether it is directly or indirectly. How have you been able to communicate that message? And how does that impact the organization?
Deborah: I will hearken this back to my days when I lived in Seattle. Seattle loved and owned and breathed this Nordstrom philosophy. And I call it back to Nordstrom but, of course, all of the high-end retail and restaurants and hotels have the same sort of philosophy that you’re only as good as the relationship you have with your customer. And so we have really built an environment where the customer is our most important asset.
In our case, we believe our artists are just as important as our customers, but I think our artists are the first to say “without the audience, the artist is only as good as what we do for one another.” So, the customer is really the guest. We call it the guest experience — not the customer experience, but the guest experience — because we have maybe 2 million visitors to come in with tickets, but we have another 2 million, 3 million who visit the center as guests, as tourists to see the memorial, to experience the memorial.
So we are always thinking about how can we provide the guest the best possible experience at the Kennedy Center or in association with it at that. And from the moment you think about buying a ticket on our website, to the moment you walk through the door–some of our best folks and best fundraisers frankly our security guards, our ushers, the people who greet you for concessions–and certainly the way we think about our programming and all of our interactions with every guest.
I love it when I see a staff member–and you know them because they’re wearing their badge around their neck–find somebody who’s wandering around lost, saying, “Can I show you to where you are looking? And can I tell you the story of John F. Kennedy?” That is the best way to build friends, and building friends is about raising money as well.
As the nation’s cultural center, I believe we need to reflect all of the culture of our nation. This does not mean just the art forms that perform so nicely on the stages that we happen to have, but to really think about how we can bring all of the arts and all of the artistic expression of the people of our country together in the capital, and to provide a platform for them to really thrive and shine.
Denver: Bottom line, you’re absolutely right. Let me pick up on what you just said about how you think about your programming. Here you are, the national center, people look towards you, and the world is changing quickly. So, how do you think about your programming and audiences in today’s world?
Deborah: I’ve spent my whole career before coming to The Center working in the field of symphony orchestras. I frankly fell in love with, being a musician myself as a young person, and dedicated my life to this magnificent art form, but I always had a broad curiosity for the other arts. I come from a family who love the arts, but more importantly, it was the curiosity that kept me going through all the years and looking at ways in which we can evolve the experience for symphony orchestra and for the patrons of the symphony orchestra.
As the nation’s cultural center, I believe we need to reflect all of the culture of our nation. This does not mean just the art forms that perform so nicely on the stages that we happen to have, but to really think about how we can bring all of the arts and all of the artistic expression of the people of our country together in the capital, and to provide a platform for them to really thrive and shine. And I’ll say, some people don’t like it that they think we’re diminishing another art form. Well, no. We’re just maximizing all the stages and all the places that we have, and we’re going to have more in the future. Not everybody can and should be on the opera house stage. You have to have grand theater, as it were, every so often as ballet or theater or opera on that stage, but we have many other smaller stages.
And so, one of the great festivals that we had about a year and a half ago was called American Acoustic. And Chris Thile, who’s the magnificent mandolinist, brought all kinds of people who play string instruments, acoustic string instruments, together. So, whether it was a violin or a bass or a cello, it was also a banjo, and it was his mandolin or the ukulele, and we played a huge, wide variety of music throughout all of the venues at The Kennedy Center.
Renée Fleming, a couple of years before that, had American Voices. And again, she brought not just other opera singers, but other singers of all sorts. So, that’s why we invited Renée to come back. She has an ongoing curatorial relationship with us, and she has a series that she puts together called Voices. And it is not about one type of song. It is about all types of song as expressed through singing voices. It’s been hugely popular, and we have an ongoing large subscription to that, which means people don’t want just one type.
Deborah: Audiences today are much more diverse in their interests than they ever were before. That’s what’s happening in our society. So, the more we open the doors, the more we’re bringing more people in. It doesn’t mean that we’re pushing anything out. We just have more.
Denver: And as a way you describe it, it sounds like fun.
Deborah: It is.
Denver: People are having fun.
Deborah: People are really having fun, and it is changing how people experience these iconic buildings. And I think that is an important thing as you think about the future because these are expensive buildings to build; they’re expensive buildings to maintain. If you do not make them responsive to what people in society today are interested in, then you have to build the other spaces. And why would you lose these beautiful and iconic spaces just because the art forms are evolving?
