Chicago Symphony’s leader to head Kennedy Center

December 10, 2013

The Kennedy Center has named Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, to be its third president, taking over the nation’s leading arts institution in a time of immense growth and expansion. Rutter, 57, will serve as both artistic and administrative director of the Kennedy Center’s theater, dance, chamber music and education initiatives, while overseeing the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.

She will begin the job in September, succeeding Michael M. Kaiser, who raised the center’s profile during his 13-year tenure. It is one of the most singular, daunting and well-paid arts jobs in the country — one that requires its leader to manage an opera, a symphony and a presidentially appointed board. Its fundraising dinners win Emmys. For many of the center’s 2 million annual visitors, the building is hallowed ground, functioning as both performing arts center and a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy.

Rutter has been selected to helm the nation’s busiest performing arts center as it seeks to diversify its audiences and enlarge its campus: She’ll begin her term overseeing the Kennedy Center’s privately funded $100 million expansion, the greatest addition to the marble complex in the institution’s history.

At the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Rutter turned around a storied symphony, virtually erasing its $6 million deficit while cutting costs and ending a short-lived strike. She championed innovative arts education initiatives, bringing in celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma to help create the orchestra’s Citizen Musician initiative, which entrenched the orchestra in the city’s schools and community centers. She recruited international superstars such as conductor Riccardo Muti, who serves as music director.

“Being at the nation’s performing arts center, where you can reflect on the importance of culture and play host to the great artists of America and around the world, it’s a fantastic opportunity,” Rutter said Tuesday about why she accepted the position. “When you believe so much in the power of art to change people’s lives, and that culture is a reflection of who we are, the opportunity to work not just in one specific field but to have the whole spectrum available is really exciting,” she said.


Deborah Rutter, the new President of the Kennedy Center (Todd Rosenberg/Todd Rosenberg Photography)

David Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center, praised Rutter’s record: “She had all the skills: an accomplished manager, a great love and knowledge of the arts, very good fundraising skills, a passion for community outreach,” he said. “The search committee spent a year and came to a unanimous decision that she was the best person in the country for the job.”

The Kennedy Center presidency is not only among the most visible performing arts positions in the country; under Kaiser it also became one of the highest-paid, with his 2012 salary at $1.38 million. Rutter’s salary in Chicago is less than half that amount, at $570,000. When asked whether Rutter’s salary will be comparable to Kaiser’s, Rubenstein demurred.

“We aren’t publicly disclosing her salary until the 990s become public,” Rubenstein said of tax filings the Kennedy Center is required to submit, which will become public in 2015. “Her compensation is an appropriate range for her experience and we’ve agreed to one that is fair and appropriate. . . . I don’t think anyone will be surprised by it.”

In the past three years, Rutter has achieved record ticket sales and fundraising revenue while increasing the Chicago Symphony’s endowment to $473 million, up $70 million since she took the post. In 2012, she demonstrated a tough negotiating style with the musicians’ union, which staged a two-day strike over its contract.

Despite tensions, musicians praise her leadership.

“We wish her the best going forward in her new position and we’re very happy for her — it’s been a good relationship,” said Steve Lester, a double bass player with the symphony for 35 years. “Like any relationship in these circumstances there can be ups and downs, but generally it’s been very positive. There’s no question that the orchestra is in a stronger position now than it was 10 years ago.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has worked closely with Rutter on arts initiatives in public schools. “As president of the Kennedy Center, I know that she will usher in a wonderful rebirth of this national treasure, just as her tenure here marked a rebirth of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” he said in a statement.

Although Rutter’s experience is mostly in the classical world — orchestras, chamber music and opera — Rubenstein noted that the selection committee was more focused on finding a candidate with proven managerial skills than programming breadth.

“It’s very rare to find an individual who has years of programming experience in opera, ballet, symphonic music and theater, among other things,” he said. “We weren’t looking for a programming expert as much as someone who can run a large organization while focused on community outreach, fundraising and visibility.”

Still, the scope of the Kennedy Center is one of its largest challenges, with a $200 million budget and 2,000 performances each year. Kaiser, who is leaving to take his DeVos Institute of Arts Management to the University of Maryland, compares the position to that of “a portfolio manager.” Although the Kennedy Center has run a surplus in recent years, Rutter’s financial acumen will be a great asset to the center, he said.

“I always say that the Kennedy Center can afford to do anything we want, but we can’t do everything we want, so the president has to make difficult choices about what we will and won’t do each year,” he said.

Before she ran the Chicago Symphony, Rutter was executive director of the Seattle Symphony for 11 years, during which time she oversaw the building of that orchestra’s home, Benaroya Hall.

While the Kennedy Center has already raised $90 million for its expansion, it’s unclear whether the project will address a long-standing challenge: its somewhat inaccessible location. Rutter noted that geography can be an obstacle to engagement, but that other invisible barriers persist in the performing arts world.

“Even if you’re right in the middle of the city, people may not feel welcome,” Rutter said. “In Chicago, the Symphony Center is right on Michigan Avenue and has an El stop, but it took awhile for us to break open the door to make people feel comfortable. . . . Most of it comes from the approach you take, and it’s something that I’ll need to study. But we have to make sure there are no barriers to participation.”

Born in Pennsylvania, Rutter grew up near Los Angeles and is a graduate of Stanford University, where she received a degree in German studies. She received her MBA from the University of Southern California while working at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A lifelong lover of music and the arts, she calls herself “a failed musician; I studied, but I never thought I was going to be a professional musician. It’s just something I wanted to do and be around all the time. I actually consider myself a professional arts consumer,” she said.

The Kennedy Center is also making history by choosing Rutter to be its first female president, putting her among a handful of women worldwide who are in charge of major performing arts centers. Previously, Marta Istomin served as artistic director at the Kennedy Center from 1980 to 1990 before the center chose its first president, Lawrence Wilker, in 1991.

Although Rutter has never lived in Washington, she’s no stranger to two of its most famous residents: Barack and Michelle Obama. She remembers introducing Barack Obama, whom she met in 2003 when he was an Illinois state senator, at an event in Chicago. Rubenstein said he informed the president and first lady of Rutter’s selection on Sunday at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. The Obamas were familiar with her work in Chicago and are “very pleased,” he said.

Anne Midgette contributed to this report.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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