Trivia question: Where is the memorial to President John F. Kennedy in Washington?
If you said the Kennedy Center — not just the bronze bust of Kennedy inside but the entire building and all that happens there — you would be correct. You would also be better-informed than most Washingtonians.
This year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth, leaders of the performing arts behemoth are trying to put the Kennedy back into the Kennedy Center. They are re-emphasizing its role as a “living memorial” to the slain 35th president.
“Most people, even the people who’ve lived in this city all their lives, not all of that group understand that it’s a memorial,” Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said in an interview.
“It doesn’t necessarily click for people that a performing arts center would be a memorial to a president.”
After Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, turning the center into a memorial made perfect sense. Kennedy, who served at the height of the Cold War and pushed the U.S. space program forward with his bold pledge to put a man on the moon, was also a strong advocate for the arts.
He actively raised money for the center, which initially was to have been called the National Cultural Center.
Congress renamed it the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and designated it as a memorial two months after Kennedy’s death. His successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, broke ground at the site along the Potomac River using the same gold-plated spade used to launch construction of the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.
The center opened in 1971 with a requiem Mass in Kennedy’s honor, composed by Leonard Bernstein.
With its cavernous concert hall, opera house and multiple stages, the building quickly became the focal point of Washington’s cultural life. And over the years, the Kennedy connection became less important than the Broadway musicals, opera, dance and music it hosted every day, along with major cultural events like the Kennedy Center Honors.
Besides the bust in the grand foyer, the Kennedy Center has inscriptions of Kennedy’s statements on the outer wall facing the Potomac River. Rutter said there are plans to attach more quotations to new buildings in the center’s expansion, set to be completed next year.
There also have been discussions about replacing a dated touch-screen display about Kennedy with a permanent exhibition honoring him, although nothing has been announced.
“We used to be about selling a show,” Rutter said. “Now we’re about telling the story of the full identity of the Kennedy Center.”
Kennedy spoke eloquently about the arts and their capacity for truth-telling. In an e-mailed statement, his granddaughter, Rose Kennedy Schlossberg, said she “can’t think of a better memorial” than a place where people experience art together.
“He did not fear criticism from media or the arts,” Schlossberg wrote. “He was a great supporter of the liberties of both, which inspires me today as we must rise to support the independent voices of dissent in our country.”
In recent months, the center has been hosting performances reflecting five ideals from Kennedy: courage, freedom, justice, service and gratitude.
With the centennial approaching on Kennedy’s May 29 birthday, there will be a series of performances, including a National Symphony Orchestra concert honoring JFK’s legacy and headlined by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who first gained fame when he played for Kennedy at age 7 at a fundraiser for the future center.
“It will be deeply meaningful,” Ma told The Associated Press. “He was my president when I arrived in this country and so I embrace the ideals that he promoted.”
On May 29, the center will host a JFK Centennial Celebration with performers including soprano Renee Fleming, actor Finn Whitrock and the New York City Ballet’s principal dancers.
Rutter also wants to make the Kennedy Center more appealing to visitors. The center was recently added to the itinerary for Big Bus, one of the companies that shuttles tourists around must-see Washington destinations.
The $120 million expansion project, with three new pavilions by architect Steven Holl, will make room for more diverse arts and educational programming. The new construction, the first since the center opened, is also intended to make the famously foreboding building more pedestrian-friendly.
A selection of photos of Kennedy affixed to a wall in the Hall of States last year also has been a hit. It’s one of the first things school groups see when they tour the center. The photos were meant to be temporary.
“I said, ‘If you take them down, I’ll kill you,’” Rutter said. “Just those pictures alone, which is vinyl adhered to the marble, is changing what it feels like to be here.”