So, we are working really hard to make sure that our folks, our curators, as well as our production team are flexible, nimble, responsive to what’s going on. And so we don’t fix the season and then never change it. We announce the season, and then we keep adding more things through the year, which makes it an exciting place to come and visit and know that there will always be something interesting happening at The Center.
Denver: It is not stagnant. You have brought a bunch of exciting new elements to The Center under your leadership, and I know you’ve always been a big believer in a composer-in-residence wherever you have gone. There was one at your first job at the LA Philharmonic, but when you came to The Kennedy Center, there wasn’t one. There is now. Tell us who it is, and why you think it is so important for an institution to have one.
Deborah: Well, I think, somewhere flowing through my blood is the belief in the new creation of art, whether it is an author, a playwright, a choreographer, and certainly a composer. And everybody is a composer — meaning composers don’t just write classical music. Composers are writing songwriters, all of that. In the case of classical composers, it is something I think that most people are a little bit afraid of, don’t understand, feel it is a little bit you-must-be-like-a-rocket-scientist-I-don’t-get-you. So for me, it’s about bringing that individual into the center of our social commentary, bringing his — in this case “his”– but often his or her ideas, his interest in collaborations and shining a spotlight on them, so that people actually become more familiar and less afraid.
There were decades where a composer, it felt like the work was being done to scare people away: “Let me show you how smart I am,” and then the rest of the world will be scared away.” Today, more so, these composers are really truly reflective of what’s going on in our society. And Mason Bates, who I got to know in Chicago–we worked closely together at The Chicago Symphony–is working in this fascinating world of his passion for the symphonic classical instruments and Electronica. He has this world where he lives both as an Electronica DJ in a club, but he also then really loves writing for classical instruments. And Mason, I’ve now known him long enough; he is passing over a milestone birthday, which is bringing him closer to… I shouldn’t say middle age, but he’s still young, and he looks even younger. And what’s really great is he grew up in Virginia. And so, in a way, The Kennedy Center… and he had said that the Kennedy Center was sort of a beacon for him in his youth.
Denver: I bet.
Deborah: He is now a man of the world and he actually lives in Berkeley, California. But he comes so often to The Kennedy Center and is so immersed in our programming that it’s really fantastic. And he has done exactly what I hoped, which is to really get everybody at The Center to rethink how we present classical music, contemporary music as well, and diversify our offerings and how we present them. It’s much more immersive. And I use that word because — think of dropping something into a bucket of water. It’s immersed and you’re surrounded. You’re engulfed. You’re embraced — and that’s the kind of programming that he does.
So he takes a space. He puts music all around it. He actually is concerned with what it feels like and looks like as well as what it sounds like. And you move around the space. You might be holding a cocktail while you do so. You might be standing with a friend, or your friend is interested in something else on the other side of the room. So, you have a different kind of interaction from going to a concert, holding your ticket for the usher, going finding your seat, sitting down… what’s the program tell me I’m going to hear. It’s a totally different kind of experience. And this is exactly what we’re looking at for the future because that’s what our audiences of the future are looking for, and Mason is helping bring that to the Center.
Denver: It certainly does speak to those future generations, and also it makes you somewhat different than just booking acts. You’re creating something. And that really just changes the way you look at an organization.
Deborah: Exactly. Exactly.
…when you come to the music and to the art form with humility and joy, you bring another experience that is so resonant for audiences today. And it certainly is resonant to the musicians of the orchestra.
Denver: You also have a new musical director for The National Symphony Orchestra. Someone who everybody says, “What a coup!” Tell us about that.
Deborah: Gianandrea Noseda is one of the great conductors of our time. He is Italian, and so whether it’s a British accent or an Italian accent or some other accent, in America, we always find that to be charming, don’t we? And he has spoken quite a bit from the stage, but we’ve made videos that are on our website and our YouTube channel. But he is a really engaging individual who thinks about bringing the best out of artists and musicians. And I think that when you come to the music and to the art form with humility and joy, you bring another experience that is so resonant for audiences today. And it certainly is resonant to the musicians of the orchestra.
I have worked with him in a couple of different places, and he has always been enormously popular, both with the orchestra and audiences. I will say, it is his deep understanding of the score that is that. It is not because he is some flashy conductor with his hair flying or anything; and there’s nothing wrong with that too. But more importantly, when you bring the importance of the meaning of the work to the fore… so that it is then transparent and shared with the audience… that that’s when the audience responds. It is very superficial if it is just a show on the stage, but not truly a deep connection to the music. And he is very serious about his musical study and helping the orchestra have that same understanding, and then making it transparent and come to life for the audience.
