How the Kennedy Center’s new expansion is making the arts accessible for an entire community

By WP BrandStudio

On any given day at the REACH, the new Kennedy Center expansion opening this fall, the arts will manifest themselves in a number of ways. There might be ballet dancers rehearsing in a large, light-filled studio, with a small crowd watching from a viewing space above. There may be families taking a creative workshop and learning more about a show they just attended at the Kennedy Center. Or there could be musicians and fans gathered in a studio space for open-mic night.

These don’t seem like the kinds of artistic offerings that would normally be offered all under one roof, but that’s the point. Now, as always, the Kennedy Center is dedicated to making the arts accessible and enjoyable for as many people as possible. As the Center — which opened in 1971 as a living memorial to John F. Kennedy, a champion of the arts — continues to cater to new and emerging generations, they are adapting to the modern-day needs and desires of audiences. These viewers want to feel more connected to the creative process, experience a wide variety of performances and mediums and engage directly with the art. The REACH recognizes these desires — and has planned accordingly.

“The work that is taking place here is a reflection of society,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “There’s an increased interest in knowing where the artists come from, having a more immediate experience with the artist and discovering art forms that come from other parts of the world.”

The work that is taking place here is a reflection of society

Deborah Rutter, President of Kennedy Center

A performing arts center for 21st-century audiences

While developing the REACH, the Kennedy Center reached out to experts from across the globe for input on how to plan for this new kind of intimate, hands-on cultural space. The feedback they got — which came from artists, theater directors, curators and insiders at other performing arts centers — revealed an opportunity to open up the Kennedy Center’s existing programming and allow “artists and audiences to collide,” Rutter said.

With that in mind, studios at the REACH will allow the public a close-up view of artists at work. Studio K, a 5,000-square-foot space, for example, has a balcony where people can watch contemporary dancers practicing a routine and hear symphony orchestras refining a piece.

A group of young dancers prepare for a performance in one of the REACH’s studios (Photo provided by The Kennedy Center)
A group of young dancers prepare for a performance in one of the REACH’s studios (Photo provided by The Kennedy Center)

The work itself will also be modern and innovative — a “loosening of the dress code” at the Kennedy Center aimed at drawing new audiences to the venue, according to Rutter. Along with traditional performances, the REACH will feature a variety of contemporary programming including outdoor movie nights and hip-hop dance parties.

This open, inclusive philosophy and design of the REACH can also benefit performers; artists of different genres will be able to collaborate and work out the kinks in a theater piece or dance routine while audiences watch on, something that many artists crave.

“A vast majority of artists don’t need it to be all magic,” said Rutter. “They really want to be known and understood,” said Rutter.

Access that creates healthier communities

The mutual understanding that can arise from engagement with the arts-and-culture scene can also play a role in uplifting communities, said Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, principal and CEO of Metris Arts Consulting, which helps develop cultural plans for cities, towns and nonprofits.

“When artists and arts organizations join their neighbors in shaping their community’s future, [it] can foster social cohesion and a sense of belonging and purpose,” Nicodemus said.

In some cases, participation in the arts can trigger a succession of local improvements, from economic benefits to an enhanced capacity to innovate to new forms of self-expression, according to research by the National Endowment for the Arts. And opportunities to participate will abound at the REACH; families will be able to join in some of the performances and programs at the Center, including at the Moonshot Studio, a hands-on learning lab that will offer themed activities and exhibits exploring JFK’s legacy, Kennedy Center arts and performance, as well as stagecraft.

As they play and collaborate, families will also be honing skills such as communication and critical thinking. An upcoming program this fall, for example, will let visitors use a DJ mixing station to deconstruct songs from “Kid Prince and Pablo”, a hip-hop musical based on Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” that will be staged at the Kennedy Center. Additionally, visitors can get creative in a collection of classrooms, creative studios and community meeting spaces that will host arts camps, classes and workshops for the public.

The overall experience could help to transform local communities — starting with young people, according to Nicodemus.

“It could be powerful in terms of opening their eyes to career pathways they never imagined, [and] help them make sense of the world and connect with collective memory,” she said.

An open invitation to the creative process

Taking into consideration the many and varied populations that live in the D.C. area will be important to the success of the REACH. Opportunities to participate in the scene must be planned “with a lot of care and intention and thought, to make sure that those benefits are being broadly shared and inclusively developed,” said Nicodemus.

This inclusion can be seen in the REACH’s eclectic programming, which includes art forms that are interesting and native to a wide variety of people. The design of the space, too, allows all populations to see what the Center has to offer; a new pedestrian bridge and ramp, for instance, will make it easier than ever for more people to get to the building and connect the Kennedy Center to the National Mall for the first time.

Now that Rutter and her team have created a performing arts venue meant for everyone, the next step will be letting them know about it, so that they’ll come pay a visit.

“Sometimes, the unlocked door is an opening,” she said. “It will [also] be important for us to be quite purposeful in our invitation to ensure that all of D.C. feels like they’re welcome here.”

Learn more about the REACH, a 21st-century arts center where the performing arts are inclusive, accessible and interactive.

Related Content:

How the REACH was designed with community in mind

How the REACH makes the public a partner in the creative process