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Autumn 1993
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  I deas and Observations

The White Elephant on the Potomac
Charlotte Allen
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More than two decades after its completion in 1971, Washington, D.C.’s massive John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts still receives reverential treatment in the press and public mind. It is a shrine, after all: a national temple of high culture and the nation’s only official monument to the dead president. The Kennedy Center is also formidably large. It is a multi-hall complex—what Lincoln Center might be like if all its symphony, opera, dance, and theater spaces were under one roof, packed into a giant marble-clad shoebox. Looming over the Potomac, the Kennedy Center is impossible to miss from the several roads and bridges leading into the District of Columbia.

Nonetheless, the center has been a disappointment from the very beginning. Few Washingtonians have ever really liked the design by Edward Durrell Stone. The center has never been able to break even financially, even though the National Park Service pays for the maintenance of the buildings and grounds as a national monument. It has never quite lived up to artistic expectations either; its musical and theatrical fare has flailed between the dazzlingly original and (much more often) the mind-numbingly middlebrow. Finally, the Kennedy Center is physically falling apart after only 22 years, despite several major structural repairs.

Built upon the promise that it would be entirely self-supporting, the Kennedy Center needs, or at least consumes, ever-larger federal subsidies and bailouts in order to keep raising its curtains. While some might wonder whether it is worthwhile—or fair—for the nation’s taxpayers to pick up an increasing share of the center’s bills, its current chairman, James D. Wolfensohn, has been trying to reposition the Kennedy Center so that it will stay on the government dole forever. He wants Congress to turn it into a full-fledged autonomous government institution.

As a concept, the Kennedy Center has been through a number of permutations. The idea for a “national cultural center” predated Kennedy’s presidency by several years. It was the height of the Cold War, and many in Washington thought of art as an extension of war by other means. The Soviet Union’s Bolshoi Ballet, with its international luster and technical virtuosity, represented a cultural threat to American interests akin to the nuclear threat of the Soviets’ weapons arsenal. There was also a push to build a national auditorium of a size and splendor deemed suitable for the capital of the free world (the city’s existing concert halls and theaters, most of which are still in use today, were considered too puny to impress America’s allies and enemies).

Congress set up a commission in 1955 to devise a plan for the new auditorium. The commission came back two years later with a design (later translated by Stone into drawings) that was Stalinesque in proportions: a “great hall” seating ten thousand people, which would be used for presidential inaugurations, flanked by several other huge theaters. The commission also picked the site on the Potomac where the Kennedy sits today: a rolling 17.5 acres (the original design called for 27 acres and would have encompassed all of what is today the Watergate complex) far away from the rest of downtown Washington’s nightlife. High culture and bucolic settings went together in the commission’s thinking.

President Eisenhower, a Republican who did not believe that the Federal Government should involve itself in arts funding, insisted that the center should be constructed with private funds raised by its board of trustees; the government would contribute only the land on which it was built. With that proviso, Congress approved legislation for the culture palace in 1958.

Fund-raising proved to be murder from the very beginning. From 1959 to 1961, the trustees raised only $3 million out of the $75 million (about $375 million in today’s dollars) that architect Stone estimated it would cost to build his version of the commission’s plan: a glass-fronted clamshell whose grand salon would be accessible by barge from the Potomac. The trustees ordered Stone to substitute a cheaper design. He scrapped the inaugural hall, reduced the size of the theaters, and gave the building a rectangular shape. Perhaps it as the haste in which Stone made his changes, but he neglected to include any office space in the outsize building. Windowless rabbit warrens were later carved out alongside the theaters for the staff.

Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy became president. An admirer of André Malraux, the novelist and existentialist philosopher who became France’s minister of culture under de Gaulle, Kennedy liked to talk about art’s “spiritual” dimensions, giving the planned center a quasi-religious aura as a temple consecrated to the sacred power of art. For all his high-flown boosting, however, Kennedy raised relatively little in additional donations for the center. He did, however, begin a process of quietly arranging for the Federal Government to pick up some of the construction tab, working out a deal (never consummated) to have the Interior Department pay for the parking garage.

In the end, it was Lee Harvey Oswald who got the Kennedy Center built. Within two months of Kennedy’s assassination, the center’s board sold the project to Congress as a monument to the late president, persuading lawmakers to cobble together a $31 million loan-and-grant package to finance construction. Digging began in December 1964. It was not the ideal time to hollow out frozen earth, but Roger Stevens, the center’s first board chairman, who had played a major role in wringing the construction funds out of Congress, wanted a hole in the ground as soon as possible. Erection of the center took nearly seven years, delayed by union bickering, architectural squabbles with Stone, and $20 million in cost overruns that Congress gamely covered. The center ended up having to repay almost nothing on its construction loans. Congress forgave $33 million in accumulated interest in 1984 and virtually forgave some $20 million worth of unpaid principal as well, putting the center on a long-term repayment schedule at a mere $200,000 a year.