So, yes. He is charming, and, yes, he’s nice, and he has this nice accent. But most importantly, he is an authentic musician who does this in the world of classical music and opera both. And I couldn’t be more proud of his flexibility and interest and understanding what it’s like to be an American and work in America today. He has done four programs with us now, and two of them he embraced as important to do. Just most recently, the opening of the NSO season was also the opening of our Bernstein celebration and so he did a whole program on Leonard Bernstein. So, here he was debuting in his role as music director, and he was foregoing himself as the spotlight to shine it on Leonard Bernstein. And he learned a few new works for that program so that he would give a really authentic program for that opening of the season.
Denver: You have to like that kind of humility.
Deborah: Really, really. And in the face of the music itself, that is what I believe a true artist is.
Denver: You also mentioned a few moments ago, hip-hop. And you have a Director of hip-hop culture, somebody who I have never heard of, to be quite honest, Q-Tip. Tell us about what you’re doing around that.
Deborah: I will convey that I had my own journey of learning.
Denver: Glad to hear that, by the way.
Deborah: And while I knew music, I knew a bit about the art form, I really felt like, as I was seeing and experiencing firsthand how the work of hip-hop was having a really important impact, bringing audiences to The Center and also transforming the art that was taking place on the stage, I felt like I needed to understand this more deeply and had some good help from interesting sources. In fact, the former social secretary to President Obama was very thoughtful in saying, “Let’s think about it this way.” And then I reached out and spoke at great length to our artistic director for jazz, Jason Moran. And we, therefore, thought, “Okay. This is something we really need to explore. It needs to be a part of our Center.”
When I understood that this was an art form that has been around for 40 plus years, this is not something that is a passing fad. This is not something that is only for one audience. And even if it was, I would be okay with it. But this is an art form that is here and evolving, changing, developing, and making an impact on artists today. And in doing that exploration, found some fantastic people to collaborate with and did our own exploration of who we should invite to come in.
Q-Tip is revered as a performer. He is revered as a thought leader, offers great perspective, is not coming with any sense of his own personal ego as a performer, and that’s exactly who you want as an artistic director. We then realized that we needed to bring on staff somebody who could be a true partner to him, help interpret his ideas to how do you make it work within the performing arts center. And so we have a new administrative director for contemporary culture and hip-hop. The two of them have come up with a fantastic season for us.
And you know you’ve done a really good thing when your nephew, 20-year old nephew, sends you a love letter via text and email saying, “This is the greatest thing you could have ever done.” That to me means that there’s resonance not just to the people who we get in this area. He lives in California, he goes to college in California, and he was aware of what was going on and why we were doing it. And that means we are serving as the nation’s cultural center. And kudos for the aunt here.
…the more we have toys and games, the more we need and thrive and long for human interaction… I think that there are art forms that need to transform and evolve and reconsider the spaces and the approach and the format of their performances, but there are people who are clamoring to come to experience whatever it is, live.
Denver: Auntie Deborah has finally delivered. You often hear these days, Deborah, that people don’t want to go to live performances anymore. There are just too many other options out there, too much good stuff to do at home with all our toys and games and tech and things. You don’t buy that for a moment, do you?
Deborah: Not at all. And in fact, I think the more we have toys and games, the more we need and thrive and long for human interaction. There was a fantastic article just recently in the Washington Post, and it was about what happens to your brain and to your being as you are experiencing live art. Whether it is music, or dance, or theater, the shared experience is so different.
And there is something kind of odd about it, but having just last night gone to the theater here in New York, I can tell you that the experience I had in a space with a thousand other people was so much greater than if I had been watching that on television at home. There is nothing like the live performance experience. And I can tell you that at The Center, we have great audiences. I think that there are art forms that need to transform and evolve and reconsider the spaces and the approach and the format of their performances, but there are people who are clamoring to come to experience whatever it is, live.
We have all watched comedy on television for a really long time. Comedy has exploded at The Center. And you’ll have one person standing on the stage at the concert hall and you will have 2,300 people night after night, sometimes, twice in a night, because they want to be together sharing that experience, laughing…
Denver: We all need to laugh these days.
Deborah: And thinking, and that I truly believe will never go away. People have said, “Oh, people don’t want to go.” Now, I do think that there are issues that are related to traffic and access and ticket prices. And that’s why we offer so many things for free, and so many things at discounted rates so that people can have an opportunity to come and experience the arts.
