My Washington: Deborah Rutter

by Virginia Coyne

The Kennedy Center president reflects on ‘the nation’s cultural center’ and the ongoing JFK centennial celebration.

Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

This September, Deborah Rutter, the first woman to serve as president of the Kennedy Center, celebrates three years on the job. During her short tenure, the Pennsylvania native has made it her mission to re-imagine and modernize the center’s programming. She’s appointed Mason Bates as the first composer-in-residence, brought in Q-Tip as the first artistic director for hip hop culture and helped the National Symphony Orchestra score acclaimed Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda as its next music director — all while overseeing a massive expansion of what she calls the “nation’s cultural center.” >>

Washington Life: How is the Kennedy Center different than places you’ve worked as an executive in the past — the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?  My career to this point focused primarily on one art form – music. Now I have the fantastic opportunity to work across all the art forms in nine different performance spaces at the Kennedy Center. The breadth and depth of programming opportunity, the national and international impact and our audience reach is truly unmatched!

What are you most looking forward to at the Kennedy Center, either in the current season or the 2017/2018 season?  No question, my inspiration this season has been around all the programming related to our JFK Centennial Celebration, with several thematic performances and events to recognize our namesake during the week of May 23-29 as the pinnacle.

Exactly how have you been acknowledging what would have been John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday on May 29, 2017? We have been celebrating the centennial since May 29, 2016. There have been more than 50 programs which center on ideals commonly attributed to JFK: freedom, courage, justice, service and gratitude. These themes resonate with our artists and audiences alike, whether in this centennial year or beyond.

What are you most proud of during your term at the Kennedy Center? ? I am proud that our team is invested in bringing all of the performing arts to the nation’s cultural center.This means we are expanding the programming and the invitation to all audiences to come to the Center.We also have embarked on an exciting digital agenda with expanded program content living on multiple platforms. Digital distribution will be an important aspect of our offering in the future side by side with the live performance experience.

What is the status of the estimated $100 million expansion plan you are overseeing? This first expansion of the Kennedy Center is so exciting for the future of our institution and for the arts in America.We are moving forward steadily with construction and planning and feeling good about the progress. One can see the concrete slabs that form the footprint for the new spaces now! Check out the webcam on our website, We expect to open in late 2018.

You are also a musician. What do you play and how has music impacted your life? I started with the piano when I was five. I took up the violin in third grade when my teacher asked “what instrument will you play?” – which was a question addressed to all the third grade, not just me. My, how times have changed! The violin and music were central to every important decision in my life — from where I went to school, how I spent my time and how I pursued my career. Lucky me. Now that my daughter has gone off to college, I have begun taking piano lessons and it is the best thing I have done for myself in a long time.

My Top Spots:

Fiola Mare for the fabulous food and great view (of the Kennedy Center)!

Levine Music School for my piano lessons.

Tenleytown Sport & Health for the 6 a.m. gym crowd and conversation!

The Library of Congress. It is one of America’s great resources and people outside of Washington, D.C. don’t really know how accessible it is.

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