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.