Denver: One thing we do like to watch on TV is The Kennedy Center Honors which are every December, and I know CBS broadcasts them in that week between Christmas and New Years. It started back in 1978. Tell us who’s in store for this year.
Deborah: This year, we have a really great group of people, as we do every year, and this is now my fifth. It’s the only one where I’ve been deeply involved for three of them, but this will be the fifth time I sit in the theater and experience it. We have both the oldest and the youngest honoree this year. So the oldest is Norman Lear, and I’m just so thrilled. I can’t–we all grew up, well, we didn’t all grow up. My daughter didn’t grow up.
Denver: You and I did.
Deborah: But you and I did. And to some degree, he is still working today. And there are still people growing up watching and loving the work of Norman Lear. And so he’s our oldest at 96, I think. And then the youngest is LL Cool J. And LL Cool J will become 50 in January. He is our first rap musician to be honored. We’ve had rap musicians participating in the honors — honoring others, paying tribute to others — but he will be the first to be honored in this particular way.
Gloria Estefan, I really did grow up listening, dancing, singing along with Gloria. Really excited about–think about that Cuban influence on the stage is going to be a great tribute. Carmen de Lavallade is a beautiful, magnificent artist who is still dancing today at 86 years old. She is magnificent and beautiful and charming. So we’re thrilled because of the diversity of her work, primarily as a dancer, one of the early Alvin Ailey dancers, but she has worked in… one of the first things that I saw when I came to The Center was Carmen dancing on our Terrace Theater stage. But she’s also an actress, so we’ll have a lot of diversity there. Then Lionel Richie, who just–everybody, you have to love Lionel Richie.
Denver: You can’t help it.
Deborah: My 19-year-old daughter said, “Oh, I love Lionel Richie’s music.” So we will have a beautiful, beautiful Honors this year. It’s one night out of 365. It’s one night out of the thousands of performances that we present at the Center. But I think because we represent the diversity of the arts across the country and we beam it into everybody’s home, that people really love it and pay attention. And now that we can have segments of it on our website, our YouTube page, people are loving going back and seeing old clips that have become truly iconic moments in the arts.
…being an artist is about reflecting what’s happening in our world today… You need to be informed; you need to have a balanced perspective; and you need to understand how, through your art, you can share that with the rest of the world.
Denver: I am so glad you got a hold of those. So, listening to everything you’ve said, I’d be curious as to what advice you might have for a young person today who’s training to be a musician in this changing world that you have so beautifully described.
Deborah: Well, I think that just as our parents and our grandparents often trained and got their job and stayed in that one job for their lifetime… or had two jobs but didn’t really change so much. And we all recognize that that doesn’t happen for any us any longer, that we are all having multiple experiences, moving around the country, and that we have to often reinvent ourselves. Lifelong learning is probably the aspect of who I am that I work on daily so that I am not stagnant, that I’m constantly growing, evolving, listening, learning. I think that the same is true for musicians. I think that freelance musicians often have this more naturally. It’s in their blood not to have just one job.
But if you’re a young flutist and you want to spend your life as a musician, you need to understand that you can’t just get one job and expect that job to be the job for the rest of your life, or a job like it; that we all have to be entrepreneurs. We all have to create our world of our professional lives as it were, and in so doing, fully develop our identities. I think being a fully educated, aware human being today is probably the first and most important prerequisite to being successful, no matter what you do.
Because no matter if you are the world’s greatest guitar player, if you don’t know what’s happening in the world around you, and you have really good thoughtful perspective, you’re not going to be able to be successful. Because really being an artist is about reflecting what’s happening in our world today. And if all you’re doing is reading notes on a page or reading lines in a play or following the choreography that somebody else is giving, you are not actually going to communicate enough of the soul of the art that you are trying to share. You need to know what’s going on in the world today. You need to be informed; you need to have a balanced perspective; and you need to understand how, through your art, you can share that with the rest of the world.
I believe, truly, that artists have a unique capacity to reflect what’s happening in our society in a way that others don’t, but they need to do it in collaboration. They can’t do it in isolation. They can’t do it without information. So, if you are a journalist, if you are a historian, an artist can help you; and for the artist, the journalist, the historian, the scientist can help. So, I think our world needs to come back to understanding the fullness of who we are as people; that you can’t put any of us into boxes; that we all need to interact with one another–scientists, artists, writers, those of us thinking about what’s happening in the world today. I think that you cannot hide yourself away in your practice room wherever that is… the rehearsal room for a dancer, etc. You will never fulfill your potential if you do that. You have to understand what’s happening in the world today.
