History

The Kennedy Center 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, P.L. 85-874.

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. These same principles still guide the Center’s work today.

A lifelong supporter and advocate of the arts, President John F. Kennedy 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, kicking off a $30 million fundraising campaign in November of 1962, 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.

Read President Kennedy’s reflections on the arts and civic life

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, politics, fundraising, and the arts. 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 passed and President Johnson signed into law legislation renaming the National Cultural Center (designed by Edward Durell Stone) as a "living memorial" to Kennedy (P.L. 88-260). The Law 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—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 capital repairs and maintenance of the buildings and grounds, a federal facility. However, the Center's artistic programs, education initiatives, and most administrative functions 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.

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 by Original Honorary Chairmen
Published in the inaugural program, September 8, 1971

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. 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. In 1986, the Kennedy Center welcomed its first artistic affiliate, the National Symphony Orchestra, which had been the Center’s resident orchestra since the 1971 opening.

Ralph P. Davidson succeeded 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 Chairman in 1990, working with President Lawrence J. Wilker to solidify the Center’s fundraising, strengthen its relations with Congress, and extend the nationwide reach of its education programs to serve millions of young people in every state.

James A. Johnson began his tenure as the Kennedy Center's fourth Chairman in May 1996. His vision for a performing arts center attractive to people of all income levels and artistic tastes 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.; Millennium Stage performances are also streamed live and archived online, thereby making Kennedy Center performances accessible to audiences worldwide.

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 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. During this time, the Center also became known for its spectacular, multi-week international festivals, including those dedicated to the art and artists of China, India, Japan, the nations of the Middle East, and more. In 2011, Kaiser oversaw the affiliation of Washington National Opera with the Kennedy Center.

Stephen A. Schwarzman 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. Rubenstein's accomplishments at the Kennedy Center include the appointment of Deborah F. Rutter as the third-ever Kennedy Center President.

On June 8, 2012, bipartisan legislation was signed into law (P.L. 112-131) authorizing the construction of an expansion project at the Center using private funding.  The law recognized that the Center needed classroom space, rehearsal space, and event space to provide greater accessibility to the Center’s programs and performances for the general public.  Mr. Rubenstein pledged $50 million as the lead gift for the Kennedy Center's Expansion Project, called the REACH—a nod to President Kennedy’s inspirational and aspirational vision for human potential.

An accomplished arts leader known for emphasizing collaboration, innovation, and community engagement, Deborah Rutter began her tenure at the Kennedy Center September 1, 2014. Among her accomplishments, she has recommitted to putting artists at the core of work at the Center, forging formal directorships and artistic advisorships with Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming, Damian Woetzel, Q-Tip, and others. She appointed Marc Bamuthi Joseph as the Center’s first Vice President and Artistic Director for Social Impact, and inaugurated the Center’s formal hip-hop culture program, in both cases opening the doors ever-wider to communities and refining the role that art plays in our collective cultural narrative.

Patrons mingle and dance in the foyer at the 1971 Preview Gala
Kennedy Center 1971 gala

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 was inspired by five ideals commonly attributed to President Kennedy: Courage, Freedom, Justice, Service, and Gratitude. The same year, Kennedy Center artistic affiliate Washington National Opera mounted the company’s first complete Ring cycle, directed by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, to great critical acclaim.

Opened to the public on September 7, 2019, the REACH is part of the Kennedy Center’s expanded campus. Located south of the iconic Edward Durell Stone building and designed by American architect Steven Holl, the expansion adds dedicated and much-needed classroom and open rehearsal spaces, as well as public gardens and an outdoor video wall.

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 currently 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. In December of 2019, Congress passed a Sense of the Congress recognizing 2021 as the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Center. In the lead-up to its 50th anniversary in 2021–2022, and guided by JFK's legacy of courage, freedom, justice, service, and gratitude, 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.