This September, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts celebrates its namesake with two projects: the opening of Art and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy-a new permanent exhibit exploring Kennedy’s presidency and commitment to the arts-and a reprise of Bernstein’s MASS, which premiered at the Center’s opening exactly 51 years earlier. These projects cap an extraordinary year that saw the Center reopen its doors after the pandemic lockdown for a landmark 50th Anniversary season. Capturing the full breadth and scale of Kennedy Center programming, from opera and symphonic premieres to theater, hip hop, jazz, ballet and dance, comedy, chamber music, educational initiatives, community engagement, and more, this milestone season has not only looked back at Kennedy’s legacy, and at the Center’s own first half-century, but also ahead to the future: a future in which his values continue to inform the vision of Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter, for whom the arts serve as an agent for meaningful engagement and social change.
This profound commitment drives the Center’s extensive initiatives to expand its programming, diversify its audience, engage its community, and empower the next generation through a wealth of local and national arts programs. Most recently, 2019 marked the opening of the REACH, an expansion of the Kennedy Center campus that has created new, more accessible public space, and the introduction of a Social Impact program to foster anti-racism within the organization and across the performing arts. This fall brings multiple examples of the program’s work with the announcement of four new commissions in the second phase of The Cartography Project, the acclaimed multi-season initiative to map Black dignity as a cultural response to extrajudicial violence; the naming of new members of the Culture Caucus, the local community leaders who feature in the Center’s REACH and Millennium Stage programming; and The Kennedy Center Next 50 retreat, which brings together 50 of today’s most galvanizing figures to collaborate on ideas for a brighter future. Having previously taken inspiration from President Kennedy’s ideal of a “Citizen Artist,” now the Center goes further. By investing in Social Impact initiatives, the Kennedy Center strives to be a “Citizen Institution:” one that employs the arts not only to educate and entertain, but also to draw on a structured and progressive social vision to address deep-seated inequities within its community.
One of our nation’s preeminent cultural leaders, Deborah F. Rutter became President of the Kennedy Center in 2014. Looking ahead to the September events that conclude the 50th Anniversary season, she explains:
“As we mark 50 years, it has been important to take time to not only celebrate our legacy, but also to look forward to the next half-century and examine and evolve our role as the national cultural center and living memorial to President John F. Kennedy. From inspired performances that represent the breadth and diversity of the arts in America to deeply impactful national education programs and innovative social impact work, it is my most fervent hope that this anniversary year reinforces our commitment to the ideals of our namesake and his vision of the arts as being ‘close to the center of a nation’s purpose.'”
Marc Bamuthi Joseph was the inaugural recipient of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative. As the Kennedy Center’s first VP & Artistic Director of Social Impact, he has led the Center’s social impact initiatives since their founding in 2019. In a statement on June 2, 2020, he said:
“I work with the belief that if racism is structural then anti-racism also must be structural. That’s why we’re announcing a system that we’re committed to growing over the next three to five years. We’re going to be investing more than a million dollars annually in the local creative economy. We’re showcasing artists from all 50 states. We’re going to activate the REACH with a lens on public health. We’re connecting Black art to anti-racist organizing through our #BlackCultureMatters initiative. We’re commissioning young composers of color in the classical music realm. We’re focusing on cultural leadership and community action. We’re working to produce symbols that inspire, while cultivating systems that sustain an equitable future.”
As the nation’s cultural center, the Kennedy Center has a unique and urgent responsibility to turn symbolic gestures into tangible systems. Now, two years after Bamuthi’s statement, the Center is already confident that it has made good on all its promises, including that of investing a million dollars annually in the local creative community. By building strategic partnerships with historically underheard voices from historically underheard communities, the Kennedy Center is making a powerful investment of time, money, and resources. Such investment stems from the Center’s emphasis on a systems-based approach that goes far beyond representation and diversity. It is by having a social vision and multiple strategic partnerships in service of that vision that the Center delivers as a “Citizen Institution.” Thanks to this level of commitment, both Rutter and Bamuthi are regular keynote speakers at such influential organizations as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Americans for the Arts, Aspen Institute, Junior League of Washington, and Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium.