Denver: Or you can’t connect. I’m actually going to close with that answer. You know what I mean, because that was perfect. Let me just ask one other thing, though. I know that many CEOs believe their number one job is to create a healthy work culture because every decision, everything that you do as an organization depends upon that. Tell us about the work culture, the corporate culture at The Kennedy Center. I know one thing you’ve done. You’ve really knocked down a lot of those silos, but tell us about it.
Deborah: The Kennedy Center is a very special place because of the fact that we embrace all of the art forms and we do it all under the watchful eye of John F. Kennedy. You know, he was a complicated man, too. Read all about him. Watch the films. He was a complicated man, but what he stood for and what he has inspired in others is really what motivates all of us every single day.
And my goal has been for us to be a much more horizontal organization where we work collaboratively across all of the art forms and across all of our areas of expertise. We do so with a sense of pride and responsibility and ultimately, a commitment to our artists and our audiences. Respect is probably the most important value that we hold for one another, and I think that trickles down from JFK himself. Literally, for those of you who have never been to The Kennedy Center, there is an enormous bust that sits watching all of us in the grand foyer at The Kennedy Center, and so a day doesn’t pass where we don’t all experience JFK watching over us.
But for us, I will say that diversity and inclusion are important values. And to understand that diversity and inclusion means all sorts of diversity — it’s different voices, different ideas and thoughts. So respect, diversity, and inclusion are sort of the driving forces. Now, we have traditional norms and mission and vision, values. We just did a survey of staff, and that ownership of who we are is probably the greatest thing that makes me very proud to have really exceptional employees and colleagues. And we all love the fact that when you walk into the theater or walk into that performance space, whatever format it might be, and see others really appreciating and experiencing the arts? That is the greatest reward of all.
Denver: For sure. You were born in Pennsylvania. You grew up in California playing the violin. Tell us about your journey to what you have referred to as the best job that anyone who loves all the performing arts can have.
Deborah: Well, it is the very best job, I will tell you that. Sometimes it’s a little tough to manage all the opportunities to experience the arts, but it is the best job. My family are big cultural consumers. They really thrive and live for music and theater. Dance, not as much, and that’s been for me the greatest new joy, to really see as much dancing. Part of that is just because I grew up in Southern California where we did not have as big a dance scene, but we did have a lot of music and theater.
I started piano just as every little, young kid does. And then in the third grade in my public elementary school, the third-grade teacher opened the cabinet and said: what instrument will you play? Not would you like to play! But will you play! Every single child learned an instrument. I got the violin, and it changed my life. I loved what it felt like to put the instrument under my chin. So having it right up against your body and the reverberation, there is a physical thing that happens to you and clearly happens to your brain when you’re playing and participating in music making. And to sit in an orchestra…no matter how good or bad… better when it’s good, but at any point, to sit with the sound around you, something happens to you physically, and now actually, we’ve learned that through scientific study and research that participation in music does enhance brain development. And that’s another whole conversation.
But playing the violin for me all the way through school, making important decisions around where I could play the violin, knowing full well I was never going to be a professional musician because I didn’t have the skill and, frankly, the personal capacity to practice for hours and hours and hours and hours. To be a professional musician, it does take five hours a day from a very early age to really perfect your art, and then a fair bit of additional skill to win auditions and get into an orchestra. But I loved it, and I wanted to always be around it. So, while I was still in school, I got my first job at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and there you go. It’s been that way ever since.
But I think the curiosity and the embracing of all ideas and exploring the world that I got from my parents is what brings me to where I am today and gives me the capacity to embrace new… even when you get to a place in your life where you sometimes, stereotypically, might be narrowing your interests, and for me, I feel like they’re growing all the time.
Denver: Well, Deborah Rutter, the President of the Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening and for a wonderful conversation. Tell us about your website and the ways that people can get involved or help support the organization.
Deborah: Thanks. Our website is kennedy-center.org, and on that website, you can explore all of the arts. We have a fabulous, beautiful, growing portion that we call the Digital Stage which has videos of dancers, videos of conversations. We had a fantastic series of conversations with great artists, most recently with Common, who is performing with the National Symphony Orchestra, and our YouTube channel of course as well, Kennedy Center. You can see everything from clips from the Honors to previews of upcoming performances.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks again Deborah. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Deborah: Thank you so much.
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