The Kennedy Center’s president, Deborah Rutter, suggested that changes are coming to the country’s busiest arts center, including raising the profile of living composers and artists, exploring a new format for the center’s free venue and nurturing its affiliate symphony and opera programs.
“I grew up loving Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring,’ but I am compelled by work that is created today. We need to expand that. We need to take more risks,” Rutter told a crowd of more than 150 at the National Press Club on Wednesday. “I keep hearing Washington is more conservative. I’m going to push you on that.”
Rutter’s appearance comes in her second month as president of the Kennedy Center. The center presents more than 2,000 events annually on a budget of some $201 million.
Rutter began with a 20-minute speech that outlined the power of art to explain and understand the world. “Art is certainly for art’s sake,” she said. “But I also fervently believe in art for life’s sake.
She also spoke of the role of the arts in her life, her family’s and in the larger world. She recalled her third-grade teacher who opened a closet and asked her students, “What instrument will you play?” “That teacher gave me the first tool and curiosity and passion to find myself. To write my story in the arts,” she said.
Her address was followed by a half-hour of questions that touched on the importance of cultural diplomacy and her early experiences in the nation’s capital. Rutter’s responses demonstrated her sharp political skills and her sense of humor.
For example, while she was direct in her support of contemporary composers — a hallmark of her tenure at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she worked from 2003 until June — and passionate in her description of the “missionary work” of increasing access and participation in the arts, she tap-danced around questions of whether she “is happy with the National Symphony Orchestra.”
“The word ‘maestro’ means teacher. Every orchestra needs to be motivated, led by and guided by great teachers,” she began. “Christoph Eschenbach is an extraordinary maestro.”
But she wasn’t finished.
“We need to continue to help elevate the musicianship,” she said, adding that the audience has a role in that work. “Being in the audience is important. It is about a relationship between artist and the audience. I need your help by being a part of our orchestra as it continues to grow.”
She responded in similar fashion about the Washington National Opera, a company she said needs to be nurtured and supported. “Its future is great.”
When asked to comment on the labor strife at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where management has locked out musicians over a contract dispute, she laughed. “Six weeks on the job and I’m an expert in everything,” she said.
Rutter noted that the $100 million expansion of the Kennedy Center (the groundbreaking ceremony is Dec. 4, with a tentative opening in 2017) will create informal spaces to encourage participation and interaction with artists. She cited these spaces when asked whether the Millennium Stage, the free venue, will continue but probably in “a new format.”
“As with anything that is innovative and new, it needs to grow and evolve,” she said.