The year after construction started, nearby National Airport received permission to handle jet aircraft, necessitating costly insulation of the Kennedy Center’s roof, walls, and windows. Stevens tried to save money elsewhere by soliciting some of the center’s trimmings—stage curtains, chandeliers, and the like—from friendly foreign governments. Italy chipped in with 3,700 tons of Carrara marble to face the exterior. Unfortunately, that was far from sufficient to meet Stone’s specifications for an 8-inch-thick coat for the building. So the contractor settled for a seven-eighths-inch-thick “skin” of marble bonded to a concrete slab. The experiment in cost-cutting proved to be a long-term mistake, for the marble veneer has gradually begun detaching itself from its concrete backing, resulting in cracks, chips, and buckling all over the Kennedy Center’s surface. The flat, heavy roof has also proved structurally problematic. Built to ward off noise, the roof apparently was not built to withstand rain and snow, and there have been several multimillion-dollar repairs to it and to the center’s chronically flooding parking garage—paid for by Congress, of course.

Stone’s oversimplified design for the Kennedy Center, grandiose in concept but executed on the cheap, yielded a building impossible to love. With its lidlike roof and quadriform shape, the center resembles nothing so much as a colossal replica of a plastic Kleenex-box holder. Inside, two 260-foot-long flag-hung corridors, the Hall of Nations and Hall of States, trisect the building into the spaces for its three ground-floor theaters. Both corridors end at the Grand Foyer, an enormous 40-foot-wide room that runs the entire 630-foot length of the building (you could lay down the Washington Monument inside the Grand Foyer and still have 80 feet to spare). Acres of lipstick-red wall-to-wall carpeting cover the floor, crystal chandeliers weighing a ton apiece hang from the ceiling, and what are surely the world’s largest living-room drapes shade a row of 60-foot-high aluminum-framed windows facing the Potomac.

Simultaneously forbidding and tacky, pretentious and cheesy, the Kennedy Center impresses Washingtonians but has never managed to win their hearts. It doesn’t help that the site is physically and psychologically remote from the rest of Washington, cut off by a fettuccine Alfredo of expressways that channel commuters back and forth from suburban Virginia. Even the nearest subway stop is a roundabout ten-minute walk away.

“Sometimes you don’t like something at the beginning, but you sort of warm up to it as time passes,” the Washington Post’s architectural critic, Benjamin Forgey told Washington’s City Paper. But “with the Kennedy Center, you don’t warm up to it. It’s not a fun place to be. The best you can say about the building is that you can walk around the terrace and get this wonderful view of everything.”

Some five million tourists a year visit the Kennedy Center, but they generally don’t stay long. Despite the Periclean expectations of those who conceived of a national arts palace, high culture isn’t much of a draw for out-of-town visitors. When the center first opened, wild-eyed JFK fans tore out light fixtures, faucets, and chunks of marble to take home as mementos of their assassinated hero. Nowadays, visitors tour the place strictly to marvel at how anything could be that big (and boring) and to take in the spectacular trans-Potomac view. They pay scant attention to the center’s hagiographic cynosure: a seven-foot-high disembodied head of JFK in the Grand Foyer that looks as though it was cast out of chunks of bronze-coated denture fixative. Kennedy Center administrators seem aware that the building is not particularly tourist- friendly and have considered livening it up with interactive television screens.

Artistically, the Kennedy Center is a victim of its size. As a one-stop performing-arts center (a concept of the synergistic Sixties that also accounts for Lincoln Center and Los Angeles’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), the Kennedy Center houses a total of six theaters on two floors: a 2,750-seat concert hall, a 2,250-seat opera house, a 250-seat screening room (leased to the American Film Institute), and three stage auditoriums. To fill these spaces and make them pay, the center’s administrators have always leavened the highbrow fare for which the center was planned with lower-order offerings. The Kennedy Center’s 365-day-a-year programming menu offers an eclectic range that includes grand opera, chamber music, Shakespeare, Broadway road shows, pre-Broadway tryouts, lite-listening pops, gospel, and Christmas carols.

After a gala opening in September 1971 that featured the premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s specially commissioned (and now mercifully forgotten) Mass, the Kennedy Center settled into what it is today: a prestigious booking house for shows and performers either from or headed for out of town. Part of the reason for that was the personality of Stevens himself, who reigned over the center until 1987 and tried to cast it in his own likeness. Stevens had been a Broadway producer before his tenure as chairman, and his specialty was splashy Broadway productions, not originality. When he retired, his handpicked successor, Gordon Davidson, continued his programming style, and Wolfensohn, the Kennedy Center’s third chairman, has made few changes.

