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.