The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Kennedy Center is turning 50 with a year-long celebration of new works and special performances — in person, no less

The Skylight Pavilion is reflected in a pool on the grounds of the Reach complex at the Kennedy Center. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Kennedy Center is planning an extended celebration of its 50th anniversary in its 2021-2022 season, featuring new commissions by Philip Glass and Esperanza Spalding, year-long artist residencies by the Roots and Robert Glasper, interactive exhibitions commemorating its first five decades and a new outdoor bronze statue of JFK. The festivities will end with a restaging of Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical “Mass,” which opened the center on Sept. 8, 1971.

“We’re never going to be 50 any other time,” Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said over Zoom Monday. “Whenever you think about these milestones, you think, ‘Should we reflect back, or should we look forward?’ You can see that there are some things that are very much about looking forward . . . in particular the way we designed commissions of new works and the folks we have invited to lead our journey.”

The schedule includes the Washington National Opera’s “Written in Stone,” a collection of four commissions that “celebrate the diversity and acknowledge the struggles” of America, according to the arts center. Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran, Artistic Director of Social Impact Marc Bamuthi Joseph, composer Huang Ruo, playwright and librettist David Henry Hwang and composer and instrumentalist Kamala Sankaram are among the artists involved in the project. The four pieces will premiere together during a six-performance run March 5-25, 2022.

“I am really proud of who is commissioned and what they are writing about,” Rutter said, adding composer-in-residence Carlos Simon and education artist-in-residence Jacqueline Woodson to the list of artists she is excited to present. “These are not just names grabbed off the shelf. These are really long-term relationships that have grown to a higher level. Each has grown organically within the institution.”

The 50th anniversary celebration is part of 1,110 dance, theater, jazz, comedy and musical concerts and events in the 2021-2022 season. The total represents a 25 percent cut from pre-pandemic averages, Rutter said, and many of the special performances have been scheduled for 2022 as a hedge that vaccines would by then be widely available.

The arts center has planned a sparse schedule between now and September. A week-long celebration of the Kennedy Center Honors spotlighting Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, Midori and Dick Van Dyke will be filmed from May 17 to May 22 and broadcast on CBS June 6. In addition, a few dozen live events are planned, including some on an outdoor stage on the Reach plaza. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced Monday that performing arts venues can increase capacity to 25 percent, up to 500 people, starting May 1. That news will impact the Honors and the summer schedule, Rutter said.

“We have needed to make sure we could undertake the work. It’s been a little bit of a wait and see how safe it is,” she said to explain why those events have not yet been announced.

This year’s Kennedy Center Honors will be staged over a week in May

The anniversary season will begin in September with two weekends of free activities Sept. 11-12 and 18-19, including outdoor yoga, a public art installation from author-illustrator Mo Willems and National Dance Day events. On Sept. 10, the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Gianandrea Noseda, will present a “Concert of Remembrance” to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the toll of covid-19.

“It’s really important for us as the national cultural center to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with a solemn moment of remembrance . . . to reflect on the pandemic, all the lives lost, all the lives upended,” Rutter said. “We wanted to start in a somber way, then have a pause and be able to celebrate a little more robustly. It felt right to take the two weekends as bookends.”

The celebration kicks off Sept. 14 with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas hosting a multidisciplinary performance intended to recall the 1962 Kennedy Center fundraiser led by Leonard Bernstein, “An American Pageant for the Arts.” Next spring, “50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center” will spotlight the many musicals, including “Annie” and “Pippin,” that began at the arts center. The celebration will end with a new staging of Bernstein’s “Mass,” directed by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned the piece for the art center’s opening. Written for orchestra and choir, it is based on the Tridentine Mass of the Catholic Church. The 1971 premiere was conducted by Maurice Peress and choreographed by Alvin Ailey. Zambello’s version was planned to be one of the first of the 50th anniversary performances, but the pandemic forced the arts center to move it to September of 2022. The exact date has yet to be determined.

The Kennedy Center will present some 35 commissions during the year, including the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Glass’s Symphony No. 13 in March, as well as pieces by Joan Tower, Angélica Negrón and James Lee III. Choreographers Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy and their Ragamala Dance Company will premiere “Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim,” Sept. 11-12. Playwright Kirsten Greenidge has been commissioned to write a new play for young audiences based on the life and work of science fiction author Octavia E. Butler. The work is set to premiere in May of 2022.

Two exhibitions will be presented. “If These Halls Could Talk,” opens in September and will feature archival photographs, video and artifacts of memorable performances and historic moments from the arts center’s history. Photographs from the archives depict every sitting president since 1971 visiting the center, including Donald Trump, who declined to attend the Kennedy Center Honors during his term. “He was here for an outside event. Somebody who had rented [space at the Center] invited him and he came,” Rutter said. The center has photographs of Joe Biden attending events as both a senator and vice president. “The arts center is hopeful the Bidens will participate in the upcoming Honors programs, and they look forward to welcoming the President and First Lady and the Vice President and Second Gentleman in the future,” said a spokeswoman for the center.

In September of 2022, the arts center will open “John F. Kennedy and the Arts,” a long-term, interactive exhibition in the fourth-floor Atrium Gallery. The exhibition will explore the 35th president’s legacy and how the arts center came to be his living memorial. In November, the center will install a life-size bronze sculpture of JFK on its grounds. The piece was designed by StudioEIS, a Brooklyn-based design firm led by Elliot and Ivan Schwartz.

The Kennedy Center furloughs NSO musicians after receiving $25 million grant

The year-long celebration is an ambitious undertaking, especially for an arts center that has suffered financially from the pandemic. There were almost 1,568 ticketed performances in fiscal 2019, the last full season, Rutter said. That dropped to 792 last season. So far this year, it has presented 12 ticketed events. “Now that the mayor has changed the [capacity] number, we’ll have more, but if it gets to 50 I’ll be surprised,” she said.

The closure, spread over two seasons, cost $250 million in lost revenue and donations, she said. A $25 million grant from the federal government helped it through fiscal 2020, she said, and it projects a $15 million deficit this year.

The dark stages led to severe staff cuts, too. In 2019, the arts center had almost 3,000 full-time and part-time employees and another 1,300 freelance artists and workers. This year, those numbers dropped to 592 staff members and 189 freelancers.

Even with the anniversary programming, Rutter said, the upcoming season is fiscally conservative. Fewer events and a smaller staff mean lower expenses, she said, despite the added costs of commissions. Donations are projected to increase $10 million, from this year’s $60 million goal to $70 million (a figure below annual pre-pandemic averages of $80 million to $85 million). The anniversary provides an opportunity for giving, she said.

“Next year is really a transition year. We are not out of the woods,” Rutter said. “We clearly had done a lot of work up until the start of the pandemic, and then have taken this last year to really dive in more deeply, in a very focused way, about what truly represents the Kennedy Center today and into the future. This is a more focused menu of activities, but, as a result, it is that much more powerful.”

Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams sang at the Kennedy Center. And it turned the electricity back on.

Kennedy Center cancels live performances through spring. Honors are still on, with a different look.

Congress gave $25 million to help the Kennedy Center weather the coronavirus. Some politicians want it back.