Explore the Center

History of the Living Memorial

The Kennedy Center, located on the banks of the Potomac River near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., opened to the public in September 1971. But its roots date back to 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a National Cultural Center. To honor Eisenhower's vision for such a facility, one of the Kennedy Center's theaters is named for him.


The National Cultural Center Act included four basic components: it authorized the Center's construction, spelled out an artistic mandate to present a wide variety of both classical and contemporary performances, specified an educational mission for the Center, and stated that the Center was to be an independent facility, self-sustaining, and privately funded. As a result of this last stipulation, a mammoth fundraising campaign began immediately following the Act's passage into law.


President John F. Kennedy was a lifelong supporter and advocate of the arts, and frequently steered the public discourse toward what he called "our contribution to the human spirit." Kennedy took the lead in raising funds for the new National Cultural Center, holding special White House luncheons and receptions, appointing his wife Jacqueline and Mrs. Eisenhower as honorary co-chairwomen, and in other ways placing the prestige of his office firmly behind the endeavor. [The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts]


President Kennedy also attracted to the project the man who would become the Center's guiding light for nearly three decades. By the time Kennedy appointed him as chairman of the Center in 1961, Roger L. Stevens had already achieved spectacular success in real estate (i.e. negotiating the sale of the Empire State Building in 1951), politics, fundraising, and the arts; as a theatrical producer, he had brought West Side Story, A Man for All Seasons, and Bus Stop to the stage. Over the next 30 years, Stevens would oversee the Center's construction, then would shepherd it to prominence as a crucible for the best in music, dance, and theater.


Two months after President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Congress designated the National Cultural Center (designed by Edward Durell Stone) as a "living memorial" to Kennedy, and authorized $23 million to help build what was now known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Fundraising continued at a swift pace—with much help coming from the Friends of the Kennedy Center volunteers, who fanned out across the nation to attract private support [View profiles of Friends/Volunteers Founding members]—and nations around the world began donating funds, building materials, and artworks to assist in the project's completion. In December 1964, President Lyndon Johnson turned the first shovelful of earth at the Center's construction site, using the same gold-plated spade that had been used in the groundbreaking ceremonies for both the Lincoln Memorial in 1914 and the Jefferson Memorial in 1938.


From its very beginnings, the Kennedy Center has represented a unique public/private partnership. As the nation's living memorial to President Kennedy, the Center receives federal funding each year to pay for maintenance and operation of the building, a federal facility. However, the Center's artistic programs and education initiatives are paid for almost entirely through ticket sales and gifts from individuals, corporations, and private foundations.


The Center made its public debut on September 8, 1971, with a gala opening performance featuring the world premiere of a Requiem mass honoring President Kennedy, a work commissioned from the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Mass Program

Published in the inaugural program, September 8, 1971

The occasion enabled Washington to begin earning a reputation as a cultural hub as well as a political one; as The New York Times wrote in a front-page article the next morning, "The capital of this nation finally strode into the cultural age tonight with the spectacular opening of the $70 million [Kennedy Center]...a gigantic marble temple to music, dance, and drama on the Potomac's edge."

Dedication Statements

Published in the inaugural program, September 8, 1971

  • ex-President Richard Milhouse Nixon

    America's performing arts stem from the spirit of the country and the soul of its people, and they impart to the Nation's life a beauty, a grace, and a deep and special communion without which that life would be incomplete. It is especially fitting that they now should have this magnificent new Center in the nation's capital.

    The opening of the John. F. Kennedy Center is the fulfillment of a dream shared by Americans in every walk of life. Its completion now, as the nation prepares for the approaching celebration of its bicentennial, gives proud emphasis to our rich artistic heritage, and helps ensure that in the third American century that heritage will continue both to grow in vigor and to gain in recognition and support by the public it serves.