Some of the Kennedy Center’s productions—including a run of Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer-winning The Kentucky Cycle scheduled for this fall—have been or promise to be artistically first-rate. The well-regarded but money-losing National Symphony Orchestra uses the Kennedy Center as its home base (and was operationally absorbed into the center in 1986). The Washington Opera Company and Washington Ballet also call the Kennedy Center home. Superstar classical performers and troupes such as Itzhak Perlman and the Joffrey Ballet play the Kennedy Center when they are in town. But the center has no resident acting company, an unheard-of situation for a national theater. The largest of its three stage halls, the Eisenhower Theater, lay dark for much of the 1992-93 season. The moneymaking hit of the Kennedy Center has been Shear Madness, a distinctly subbrow comedy/whodunit about hairdressers that has been running for seven years in the Theater Lab, a 250-seat upstairs showroom that was originally supposed to be reserved for the avant-garde and artistically experimental. Shear Madness’s success has inspired the Kennedy Center to mount several other laugh-a-minute crowd-pleasers in its smaller performing spaces.

The fact that the Kennedy Center must mount mass-audience fare to fill its massive spaces points to an even more serious problem: the center is almost always in the red, even with an ever-escalating and ever-more-imaginative array of federal subsidies. Not only does the National Park Service pay for its entire plant upkeep and security, but the Education Department also funds an expanding array of programs for schoolchildren and workshops for their teachers. The only aspect of the Kennedy Center that federal tax dollars do not subsidize—at least in theory—is the $60 million annual cost of producing and mounting performances. But even there, the center expects occasional bailouts, despite hefty ticket prices and vigorous fundraising from individuals and corporations.

If Wolfensohn has his way, the umbilical cord linking the U.S. Treasury to the Kennedy Center will become a veritable gas pump. In fiscal 1989, Congress allotted the center a mere (by today’s standards) $7 million: $6 million to the Park Service and $1 million to the Education Department. As soon as Wolfensohn took over, the annual subvention began to top $20 million. Last year, the center lobbied for a bill that would have guaranteed it some $158 million in congressional appropriations over five years.

Most significantly, the Wolfensohn-backed bill would have eliminated the role of the Park Service and Education Department as funding middlemen. The Kennedy Center would have assumed independent bureaucratic status as an originator of “national performing arts education policy and programs” with discretion to contract for its own repairs and capital improvements. It would have become an autonomous bureau on a par with the National Gallery (which gets a $50 million annual direct appropriation from Congress) and the Smithsonian Institution—or, in some ways more pertinently because of its expected funding activities, with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The thoroughgoing transformation that Wolfensohn’s proposals contemplated proved too much for Congress to digest in 1992. He nevertheless came away with a record $24 million for capital renovations, maintenance, and educational programs. For fiscal 1994, he plans to ask Congress for $33 million. He has also been hinting lately that he might jump ship if the Clinton administration does not help him push through legislative changes—as yet undrafted—that would ensure the Kennedy Center both autonomy and a large and steady subsidy stream. “It can limp along and it can grow some deficits until someone bails it out, but it won’t do it on my watch,” Wolfensohn grumbled to the New York Times in April. In a May 12 memo obtained by the Washington Times, Wolfensohn told White House Chief of Staff Thomas McLarty that the Kennedy Center was “technically bankrupt” and needed an additional $8 million to $9 million to meet its overhead bills and retire accumulated debt.

One may blame the Kennedy Center’s ad hoc programming mix and chronic money problems on Stevens and his successors. But the reality may be that a national cultural center was never a good idea for Washington. In other U.S. cities, it is taken for granted that high culture is for an elite. Possessors of large fortunes provide patronage to the arts, and cultivated people of lesser means—academics, artists, writers—fill out audiences. In Washington, a city with few large private fortunes or first-rate universities and not much of an arts community, the Federal Government has tried to play arts patron by default. In more optimistic times, many even hoped that the government could create a mass market for high culture simply by constructing a massive building to house it.

Because that market has never materialized, the Kennedy Center has had to lard its programs with pops, Broadway reruns, and the everlasting Shear Madness—just to keep the doors open. This tactic—using revenues from money-making middlebrow fare to underwrite money-losing highbrow fare—is actually to the Kennedy Center’s credit. But it does undercut the Kennedy Center’s original raison d’être as a culture palace and make one wonder whether it is worth its overhead. The National Symphony could play in a less expensive but more conveniently located hall downtown. The pop offerings may be better suited for Washington’s several newly refurbished commercial theaters. Indeed, the District’s most artistically creative stage offerings play in small houses miles from the Kennedy Center.

Wolfensohn seems aware that marketing the Kennedy Center as a national performing-arts showcase is always going to be a tough sell. So as he presses Congress for levels of funding that would have been undreamed-of in years past, it is interesting to watch him subtly reposition the Kennedy Center as an indispensable federal bureaucracy. One way to do this has been to beef up the center’s educational mission (and educational appropriations). For example, Wolfensohn has instituted a program of postgraduate training for teachers, who spend a week or so at the Kennedy Center watching plays, examining masks and musical instruments, writing term papers, and, presumably, earning all-important credits that help boost their salaries. Whether the extended field trips yield any benefits to youngsters back home is anyone’s guess.

Survival by any means is, of course, the lesson of the Kennedy Center. It may look ugly, seem pointless, and appear on the verge of physical disintegration, but it is actually indestructible. The one thing that those who built it and operate it have learned over the past three decades is how to make it so.

 

 


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