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Kennedy Center Chief To Leave

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2000; Page A01

Lawrence J. Wilker, president of the Kennedy Center for the past nine years, surprised his staff yesterday with the news that he will step down at the end of the year to launch an Internet arts and entertainment venture.

"The center is in great shape, and I'm excited about the possibility of making the arts and entertainment more widely available to more audiences," said Wilker, 56.

When he came on board in 1991 after overseeing the development of a theater complex in Cleveland, the center was $7 million in debt. He succeeded in eliminating the red ink and more than doubling its annual fund-raising from $14 million his first year to $32.8 million in 1999. The Wilker team also expanded the center's outreach through national theatrical tours, television programs, online programming and educational materials, and a daily series of free shows.

At the same time, his regime was criticized for playing it safe artistically, booking mainstream touring shows--sure-fire attractions like "The Phantom of the Opera," "Miss Saigon" and "Beauty and the Beast"--at the expense of riskier, more challenging entertainments. The center produced revivals of "The King and I" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" that, in addition to being staged here, enjoyed long runs on Broadway.

Wilker's years at the center were also marked by a 1993 strike of Opera House musicians that lasted five weeks and disrupted National Symphony Orchestra programming.

Given the center's mandate to foster all manner of performing arts, Wilker's achievements have been broad and corrective, the center's chairman, James A. Johnson, said yesterday. "The institution as it is today is a model, fully committed to its artistic mission and committed to service to the country," he said.

Under Wilker and Johnson, several well-known artists have been added to the center's creative management team. Leonard Slatkin joined the family in 1994 as the National Symphony's music director, and Billy Taylor instituted a regular jazz program that is broadcast from the center over National Public Radio. Also in the center's firmament is the Washington Opera, which leases space in the building and whose artistic director, Placido Domingo, has added to the city's cultural reputation.

During Wilker's tenure, the center has launched one of the country's most expansive arts education programs, including ArtsEdge, an Internet guide for teachers that receives 10,000 visits a day, as well as national training programs for educators and artists and on-site performances for 400,000 schoolchildren each year.

"One of the things I have loved most about the Kennedy Center is that no other institution tried to do all these things," Wilker said yesterday.

Kenneth Duberstein, the vice chairman of the center's board, said Wilker's achievements go beyond his oversight of such visibly successful events as the Kennedy Center Honors and its Spring Concert and Gala, each of which raises $2 million a year for the center: "He has pushed and led the center," in addition to his "day-in and day-out artistic and managerial leadership," Duberstein said.

Some of the changes Wilker focused on have involved the physical improvement of the Kennedy Center's tourist areas and six theater facilities, in addition to the expansion of its much-maligned parking garage. The center is in the midst of a $170 million renovation, the effects of which of which will not be immediately apparent to either ticket-buyers or tourists. One of the first steps in that project was the complete refurbishment of the Concert Hall, which long had a reputation for inferior acoustics. The space reopened in October 1997 to generally glowing reviews from both performers and music lovers.

An irony of Wilker's tenure is that at the same time he was being criticized in some quarters for relying too heavily on bland, crowd-pleasing attractions, others assailed the center as elitist, expensive and lacking in commitment to minority-themed offerings.

Wilker, along with Johnson, attempted to answer those criticisms three years ago when the center inaugurated its Millennium Stage program of free live performances every night in the Grand Foyer. In most cases the artists are not well known, but the likes of Frank Sinatra Jr., Judy Collins, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Sergio Mendez have played, and nearly 700,000 people have attended the shows. "I have tried very hard to open the place up and to be inclusive of all cultures," Wilker said.

Not all of the center's productions during the Wilker years met with success. One of them, a six-hour historical epic called "The Kentucky Cycle," won a Pulitzer Prize but died quickly in New York. In addition, the center was a producer--and local presenter--of "Titanic" and "Footloose," two long-running but so far unprofitable musicals. The center also sponsored several productions of Crossroads Theater, one of the few African American repertory companies, and bore the loss when box office sales were slow.

The Kennedy Center is the primary sponsor of the Fund for New American Plays, which gives a number of grants to playwrights every fall and has fostered more than 50 works in its 14 years, including three Pulitzer Prize winners, one of them Tony Kushner's "Angels in America."

Wilker said yesterday that he had been considering leaving once he reached 10 years on the job. "I started to think about where I wanted to go for my next, and maybe last, adventure," he said. That adventure turned out to be setting up an Internet business with a longtime friend, television producer Lou Reda. "I'll be 57 this year, and how many great adventures do you have left in you?"

He said "nonprofit fatigue" and the relentless demands of fund-raising were not factors in his decision.

"There's never enough money, because once you raise more money you want to do more. The Kennedy Center will do more," Wilker said.

Wilker shaped his career around the theater. He worked as director of properties for the Shubert Organization and was vice president of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Foundation. Before coming to Washington, he served as president of the Playhouse Square Foundation in Cleveland and raised $40 million to create a 7,000-seat, three-theater complex.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company


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