THE ANNOUNCEMENT Friday that the Kennedy Center will hire a director of television and special projects -- charged with planning some novel-sounding forays into national TV and other imaginative avenues -- is another sign of the steady progress being made under the center's new chairman, James D. Wolfensohn. Mr. Wolfensohn's entry into Washington has not been without its bumps and bruises, but they are mainly the sorts of jolts the center needs or at least can profit from. Backers were startled when he declared straight out that the Kennedy Center's financial situation is desperate -- nobody likes to hear the word "bankrupt" -- but the community benefited from the bluntness. It clarified matters for Congress, where Mr. Wolfensohn's immediate task has been to get a commitment from the government to do its part in what is, after all, supposed to be the "national center for the performing arts."
Mr. Wolfensohn clarified things for Congress and others in another important way, too: by taking what he calls "a gilt-edged pledge" not to request any money at all for programming. His request for emergency funding right now is $45 million; if Congress will help take care of the building, fix the leaky roof and retire some debt, he promises, the center's actual art, which is after all its reason for existence, will be of sufficient stature to attract its own funding. Though no dramatic departure from current practices, this pledge draws an explicit and much-needed distinction between the two kinds of burdens the Kennedy Center carries, which in turn flow from its odd multiplicity of roles. On one level, the center is a presidential monument and tourist attraction, sustained by the Parks Department; then, it's a local arts center, somewhat larger than the local community can support; finally, it's supposed to function as the national and international arts exemplar of an increasingly complicated American cultural scene, but without public funding. This contradictory mission, with its contradictions rarely spelled out, has been inhibiting the center's development for most of its 18 years.
Mr. Wolfensohn's strategy for cutting the knot is straightforward: the way to attract national-level private funding is to make the center into a place like no place else, not just another local center, to make a place that does things no other place would or can. Hence the TV post, the forthcoming Texas arts festival, the repeated emphasis on new approaches and joint projects.
It's a prescription that understandably makes some people uneasy. Longtime artistic director Marta Istomin, who has made her own enormous contribution to the center, resigned and charged Mr. Wolfensohn with neglecting or downplaying the concerns of day-to-day quality; the chairman argues that those kinds of concerns ought to go without saying; and as the concurrent chairman of New York's qualitatively unassailable Carnegie Hall his assertion carries a certain credibility. The sweeping financial shakeup now underway, with evaluations from two independent management consulting firms expected by summer's end, is likely to be another source of disagreement.
His goal, says Mr. Wolfensohn, is to start 1991 "in the black, with the structure and the aims clear" -- an ambitious intention and one that's likely to take him over a good many more jolts. He ought to get his $45 million and the city's interest and support.