    — President Richard Milhous Nixon

  • Photo: Mrs. Patricia Nixon

    It gives me great pleasure to welcome each of you here to the festive and auspicious occasion celebrating the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This is indeed a significant moment, one in which not only those present, but also an entire nation, can take pride and derive inspiration. This magnificent Center is in itself a tribute to our nation's cultural aspirations as well as its artistic achievements. Our desire for a national center to encourage and promote greater appreciation and participation in performing arts initiated its founding. Its realization reflects the commitment of four Presidents and innumerable citizens to this goal. The John F. Kennedy Center, already a vital part of our heritage, in time, will also assume leadership in the cultural enrichment of our modern age. I am confident that the dignity and grandeur of this building will well complement, both tonight and in future generations, the artistic opportunity and pleasure for which the John F. Kennedy Center was designed. I join with you in appreciation and excitement at this promise.

    — Mrs. Patricia Nixon

  • Photo: Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson

    With the completion of the Kennedy Center, a whole new cultural vista is opening in Washington. All of the performing arts will be gathered together in one brilliant setting, offering pleasure to generations of Washingtonians and millions of visitors.

    As I look back over more than three decades when I called Washington my home, I recall with pleasure and nostalgia watching a glittering ballet performance on a floating barge at the Watergate on the Potomac ... or driving to the country to see a summer-tock production in a barn ... or sitting on the Capitol lawn at twilight captured by the tempo of a band concert.

    I know the Center will make an enduring contribution to our national life as well as add a rich new dimension to our capital city. It is an exciting prospect for all of us who love Washington so dearly.

    — Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson

  • Photo: Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

    Washington has been our nation's capital for a century and three quarters. But only recently have we begun to understand that a great nation is nourished by art as well as by politics. Other countries' cities have their theaters, opera houses, and concert halls, but our capital city has lacked an adequate place for our great orchestras, singers, dancers, and actors. Now, at last, we will have a home for the performing arts in our own nation's capital. Here, there will be splendid productions of opera, music, theater, dance and film – productions that will give our performing artists a national base and will strengthen artistic opportunities and standards throughout the land.

    For the Kennedy Center exists not for Washington alone. It exists for the entire nation. Its work will be closely linked with state arts councils; municipal arts centers; colleges; schools; and museums everywhere in our country. I am particularly glad that provisions are being made to set aside a proportion of tickets for every performance at special rates, to be reserved for students and old people and others not in a position to pay the box office price. This is a place not just for the wealthy elite, but for all America.

    President Kennedy once said, "The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose – and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization."

    Someone else once said: "All passes, art alone endures."

    — Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Under Roger Stevens's continued direction, the Kennedy Center presented season after season of the finest and most exciting in the performing arts: new plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Tom Stoppard; new ballets by Antony Tudor, Agnes DeMille, and Jerome Robbins; new orchestral scores by Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, and John Cage. The Center co-produced musicals including Annie and Pippin in its early years, and later co-produced the American premiere of Les Misérables and co-commissioned the preeminent American opera of recent times, John Adams's Nixon in China. Stevens also initiated the American National Theater (ANT) company, which pushed the boundaries of traditional drama during a brief and controversial, but influential reign during the mid-1980s. [In Memory of Roger L. Stevens, February 1998]


The Center's presence also enabled Washington to become an international stage, hosting the American debuts of the Bolshoi Opera and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as well as the first-ever U.S. performances by Italy's legendary La Scala opera company. [See our Performance Highlights for a more thorough review of the Center's artistic achievements.]

Ralph P. Davidson replaced Stevens as Kennedy Center Chairman in 1988, and helped secure an ongoing Japanese endowment that brings that nation's arts to Washington each year. (Another of Japan's gifts to the Center, the Terrace Theater, had opened in 1979.) James D. Wolfensohn was elected the Center's third Chairman in 1990; under the leadership of Wolfensohn and President Lawrence J. Wilker, the Center solidified its fundraising, strengthened its relations with Congress, and extended the nationwide reach of its education programs to serve millions of young people in every state. The Center renewed its commitment to the creation of new works, and became a national leader in arts education and community outreach as well as a friendlier and more accessible home for the arts in Washington.


