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Opinion The Kennedy Center has seen a lot of changes in its 50 years

A boat passes by the Kennedy Center as seen from the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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David M. Rubenstein is chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The Kennedy Center opened 50 years ago this month with a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” Until that day in September 1971, the United States was the only major nation without a national cultural center. Indeed, it is only thanks to the efforts of three U.S. presidents that we came to have one at all.

The idea of establishing such a space in our nation’s capital originated with George Washington himself, but it wasn’t until President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation in 1958 that the undertaking was authorized. What’s more, it was only after President John F. Kennedy’s tireless championing of the project that the center actually came into being. It is fitting, then, that after Kennedy’s death, Congress (with the support of the Kennedy family) named the new complex the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, conceiving it both as a national center for the performing arts and arts education and as a living memorial to our 35th president.

In the half-century since its opening, the Kennedy Center has more than fulfilled its creators’ dreams. In a typical year, the venue presents about 2,000 live performances, including free concerts on the Millennium Stage, and 2 million attendees pass through the center’s doors. Its education programs annually reach more than 1.4 million students in all 50 states. By commissioning, cultivating and premiering new works, the center has also become an incubator of the contemporary arts.

However, our nation is continually changing, and the Kennedy Center has had to change with it. In Kennedy’s lifetime, almost 90 percent of the U.S. population was White; today that figure is nearer 60 percent. To better serve its evolving local and national communities, the center has made significant changes to its programming and physical space.

Whereas originally more than 85 percent of its offerings were devoted to classical music, opera, ballet and theater, and only a handful to jazz, folk or pop, today the traditional offerings represent only about 65 percent of the total offerings, as the center is now as committed to hip-hop, comedy and contemporary music as it is to grand opera. The Kennedy Center’s resident companies, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera, have deepened their commitment to community engagement and sought to expand the lens of and audience for their genres with commissions and new works, such as this season’s “Written in Stone” and the Cartography Project. Further, the center’s new Social Impact initiatives promote anti-racism in the community and throughout the arts world.

Similarly, where the Kennedy Center’s original building is a vast, imposing space, in which the roles of artists and audiences are clearly delineated, the REACH — the center’s transformative 2019 expansion — comprises a set of dynamic, light-filled collaborative spaces built for active participation and access, bringing visitors directly into the creative process.

The REACH has been at the heart of the center’s on-site programming during the pandemic, with activity ranging from the reimagined Kennedy Center Honors to free festivals every weekend to highlight the diverse communities and cultures of the D.C. area. And inside the REACH’s flexible spaces, members of our Culture Caucus and other artists have imagined and tested new works and ideas. The REACH has also become a destination unto itself during the pandemic, with visitors coming just to hang out and enjoy the lawns, architecture and views.

What anchors the Kennedy Center’s mission through all these changes is its commitment to civic engagement. This can be traced back to the presidents to whom it owes its existence, particularly Kennedy, who made the idea of giving back to society — in the United States and abroad — the clarion call of his presidency. In its own way, the Kennedy Center seeks to honor his legacy by putting into action many of these same ideas.

These core values have guided the Kennedy Center from the beginning, but they resonate more deeply than ever today. Like all performing arts organizations, the center was hit especially hard by the global pandemic. For 18 months, the Kennedy Center was largely dark and silent, and the joy and pleasure that the center regularly gave its patrons, performing artists and employees were gone.

But now the Kennedy Center is back — and the pandemic and other societal changes have provided us with the insight to make the next 50 years at the Kennedy Center even more impactful than the first 50.

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