Art and Ideals: permanent new JFK exhibit opens (September 2022)
As a living memorial to John F. Kennedy, the Kennedy Center actively seeks new ways to embody its namesake’s ideals, honor his legacy and celebrate his commitment to the arts. To that end, this fall the Center is mounting a permanent new exhibit in the 7,500-square foot, roof-level JFK Gallery at the heart of the original Edward Durell Stone building. With a multi-faceted external design team, headed and contracted by KieranTimberlake-the eminent Philadelphia architectural firm that recently added the 2022 AIA Architecture Award to its impressive string of honors-the Center has fully renovated and repurposed the JFKGallery to house Art and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy. The first of its scope in Kennedy Center history, this major flagship exhibit will have a special opening ceremony on September 8, exactly 51 years after the 1971 inauguration of the Center itself. (Editor’s note: the exhibit will open to the public on September 17, 2022. See opening schedule below.)
Bringing to life the worlds of culture and politics at a time of tremendous social change, Art and Ideals is tailored to the needs of a wide range of visitors, whether unfamiliar with U.S. history or already well-versed, whether reading at grade-school level or far above, whether passing through the JFK Gallery or keen to engage at length, and whether first-time guests or loyal regulars. The exhibit was designed and produced by Pentagram, the distinguished independent design firm, in consultation with an advisory committee comprising five leading U.S. historians: two Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professors-Fredrik Logevall and Annette Gordon-Reed, whose respective publications include JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 and Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History-together with University of Virginia professor Penny von Eschen, an expert on jazz, cultural diplomacy and the Cold War; civil rights scholar Peniel Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas; and Pulitzer Prize finalist Scott Sandage, a cultural historian at Carnegie Mellon University, whose research areas include popular culture, American identity, and the history of memorialization. Over the past three years, the project was spearheaded by Kennedy Center staff including Vice President of International Programming Alicia Adams, Lead Archivist Sofía Becerra-Licha, Creative Director Scott Bushnell, and Senior Vice President of Operations Ellery J. Brown.
Visitors will enter Art and Ideals at either end of the gallery, through vestibules that offer a preview of what lies within. Between them, under the advisory committee’s expert guidance, much of the exhibit is divided into four key areas, anchored by a host of archival video recordings contextualized with introductory material by Ileen Gallagher of ISG Productions and a range of photographs, letters, and other memorabilia. Relating the arts to democracy, social change, culture, and the White House respectively, each of the four areas explores one of the primary themes of Kennedy’s presidency, all linked by his inimitable power as an orator. Compiled in collaboration with the multimedia storytellers of New York’s batwin & robin productions, each video features one of the landmark speeches for which the president is justly famed. Fully captioned, and playing on a continuous loop, these archival videos capture such historic moments as Kennedy’s Space Race address at Rice University, his Amherst College remarks on public service and the artist’s role in society, and the Oval Office report in which he first laid out the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act. Testifying to his ongoing dedication to the performing arts, the videos feature similarly historic footage of musicians including Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Pablo Casals, Frank Sinatra, and some of the many jazz legends who served as Cold War ambassadors, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie among them.
Through a range of multimedia features, the exhibit relates Kennedy’s ideals to aspects of the Kennedy Center’s ongoing work. Titled “Uplifting the Artist,” “Exporting the Arts,” “Creating Social Impact,” “Cultural Dialogues,” “Arts Accessible to All,” and “A Cultural Icon,” they shine a light on contemporary initiatives that reflect the president’s values, while also bringing into focus some of the Center’s most pressing concerns today.
The videos and complementary materials surround three innovative interactive features, all created with New York- and Berlin-based design and research studio TheGreenEyl. Through a series of touchscreen “plates,” Dinner at the White House invites visitors to learn about the prominent cultural figures who attended Kennedy dinners, consider which contemporary guests they might choose to invite today, and discover themes and connections between them. The Power of Words presents keywords from landmark Kennedy speeches on a large, mirrored wall, where they come together to form full sentences as visitors approach. While hearing each sentence in the president’s own voice, visitors can see and photograph themselves reflected among his words on the wall. Finally, Dynamic Portraiture introduces visitors to the historic Kennedy portrait by expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning and enables them to use touch-screen technology to create self-portraits inspired by her distinctive brushstrokes and palette. After snapping a photo, selecting from a range of style and color options, and watching the finished painting come into view, each visitor will receive a QR code to download the customized artwork to their smartphone.
