The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (formally called the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, and commonly referred to as the Kennedy Center) is a performing arts center located on the Potomac River, adjacent to the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The Center, which opened September 8, 1971, is a multi-dimensional facility, and as memorial to John F. Kennedy and a cultural center, it produces a wide array of performances encompassing the genres of theater, dance, ballet, and orchestral, chamber, jazz, popular, and folk music, offers multi-media performances for adults and children, and is a nexus of arts education.
In addition to the approximately 2,000 performances held annually for audiences totaling nearly two million, the Center hosts touring productions and television and radio broadcasts that, collectively, are seen by 20 million more. Now in its 45th season, the Center presents music, dance and theater and supports artists in the creation of new work. With its artistic affiliate, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Center’s achievements as a commissioner, producer, and nurturer of developing artists have resulted in over 200 theatrical productions, dozens of new ballets, operas, and musical works.
Tracing its beginning to the National Cultural Center Act of Congress in 1958, which requires that its programming be sustained through private funds, the center represents a public-private partnership. It is both the nation’s public memorial to President John F. Kennedy and the “national center for the performing arts.” Its activities include educational and outreach initiatives, almost entirely funded through ticket sales and gifts from individuals, corporations and private foundations.
The building, designed by architect Edward Durell Stone, was constructed by Philadelphia contractor John McShain, and is administered by a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution. It receives annual federal funding to pay for its maintenance and operation.
The idea for the center dates to 1933 when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt discussed ideas for the Emergency Relief and Civil Works Administration to create employment for unemployed actors during the Great Depression. In 1935, Congress held hearings on plans to establish a new Department of Science, Art and Literature and to build a monumental theater and arts building on Capitol Hill near the Supreme Court building.
The Library of Congress added a small auditorium, but it had restrictions on its use. A congressional resolution in 1938 called for construction of a “public building which shall be known as the National Cultural Center” near Judiciary Square, but nothing materialized.
In 1950, the idea for a national theater resurfaced when U.S. Representative Arthur George Klein of New York introduced a bill to authorize funds to plan and build a cultural center. The bill included provisions that the center would prohibit any discrimination of cast or audience. In 1955, the Stanford Research Institute was commissioned to select a site and provide design suggestions for the center. From 1955 to 1958, Congress debated the idea amid much controversy. In the summer of 1958, a bill was finally passed in Congress and September 4, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the National Cultural Center Act which provided momentum for the project.
This was the first time that the federal government helped finance a structure dedicated to the performing arts. The legislation required a portion of the costs, estimated at $10–25 million, to be raised within five years of the bill’s passage. Edward Durell Stone was selected as architect for the project in June 1959. He presented preliminary designs to the President’s Music Committee in October 1959, along with estimated costs of $50 million, double the original estimates of $25–30 million. By November 1959, estimated costs had escalated to $61 million. Despite this, Stone’s design was well received in editorials in The Washington Post, Washington Star, and quickly approved by the United States Commission of Fine Arts, National Capital Planning Commission, and the National Park Service.
The National Cultural Center was renamed the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1964, following the assassination of President Kennedy.
The National Cultural Center Board of Trustees, a group Eisenhower established January 29, 1959, led fundraising. Fundraising efforts were not successful, with only $13,425 raised in the first three years. President John F. Kennedy was interested in bringing culture to the nation’s capital, and provided leadership and support for the project. In 1961, President Kennedy asked Roger L. Stevens to help develop the National Cultural Center, and serve as chairman of the Board of Trustees. Stevens recruited First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as Honorary Chairman of the Center, and former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower as co-chairman.
The total cost of construction was $70 million. Congress allocated $43 million for construction costs, including $23 million as an outright grant and the other $20 million in bonds. Donations also comprised a significant portion of funding, including $5 million from the Ford Foundation, and approximately $500,000 from the Kennedy family. Other major donors included J. Willard Marriott, Marjorie Merriweather Post, John D. Rockefeller III, and Robert W. Woodruff, as well as many corporate donors. Foreign countries provided gifts to the Kennedy Center, including a gift of 3,700 tons of Carrara marble from Italy (worth $1.5 million) from the Italian government, which was used in the building’s construction.
President Lyndon B. Johnson dug the ceremonial first-shovel of earth at the groundbreaking for the Kennedy Center December 2, 1964. However, debate continued for another year over the Foggy Bottom site, with some advocating for another location on Pennsylvania Avenue. Excavation of the site got underway on December 11, 1965, and the site was cleared by January 1967.
