The Kennedy Center is synonymous with world-class performances, but many visitors don’t realize it is also the national memorial to America’s 35th president.
The arts center’s president, Deborah Rutter, wants to change that.
“Here’s this beloved president, and his memorial is a performing arts center, so what does that mean about the role of artists in our society?” Rutter said. “How do we authentically honor this man at this incredibly important time?”
These questions launched the John F. Kennedy Centennial, a year-long celebration of Kennedy’s 100th birthday that aims to raise the center’s visibility as his living memorial by bringing his words — etched into its marble facade — to life on its stages.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and Terence Blanchard are among the artists featured in a 47-event schedule focused on Kennedy’s core ideals of justice, service, courage, freedom and gratitude. Rutter hopes the audiences attending the events will see beyond the athletic dancers and beautiful music, and reflect on the social value of art.
Kennedy “talked a lot about the role of artists in society,” Rutter said. “Call me idealistic, but this gives us a chance to talk about why the arts are important.”
Culminating in a burst of events the week before the May 29 birthday centennial, the initiative is the first step in long-term effort to reshape the arts center’s image. “Even if it weren’t his centennial, you’d see a ramp-up of this. It’s about who we are, and what sets us apart. This is an identity issue,” Rutter said.
Some of the series’s performances connect easily to Kennedy, such as last May’s evening of amateur “tiny plays” written about the president, and a recent National Symphony Orchestra concert featuring John Williams’s music from the movies “JFK” and “Lincoln.” Other events deal with social themes, such as the Washington National Opera production of “Dead Man Walking” and Debbie Allen’s “Freeze Fame,” and some spotlight artists such as Urban Bush Women and Joshua Bell, both recognized for their community work.
“It might be that you come for a Josh Bell recital and you leave with a sense of poignancy about the legacy of JFK,” said Jenny Bilfield, president and chief executive of Washington Performing Arts, the recital’s presenter. “It may be one of those incidental connections that become more profound because they’re not heavy-handed.”
The centennial represents about 10 percent of the arts center’s season and includes many works that were already part of existing series. Performances by the NSO and WNO and “Shift: A Festival of American Orchestras,” for example, have been recycled as Kennedy-centric events. “Which shows you how authentic this is, that we didn’t turn ourselves into a pretzel to do this,” Rutter said. “A lot of this stuff we do naturally.”
Patrons at several winter performances weren’t aware of the centennial. “We are staunch supporters of his ideals,” said Arlington resident Leonard Baldyga, who attended the concert with his wife, Joyce. “We should all make an effort to honor JFK. His presidency promoted the very principles this nation was founded on.”
Rutter isn’t worried by audience reaction.
“I don’t care if they don’t get it. I don’t need to them to. I know it’s going to soak in, and that’s why we’re doing it,” she said, adding that events of May 23 to 29 will get their attention.
Thematic and civic-minded series are not a new tool for performing arts professionals. In 1999, the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts launched Animating Democracy, a program that uses arts to nurture civic engagement. The Creative Campus initiative was created in 2004 to engage college communities with art, and several of its iterations used themes — capital punishment and class, for example — as organizing principles. And individual groups such as Urban Bush Women and Alvin Ailey have social justice in their DNA.
Lessons from earlier efforts are found in the Kennedy Center’s initiative. The performances are bolstered by discussions, master classes and school events, which provide different points of entry to the community.
“It’s a muscle you should have, (but) it’s a muscle you develop over time,” said Animating Democracy co-director Barbara Schaffer-Bacon, who applauded the Kennedy Center’s choice of artists. “They’re talking about really appreciating the artist for their ability to tell the truth. They’ve created a greater context for the work.”
Another strength is the program’s spotlight on artists, said Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University and an expert on audience engagement.
“There’s an ascendancy of the artist in public life. Some of it is around increased political activities, and artists problem-solving in a civic space,” he said. “It resonates with the way artists want to work, and increasingly, with the need we have for them in society.”
Alvin Ailey’s Artistic Director Robert Battle echoed this idea, saying he welcomed the chance to tailor the company’s annual appearance at the Kennedy Center to JFK’s ideals, which are naturally aligned with their own.
“Alvin Ailey said art should be a mirror to our society,” Battle said. “I love that audiences can have an emotional response, but also be educated, be informed, or somehow be more conscious of the world around (them).”
Donors have responded enthusiastically, too. Although its programming budget was $650,000, the centennial has attracted $4.6 million in donations, including $1 million from Altria and $3.5 million from 100 donors to the Centennial Circle campaign, including Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Jean Kennedy Smith, and Mellody Hobson and George Lucas.