Encircling the JFK Gallery high above, printed excerpts from Kennedy’s own words will flow on a massive, continuously moving wraparound LED frieze. At intervals, all media beneath will temporarily pause, allowing an excerpt from a presidential speech to be heard throughout the space as it is screened, together with related images, on the frieze above. Such gallery-wide moments not only highlight Kennedy’s public speaking skills, but also bring the crowd together, fostering a shared sense of community as visitors experience the stirring power of the president’s voice.
Leonard Bernstein’s MASS at 51 (September 15-18)
As the concluding event of the Kennedy Center’s extended 50th Anniversary season, Leonard Bernstein’s MASS returns for three performances on September 15, 17, and 18. Baritone Will Liverman, star of the Metropolitan Opera’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones and winner of the 2020 Marian Anderson Award, leads a huge cast as the Celebrant, supported by the Heritage Signature Chorale, the Children’s Chorus of Washington, and the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), all under the baton of James Gaffigan, Music Director Designate of the Komische Oper Berlin. Featuring original choreography by acclaimed dancer, choreographer, and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Dance Education Hope Boykin, the monumental work will be directed by Alison Moritz, whose previous productions at the Kennedy Center include the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up for Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative.
MASS was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center, at which the work received its own world premiere 51 years ago. John F. Kennedy was the nation’s first Roman Catholic president and Bernstein, a frequent White House guest, had been one of his friends. Nevertheless, the composer was also a lifelong activist and the son of Russian Jews, so his decision to memorialize his late friend by setting the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass was still a surprising one. Perhaps more characteristically, rather than producing a traditional setting of the Latin liturgy, Bernstein collaborated with Broadway’s Stephen Schwartz to create an innovative, fully staged, dramatic pageant that the composer considered a “reaffirmation of faith.” Juxtaposing the words of the 16th-century ritual with highly contemporary text, MASS straddles genres from the Lutheran chorale to world music, jazz and the musical, resulting in “a cornucopia of genius” (New York Times) that is “arguably the best thing Bernstein ever wrote” (Washington Post).
The Cartography Project: four new commissions to be announced this fall
For Bamuthi and the Kennedy Center, to achieve true social impact a project must follow a three-step process, from public inquiry through creative output to a call to action. This process is perhaps best exemplified by The Cartography Project. Led by the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera (WNO), the multi-season commissioning initiative launched earlier this year as a cornerstone of the Center’s 50th Anniversary season. Promoting and championing work by creators of color, Cartography returns next season with a second installment of four new commissions from composers and librettists in Detroit, Houston, New Orleans, and Seattle respectively. Due to be announced this fall, these four commissions will receive world premiere performances in 2023.
The Cartography Project was conceived in response to a widespread need to re-focus the cultural response to extrajudicial violence by mapping Black dignity, not Black trauma, as the prevailing narrative of the African American experience. For the first installment, this public inquiry prompted a creative output of eight new chamber and vocal works, commissioned from creators of color in grieving communities across the nation. Expanding and diversifying the classical music radius, their new works received live world premieres at the REACH and featured in a complementary ten-part docuseries. Embedded in the project was a call to action: the question of how best to benefit the families of victims of extrajudicial killings and support their efforts to promote justice in the community.
The first installment was also an unequivocal artistic success. The concert of live world premieres prompted the Washington Post to marvel: “It’s not every commissioning project that delivers such uniform strength and impressive variety.” NPR concurred, observing:
“The focus from the beginning was on the vibrancy of the Black lives that mattered. … Altogether it scarcely filled an hour, but it was astounding the amount of talent involved in every aspect of the evening, the combined weight of the vital message shared and the hint it may suggest a turning point for large arts organizations to heed cries for social justice.”
Indeed, Bamuthi and the Kennedy Center hope the project may provide a model for other arts organizations in America and beyond. Click here to stream the docuseries episodes and trailer.