The first performance was September 5, 1971, with 2,200 members of the general public in attendance to see a premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in the Opera House, while the Center’s official opening took place September 8, 1971, with a formal gala and premiere performance of the Bernstein Mass. The Concert Hall was inaugurated September 9, 1971, with a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti. Alberto Ginastera’s opera, Beatrix Cenci premiered at the Kennedy Center Opera House September 10, 1971. The Eisenhower Theater was inaugurated October 18, 1971, with a performance of A Doll’s House starring Claire Bloom.
Architect Edward Durell Stone designed the Kennedy Center. Overall, the building is 100 feet (30 m) high, 630 feet (190 m) long, and 300 feet (91 m) wide. The Kennedy Center features a 630-foot-long (190 m), 63-foot-high (19 m) grand foyer, with 16 hand-blown Orrefors crystal chandeliers (a gift from Sweden) and red carpeting. The Hall of States and the Hall of Nations are both 250-foot-long (76 m), 63-foot-high (19 m) corridors. The building has drawn criticism about its location (far away from Washington Metro stops), and for its scale and form, although it has also drawn praise for its acoustics, and its terrace overlooking the Potomac River. In her book On Architecture, Ada Louise Huxtable called it “gemütlich Speer.”
Cyril M. Harris designed the Kennedy Center’s auditoriums and their acoustics. A key consideration is that many aircraft fly along the Potomac River and overhead the Kennedy Center, as they take off and land at the nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Helicopter traffic over the Kennedy Center is also fairly high. To keep out this noise, the Kennedy Center was designed as a box within a box, giving each auditorium an extra outer shell.
The plaza entrance of the Kennedy Center features two tableaus by German sculptor Jürgen Weber; created between 1965 and 1971, which were a gift to the Kennedy Center from the West German government. Near the north end of the plaza is a display of nude figures in scenes representing war and peace, called War or Peace. The piece, 8 ft × 50 ft × 1.5 ft (2.44 m × 15.24 m × 0.46 m), depicts five scenes showing the symbolism of war and peace: a war scene, murder, family, and creativity. At the south end is America which represents Weber’s image of America (8 x 50 x 1.5 ft.). Four scenes are depicted representing threats to liberty, technology, foreign aid and survival, and free speech. It took the artist four years to sculpt the two reliefs in plaster, creating 200 castings, and another two years for the foundry in Berlin to cast the pieces. In 1994, the Smithsonian Institution’s Save Outdoor Sculpture! program surveyed War or Peace and America and described them as being well maintained. Another sculpture Don Quixote by Aurelio Teno occupies a site near the northeast corner of the building. King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain gave the sculpture to the United States for its Bicentennial, June 3, 1976.
The Kennedy Center has three main theaters: the Concert Hall, the Opera House, and the Eisenhower Theater.
The Concert Hall, located at the south end of the Center, seats 2,442 including chorister seats and stage boxes, and has a seating arrangement similar to that used in many European halls such as Musikverein in Vienna. The Concert Hall is the largest performance space in the Kennedy Center and is the home of the National Symphony Orchestra. A 1997 renovation brought a high-tech acoustical canopy, handicap-accessible locations on every level, and new seating sections (onstage boxes, chorister seats, and parterre seats). The Hadeland crystal chandeliers, given by the government of Norway, were repositioned to provide a clearer view. Canadian organbuilder Casavant Frères constructed and installed a new pipe organ in 2012.
The Opera House, in the middle, has about 2,300 seats. Its interior features include walls covered in red velvet, a distinctive red and gold silk curtain, given by the Japanese government, and Lobmeyr crystal chandelier with matching pendants, which were a gift from the government of Austria. It is the major opera, ballet, and large-scale musical venue of the Center, and closed during the 2003/2004 season for extensive renovations which provided a revised seating arrangement and redesigned entrances at the orchestra level. It is the home of the Washington National Opera and the annual Kennedy Center Honors.
The Eisenhower Theater, on the north side, seats about 1,163 and is named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the National Cultural Center Act into law on September 2, 1958. It primarily hosts plays and musicals, smaller-scale operas, ballet and contemporary dance. The theater contains an orchestra pit for up to 35 musicians that is convertible to a forestage or additional seating space. The venue reopened in October 2008, following a 16-month renovation which altered the color scheme and seating arrangements.
