John F. Kennedy is an outsize presence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: the bronze bust by Robert Berks in the Grand Foyer, the larger-than-life statue unveiled on the Reach campus last winter, the quotations from letters and speeches carved into the building’s marble facade. But, Kennedy Center officials say, they still receive questions from visitors about which Kennedy the performing arts center is named for.
That should no longer be an issue after last week’s public debut of “Art and Ideals,” a permanent exhibition on the Kennedy Center’s second floor laying out John and Jacqueline Kennedy’s embrace of the arts, from the 1961 inauguration through cultural diplomacy to the creation of the National Cultural Center, which was proposed during the Eisenhower administration but eventually became Washington’s “living memorial” to the 35th president.
It’s hard to believe this 7,500-square-foot room — filled with videos, illuminated display cases, walls of posters and artifacts, and crowned with a vibrant wraparound LED screen dubbed “the frieze” — was once the atrium gallery, a rentable event space and occasional performance venue.
The way a visitor enters the exhibition is going to shape their initial impression: The vestibule nearest the Hall of States contains a perfunctory biography of the former president — his large family, PT-109, his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier. Cases hold books Kennedy read as a child, including “Billy Whiskers’ Friends” and “Black Beauty,” and foreign language translations of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage.” The vestibule on the Hall of Nations side offers an introduction to the Kennedy Center itself, with a video of Jacqueline Kennedy, standing next to a model of the Kennedy Center, speaking about a vision for its programming, interspersed with clips of “Tosca” and beatboxers and souvenirs from the center’s opening.
One section on “dance diplomacy” shows how the Kennedy Center hosts cultural events in the community and online, a continuation of policies that sent the New York City Ballet to perform behind the Iron Curtain, or the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Southeast Asia; another display focuses on how the Kennedys used the White House as a showcase for the best of American arts, inviting the National Symphony Orchestra and American Shakespeare Festival Theatre to perform at official state dinners.
Exhibits make judicious use of vintage video clips, and for the most part, the sound is isolated to the immediate area — you may see a screen with pictures of the March on Washington from across the room, but it’s not until you’re almost in front of it that you hear author James Baldwin discussing civil rights. Some noise does permeate the space — a peppy, maddeningly catchy “Kennedy!” campaign jingle, or sound bites from the famous 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech — and you think about wandering down to the other end of the room to see which display it’s coming from.
Every hour or so, the lights dim, the other videos go silent and Kennedy’s distinctive accent booms through the space. A black-and-white video of the president appears overhead on each wall, assuring an audience, and us, that “after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” The speech, from a 1962 fundraiser for the National Cultural Center dubbed “An American Pageant of the Arts,” is accompanied by clips of Harry Belafonte belting out “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and a 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma dazzling on the cello, and still images of Fred Astaire and Lorraine Hansberry as Kennedy speaks.
A few minutes later, the lights go back up and people continue browsing the individual displays. There are three of these “takeovers”: One shows highlights of Kennedy’s inauguration, and another features his famous “moonshot” address at Rice University, accompanied by dramatic images of the lunar surface. In between, the wraparound screens show the opera house’s crystal chandelier, historical photos from events such as the March on Washington and famous Kennedy quotations. But it’s the presentation from the dinner for the National Cultural Center — now, of course, known as the Kennedy Center — that hammers the message home: The arts are essential to the American way of life.
If visitors spend longer here than they expected, it will be because of the exhibition’s interactive elements, which are, of course, primed for social media. A section of mirrored wall contains a word cloud with “poetry,” “freedom,” “achievement” and “political” among the floating, hologram-like choices. As you get closer to the screen, the words fly around and reshape into a Kennedy quote, such as “Art and the encouragement of art is political in the most profound sense” or “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” (The mirrored backdrop begs for selfies.)
An interactive “dinner table” recalls the Kennedys’ White House dinners with writers, dancers and prominent thinkers, and asks visitors to ponder whom they’d like to have dinner with: Amy Tan? Francis Collins? Tennessee Williams? Pick a category, such as “musicians,” and you’re given the choice between the Kennedys’ actual dinner guests, such as Aaron Copland or Isaac Stern, or more contemporary options, including Dolly Parton, Yo-Yo Ma and, uh, recent White House visitor Olivia Rodrigo. Select an invitee to read inspirational quotes from each subject. “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one,” Parton advises.
I’m willing to bet the most popular attraction will be a touch-screen kiosk that allows visitors to create a self-portrait in the style of Elaine de Kooning, who captured Kennedy in a series of portraits in the 1960s. Pick a color palette, scribble some abstract lines in the background, then pose for a photo. The “painting” appears before your eyes with a wash of brushstrokes or charcoal, looking like the artsiest smartphone filter ever. A QR code allows for the picture to be downloaded and, inevitably, posted to social media, because you’re going to want to show it off.
At the exhibition’s opening event, Kennedy’s granddaughter Rose Kennedy Schlossberg pointed out that while the venue’s name honors the late president, “there has never been a place at the Kennedy Center to learn about him until now.” For boomers who remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, and Gen Z theatergoers for whom John F. Kennedy was a name in AP history class, this new area is an opportunity to learn why The Washington Post once called Kennedy “the best friend culture has had in the White House since Thomas Jefferson,” and how he used the highest office in the land to shape a national conversation around the arts. It’s worth arriving a half-hour or an hour before the next NSO or Millennium Stage performance to explore the space or, for presidential history fans, a visit on its own.
“Arts and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy” is on the roof terrace level of the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org. Open daily from noon to midnight. Free.