The Kennedy Center Next 50 Retreat (September 2 & 3)
To mark the 50th Anniversary while looking to the next half-century ahead, the Kennedy Center assembled The Kennedy Center Next 50: 50 individuals and organizations representing a wealth of different fields and backgrounds, who light the way forward though the sustained excellence of their artistic, educational, athletic, or multi-disciplinary work. Crowd-sourced with input from artists, cultural leaders, arts organizations, and community members, the group includes such diverse luminaries as poet and activist Amanda Gorman, opera producer and impresario Beth Morrison, occupational therapy professor and neurodiverse specialist Roger Ideishi, First Peoples advocate Lori Pourier, professional soccer player and activist Megan Rapinoe, and composer Carlos Simon (see complete list here). Over the past season many of the Next 50 have been presented on Kennedy Center stages and many more attended the Center’s 2022 Arts Summit. Now, all 50 members have been invited to convene at a the first Next 50 Retreat. Taking place at the REACH on September 2 and 3, the retreat is designed to engage these experts to challenge old ideas, spark new ones, and catalyze potent partnerships across disciplines, lighting the way towards a more inspired, inclusive, and compassionate world.
Culture Caucus: new members to be announced in September
Bamuthi and the Kennedy Center look forward to announcing the names of new members of the Culture Caucus this September. The caucus is an ongoing initiative through which the Kennedy Center demonstrates its commitment to sustained community relationships, activism, and empowerment. A crowdsourced group of between 20-30 community leaders and organizations from the D.C. area, the caucus members work in collaboration with the Center’s Social Impact team. Receiving access to production resources and financial support, they attend quarterly meetings and stage events at the REACH, where a number of caucus members have now been invited to undertake multi-year residencies. Bamuthi explains:
“The Culture Caucus is an intentionally curated group of leaders from D.C. who do profound work in their respective communities. The REACH architecturally is a place where that should happen; the Culture Caucus is a group that makes that happen.”
The Culture Caucus is also currently curating the Center’s full program of free summer events on the Millennium Stage.
Past highlights of the 50th Anniversary season
The Cartography Project’s first installment is just one of the past highlights of the Kennedy Center’s 50th Anniversary season. Celebrating the return to live, in-person, full-scale productions, the season launched with the Kennedy Center 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert. Hosted by six-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald and featuring the National Symphony Orchestra with artists ranging from Renée Fleming to Common, Darren Criss, Ben Folds, and the Punch Brothers, the “evening of sublime performances” (USA Today) aired nationwide on PBS TV. A second star-studded event followed this past winter, when Tony-winner James Monroe Iglehart hosted 50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center. Bringing together a host of big names to celebrate the Center’s Broadway legacy and pay special tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim, the program’s two sold-out nights “were engineered for uplift-and a reminder of the role the nation’s arts center has played as an amplifier for musical theater” (Washington Post).
In March, the Kennedy Center hosted the Washington National Opera’s world premiere production of Written in Stone, an evening of one-act operas inspired by some of D.C.’s iconic monuments to address the ways we memorialize history. Commissioned to mark both the Center’s 50th Anniversary and the tenth anniversary of WNO’s American Opera Initiative, Written in Stone succeeded in “captur[ing] the contradictions and national ambivalence about monuments and memorials” (Washington Post). Offering “an eloquent vision of catharsis and finally, healing” (Wall Street Journal), the program of premieres was “provocative, sweeping, intriguing, and chock full of some of the best voices and creatives of the 21st century” (DC Metro Theater Arts).
Past highlights of the anniversary season also include the installation of a new statue of President John F. Kennedy on the REACH campus. Commissioned by the Kennedy Center with generous support from David M. Rubinstein, the 81-inch, 660-pound bronze sculpture was designed by STUDIOEIS, the Brooklyn-based sculpture and design studio of brothers Elliot and Ivan Schwartz. Located within the lower gardens of the REACH, where it complements pieces by Joel Shapiro, Deborah Butterfield, and Roy Lichtenstein, the statue was unveiled last December at a special Dedication Ceremony that featured a live open-air performance by Yo-Yo Ma and remarks by Ambassador Caroline Kennedy. Learn more about the statue in a dedicated segment of CBS TV’s Sunday Morning.
This landmark season was made possible with the support of the Kennedy Center 50th Anniversary Committee. The generosity of this nationwide group of philanthropists, co-chaired by Jennifer Fischer, Michele Kessler, Pamella Roland DeVos, David M. Rubenstein, and Marc Stern, will propel the mission, vision and values of the Kennedy Center into the next 50 years and beyond.