Other performance venues in the Center include:
The Family Theater, with 324 seats, opened December 9, 2005. It replaced the former American Film Institute Theater located adjacent to the Hall of States. The new Family Theater provides a home for world-class family theater performances for the nation’s youth and continues the Kennedy Center’s $125 million commitment to performing arts education for adults and children alike. Designed by the architectural firm Richter Cornbrooks Gribble, Inc. of Baltimore, the new theater incorporates the most modern theatrical innovations available, including: premium audio technologies; a computerized rigging system; and a digital video projection system.
The Terrace Theater, with 513 seats, was constructed on the roof terrace level in the late 1970s as a Bicentennial gift from the people of Japan to the United States. It is used for intimate performances of chamber music, ballet and contemporary dance, and theater.
The Theater Lab, with 399 seats, currently houses the whodunit Shear Madness which has been playing continuously since August 1987.
The Millennium Stage. Part of the concept of “Performing Arts for Everyone” launched by then-Chairman James Johnson in the winter of 1997, the Millennium Stage provides free performances every evening at 6:00 pm on two specially created stages at either end of the Grand Foyer. A broad range of art forms are featured on the Millennium Stage. These include performing artists and groups from all 50 states and an Artist-in-Residence program featuring artists performing several evenings in a month. Every show on the Millennium Stage is available as a simulcast of the live show at 6:00 pm, and is archived for later viewing via the Kennedy Center’s website. “Performing Arts for Everyone” was designed to introduce the Kennedy Center and its programs to a far wider audience than ever before by providing a performance open to the public and free of charge 365 days a year. In addition, “Performing Arts for Everyone” initiatives include low- and no-cost tickets available to performances on every stage of the Kennedy Center, and several outreach programs designed to increase access to the Center’s tickets and performances.
The Conservatory Project, an initiative of the Millennium Stage, is a semi-annual event occurring in February and May that is designed to present the best young musical artists in classical, jazz, musical theater, opera and more from our nation’s leading undergraduate and graduate conservatories, colleges and universities in performance at the Kennedy Center. It is designed to create an ongoing showcase for young talent, and to introduces Washington audiences to young musicians who are destined to have important careers. The Conservatory Project creates an ongoing showcase for our nation’s exceptional young talent and introduces Washington audiences to young musicians destined to have important careers.
The KC Jazz Club. March 12, 2003, the space formerly known as the Education Resource Center was officially designated the Terrace Gallery. It is now home to the Kennedy Center Jazz Club.
The Kennedy Center offers one of the only open air rooftop terraces in downtown Washington, DC free of charge to the public, open from 10:00 a.m. until midnight each day, except when closed for private events. The wide terrace provides views in all four directions overlooking the Rosslyn skyline in Arlington, Virginia to the West; the Potomac River and National Airport to the South; the Washington Harbor and the Watergate Complex to the North; and the Lincoln Memorial, Department of State buildings, George Washington University and the Saudi Embassy to the East.
World premiere performances of Kennedy Center-commissioned works have been offered through a commissioning program for new ballet and dance works. These works have been created by America’s foremost choreographers—Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, and Merce Cunningham—for leading American dance companies including American Ballet Theatre, Ballet West, Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and the San Francisco Ballet. Since 1999, the Kennedy Center has supported and produced the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in performances at the Center and on extended tours.
The Center sponsors two annual dance residency programs for young people; Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem Residency Program, both now in their second decade. The Kennedy Center’s Contemporary Dance series offers a wide range of artistic perspectives, from the foremost masters of the genre to the art form’s newest and most exciting artists. In the 2008/2009 series, the Kennedy Center recognized Modern Masters of American Dance, bringing Martha Graham Dance Company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Limón Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Paul Taylor Dance Company.
In recent years the Kennedy Center has dramatically expanded its education programs to reach young people, teachers, and families throughout the nation. The 2005 opening of the Family Theater has helped achieve this.
For over 35 years, the Kennedy Center Education Department has provided arts experiences through performances, residencies, workshops, conferences, career development programs, symposia, and on-line and print resources. In the past year, the Center’s education programs have directly impacted more than 11 million people across the nation. The Education Department fosters understandings and participation in the performing arts through programs and performances for diverse populations of all ages.