A volunteer group of top corporate executives has pledged to raise $1 million a year for the Kennedy Center, President Ford announced yesterday.

Thomas R. Kendrick, director of operations for the Center, said the funds will be used as "unassigned money for the operating budget," which is now $16 million a year.

Possible uses of the money, he said, include operating the studio theater the Japanese government plans to build at the Center, funding education al programs or bringing foreign groups here such as Italy's La Scala opera.

The President said Donald S. MacNaughton, chairman of Prudential Insurance Co., will be chairman of the board of the New Corporate Fund for the Performing Arts at Kennedy Center.

MacNaughton said, "American business has a major stake in helping Kennedy Center project a meaningful message that our private enterprise system is concerned not only with the bottom line but also with the total enrichment of our lives."

The group will try to raise the $1 million in its first year through corporate subscriptions ranging from $5,000 to $50,000, he said.

Roger Stevens, board chairman for the Center, pointed out that the arts center operates on a balanced budget without public subsidy. The Center, he said, welcomed corporate support.

MacNaughton said corporate leaders who understand the importance of supporting cultural activities in their own communities will recognize the value of and need for supporting the performing arts in Washington, where the local corporate base is limited. "By helping make the nation's capital a world leader in artistic and cultural events, American corporations will enhance our national status to overseas visitors, many of them our customers and business associates," he said.

Appointed as vice chairmen of the group were Thornton F. Bradshaw, president, Atlantic Richfield Co.; Frank T. Cary, chairman, International Business Machines Corp.; John D. deButts, chairman, American Telephone and Telegraph Co.; Howard C. Kauffmann, president, Exxon Corp.; William F. May, chairman, American Can Co.; Thomas A. Murphy, chairman, General Motors Corp.; Irving S. Shapiro, chairman, E. I. Du Pont deNemours Co., and Rawleigh Warner Jr., chairman, Mobil Oil Corp.

Harold Burson, chairman. Burson-Marsteller, will be secretary of the fund.

A Center spokesman said the White House announced formation of the fund because the President endorsed the idea and is interested in the success of the Center.