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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.