“The Honors are the greatest weekend of the year, and it is also the bane of our existence,” Deborah Rutter said with a laugh. For the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the annual Kennedy Center Honors, airing on CBS on Dec. 26 and honoring dancer Carmen de Lavallade, rapper LL Cool J, television producer and writer Norman Lear and singers Gloria Estefan and Lionel Richie, is a welcome national spotlight on the memorial to the late president. But that’s all anyone seems to know about the the white jewel box on the Potomac.
“We really like to think about the other 364 days of the year, and all of the programming that happens on those days,” Rutter told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “What I love about being here at the nation’s cultural center is that we have really a mandate to welcome all of the performing arts. It is not just a performing arts center for one assumed art form or another.”
I bet you didn’t know that hip hop was one of those art forms at the Kennedy Center and that Q-Tip is its artistic director. “This is a first,” Rutter said. “And as far as I know, there is no other artistic director for hip-hop … anywhere in probably the world. And we’re very proud to have Q-Tip here leading, guiding and inspiring us.”
While she didn’t need much convincing, Rutter allowed that there could be others who might — for fear of what it could mean for the other arts. “Just because we are bringing in more programming that includes hip-hop artists, it does not mean that we’re doing less dance or less international programming or less of the National Symphony Orchestra,” she said. “It just means that we’re doing more, that we have thrown open the doors of the Kennedy Center, and we are ensuring that all are welcome here.”
There are nine performance spaces at the Kennedy Center that are in use all year. In addition to the orchestra and the Washington National Opera, Rutter noted the 46-year-old institution has “a magnificent, world-recognized ballet season. We have contemporary dance, we have jazz, we have a huge jazz series, chamber music, recitals, comedy, international programming.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Rutter talk further about the work of the Kennedy Center and how it fits into the cultural life of Washington. She goes into what it is like to be the local performing arts center for members of Congress, foreign diplomats and “quite a number of justices from the Supreme Court.” But Rutter insists none of those constituencies tries to exert influence over programming.
“Here at the center we have no limits on what we could present,” Rutter told me. “The problems I always describe is how to say no, when to say no, and how to not be really, truly overwhelmed by the extraordinary limitless richness of what happens here.”