Kennedy Center chief regrets ‘strong language’ in talk about diversity in Honorees


Washington, DC - March 4: The Kennedy Center, March, 04, 2011 in Washington, DC (Bill O'Leary)
September 21, 2012

Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser said Friday that he regretted using “strong language” during a tense telephone conversation last week with Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, when the two men were discussing the lack of Latino artists among the Kennedy Center Honors recipients.

On Friday, Sanchez repeated his assertion — widely quoted this week in media reports — that during their Sept. 14 conversation, Kaiser said to Sanchez: “F--- yourself.”

Sanchez said to The Post that he was “exasperated” during the conversation. He said he was expressing to Kaiser his concern that Latinos had been once again shut out when the 2012 Honors were announced last week. “Just the act of challenging his decision making brought out his ire in which he used profanity,” Sanchez said.

Kaiser declined to state what words were exchanged, but he did not retreat from what he said were his strong feelings in response to Sanchez’s criticism.

“I’ve spent much of the last 20 years working with organizations of color in this country — African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American. . . . This is a real part of who I am, and so when someone insinuates that I am a racist, it gets me extremely upset.”

Since 1978, the center has chosen two Hispanics among its more than 170 Honorees: Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and U.S.-born performer Chita Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent — both during Kaiser’s nearly 12-year tenure. “There will be more,” Kaiser said.

The final decision on each year’s Honorees rests with the executive committee of the center’s board of trustees, Kaiser said. He said he does not have a vote but that he can make suggestions earlier in the process.

Sanchez said the Kennedy Center is not alone in underrepresenting Latino artists, pointing to a larger absence. “This is a classic example of the problem that we, as Latinos, have in the entertainment industry, in the news industry: We are not present,” Sanchez said.

Kaiser noted that in other ways, the Kennedy Center under his leadership has promoted Latino artists. For example, the central festival of his first three years, 2001-03, celebrated Hispanic art.

In addition, through his personal efforts and through the center’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management, Kaiser has helped train hundreds of artists and strengthened arts organizations across the United States and in Latin America, according to the center. In 2006, the president of Mexico awarded Kaiser the Order of the Aztec Eagle for his work in arts management training.

Sanchez said that efforts to work with and honor Latino artists in the United States should not be confused with importing and celebrating artists and theatrical or musical pieces from Latin America.

“We see that [trend] at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, art exhibits — we see that across the board in arts institutions: a preference for Latinos who are coming from their country of origin, as opposed to artistic contributions from U.S. Latinos,” Sanchez said.

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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