Kennedy Center failing to reach its artistic potential

The Kennedy Center remains artistically isolated by a consistent lack of imagination about what a major urban arts center can do.


(Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

My favorite event this season at the Kennedy Center was probably the joint festival organized between the National Symphony Orchestra and the National Gallery of Art, the one devoted to the legendary 1889 Paris Exposition that electrified the avant-garde of Europe and changed the course of music and art. It was a logical collaboration given that the National Gallery is presenting a major show of works by Paul Gauguin, who was deeply influenced by the 1889 exhibition, and the National Symphony Orchestra regularly performs the music of Claude Debussy, who was equally impressed by the event.

Or perhaps it was the evening of early-19th-century theater scenes, read by local actors, and introduced by a scholar who is studying the role of race and revolution in early-American theater at the Library of Congress’s prestigious Kluge Center. Or the ongoing series devoted to the best international period instruments groups or even better, the festival of new one-act plays that took over the Theater Lab space where the endless run of “Shear Madness” finally came to an end.

If you missed any of those, don’t worry, because they did not happen. And that’s a problem.

The Kennedy Center is physically isolated from the city of Washington by bad urban planning. It remains artistically isolated by a consistent lack of imagination about what a major urban arts center can do. The three imaginary events missing from this season point to the same missing elements that define much of next year’s season, too: failure to collaborate with other blue-chip arts organizations in Washington, failure to capitalize on the academic and intellectual heft easily available in the Washington area and failure to keep Washington abreast of the major innovations and trends in the performing-arts world.

Just out of curiosity, I ran the Kennedy Center’s 2011-12 season announcement, released Tuesday, through a standard tag cloud generator — an online tool that shows the frequency of particular words used in a body of text. It’s a blunt tool, and news releases don’t traffic in picturesque language. But it was telling to see what words either don’t appear in the announcement or appear so infrequently as to be invisible: radical, cutting-edge, new, local, lecture, panel, discussion, collaborative.

To be fair, the Kennedy Center does offer educational events and collaborates with small arts organizations, but ongoing discussion series such as the center’s Explore the Arts program are at best supplemental rather than fundamental to the way the center thinks about contextualizing art. Put another way, the Kennedy Center has yet to see art and ideas as fundamentally and inextricably linked.

Worse, the center seems to be backsliding into bad old habits. In 2007, the center reached out to arts organizations across the city to create a Shakespeare in Washington Festival. Granted, there was no particular need for promoting Shakespeare in this Shakespeare-saturated town, but the collaborative instinct was commendable. And the center has a good track record for planning and executing major international festivals, such as the one devoted to China in 2005 or the Maximum India festival (through March 20), that bring hefty amounts of new and challenging art to the city.

But the Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna festival announced for next season isn’t a festival at all. It has no argument or point of view, and seems not so much curated as cobbled together from standard-issue programs from various performing groups. If the Phillips Collection mounted an exhibition called “Paintings From Paris” that did nothing more than present a room full of paintings from Paris, it would be laughed off its place in the hierarchy of serious museums.

Times are tough, of course, and there must be jitters about whether Congress will approve the money for the center in the current Obama budget plan. But as the center’s president, Michael Kaiser, has argued, it’s when times are tough that arts organizations should double down on the serious work they do best. And yet, how can one explain the minimal number of new commissions this year, or the consistent recourse to warhorse repertoire when visiting groups, such as the Paris Ballet, come to town?

Anyone who tried to log on to the center’s Web site Monday, when tickets for the Broadway musical “Wicked” went on sale, knows part of the answer. A mad rush to secure seats almost crashed the site, forcing visitors into a virtual waiting room with a queue of more than 1,000 people at times. That kind of enthusiasm is good for any presenter’s bottom line, but it’s enthusiasm for a musical that doesn’t need the center to reach an audience. The center will always rely on commercially successful entertainment product to help subsidize its serious artistic ventures, but this year the balance is wrong and the results dispiriting.

Center spokesman John Dow disagrees that the season is light on substance. “We present world premieres (ABT’s “The Bright Stream”), artists that can only be seen here (exclusive American engagement of Sydney Theatre Company’s “Uncle Vanya”), and devote increased attention to nontraditional art forms (Street Arts Festival),” he said in an e-mail. “I believe we are the first area arts organization to go live with a mobile Web site and we are the only arts organization in the world to present and broadcast a free performance every day of the year.”

But the problem is bigger than a season that doesn’t excite critics, who are by nature interested in work that isn’t always popular with audiences. This summer, the Washington National Opera will officially be subsumed under the management of Kennedy Center. Will the new relationship expand or contract the artistic daring of the opera? The 2011-12 season doesn’t give one much room for optimism.

Much of what the center might do to increase its artistic and intellectual gravitas is relatively inexpensive. Collaboration is cost-effective. Panels, discussions and lectures might be promoted to a bigger role in the center’s daily offerings, and they are in general relatively cheap to produce, compared with the fees of major artists. Other arts organizations, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, have found that innovation and daring can build and expand audiences. Even a little serious meditation on institutional purpose might have long-term salutory effects. And here’s a thought they might consider: Has the center now put too much energy into educational and arts management programs, and too little into serving its existing, and hungry, audience?

Arts organizations go through life cycles and must occasionally reinvent themselves. Somewhere along the way, the Kennedy Center lost its sense of national and international leadership, its conviction that it was a player not just in Washington, but among the top arts centers in the world. In the past decade, Washington has grown up, become more urban in its thinking, more cosmopolitan in its taste, more daring and professional in its local arts scene. The Kennedy Center needs to get out more.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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