James A. Johnson, former Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer at Fannie Mae, began his tenure as the Kennedy Center's fourth Chairman in May 1996. Johnson's vision of the Center as a performing arts center attractive to people of all levels of income and artistic taste led him to create the Performing Arts for Everyone initiative, increasing the visibility of the Center's frequent low-priced and free events. He created and endowed the Millennium Stage, which presents a free event every day of the year at 6 p.m., and are also streamed live, online, and also via Facebook. By 2001, Johnson, whose stewardship had greatly enlarged the Center's artistic endowment, was joined by the Center's new president Michael M. Kaiser, former head of the Royal Opera House and earlier of American Ballet Theatre. Kaiser, who stepped down as Kennedy Center President in August 2014, oversaw all the artistic activities at the Kennedy Center, increased the Center's already broad educational efforts, established cross-disciplinary programming with opera, symphony and dance, established Kennedy Center Arts Management Program, created unprecedented theater festivals celebrating the works of Stephen Sondheim and Tennessee Williams, and arranged for continuing visits by St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater Opera, Ballet, and Orchestra, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.


Stephen A. Schwarzman, Chairman and CEO of The Blackstone Group, a global investment and advisory firm headquartered in New York, began his service as the fifth Chairman of the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees in May 2004. His commitment and interest in the arts, and particularly theater, was highlighted by a gift of $10 million to the Center's theater program, which has since produced new productions of such classics as Mame and Carnival!, August Wilson's 20th Century—the playwright's complete 10-play cycle performed as fully staged readings, a major revival production of Ragtime that transferred to Broadway in October 2009, and Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera in which three of the playwright's works were performed concurrently in three Kennedy Center theaters.


David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms, was named Chairman of the Kennedy Center in May 2010. Since then, Rubenstein has pledged more than $25 million to the Kennedy Center in support of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Center's artistic and educational programming, major annual events, and the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, which seeks to increase access to the arts to the underserved, the underprivileged, young people, and members of our armed services. Mr. Rubenstein pledged an additional $50 million as the lead gift for the Kennedy Center's Expansion Project, which will be located south of the existing building. Designed by American architect Steven Holl, the expansion will add dedication and much-needed classroom and open rehearsal spaces, as well as public gardens and an outdoor video wall. Construction is expected to be completed in the 2018–2019 season. Mr. Rubenstein's accomplishments at the Kennedy Center include the appointment of the renowned Deborah F. Rutter as the third-ever Kennedy Center President. An accomplished arts leader known for emphasizing collaboration, innovation, and community engagement, Ms. Rutter began her tenure at the Kennedy Center September 1, 2014.


In May of 2016, the Center kicked off the JFK centennial year, celebrating the 100th birthday of America's 35th President and honoring his legacy. Leading up to the centennial Open House and celebration in May 2017, the Center's programming is inspired by five ideals commonly attributed to President Kennedy: Courage, Freedom, Justice, Service, and Gratitude. Continuing to serve as a thought-leader in the performing arts community and to reflect Kennedy's ideals as a living memorial in the 21st century, the Center is engaged in a process to re-imagine itself as a more dynamic creative campus that actively engages with its communities to inspire citizen artists and reflect the contemporary spirit of exploration and expression of America. Guided by JFK's legacy of idealism, hope, and empowerment, the Kennedy Center will launch new initiatives, serve as a catalyst and a meeting place, and invite members of the public to engage with artists and ideas, and to participate in the civic and cultural life of their country.

"I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities," President Kennedy once said, "we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."

[Picture of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Kennedy Center Act.] Signing of the John F. Kennedy Center Act by President Johnson on January 23, 1964

[Picture of Audrey Hepburn at the groundbreaking.] The theater is represented at the ground-breaking ceremony by (among others) Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn, and Frederick Brisson.