Kennedy Center’s Rutter: Making Herself, and Her Views, Known

Deborah Rutter, now in her second month as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts made her Oct. 15 appearance at the National Press Club an opportunity to talk about story-telling, about art for art’s sake, but also art for life’s sake, about what it felt like to acclimate herself to the her maze-like new surroundings at the center, about what the Kennedy Center means to the city and its residents.

Of course, changes are likely to come under Rutter, who came here after a successful and long stint as president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. She is known for her innovation skills, for a passion for the works of living composers and artists, for her collaborative efforts and for her sense of place and community.

“When I think about the arts, and the performing arts, when I think of this place with the inspirational words of President Kennedy on its walls, I think in terms of story-telling,” she said. “Everything is a story, and the arts are ways for how we tell each other the stories of our lives, how we lived and have lived. This is how we connect with others, how we connect the draw strings of our lives, through image, story, music, dance and theatre, we convey our values, what we believe and hold dear, our moral values.

“I know I’m in the presence of journalists here, who are the professional and true story-tellers of our community, with whom we engage every day, at least I hope we do,” she said.

Rutter showed off some of her trademark skills and approaches to her life in the world of culture and the arts. She spoke eloquently, often with humor, and she spoke in full sentences and paragraphs. She told stories, about her own life, about Chicago and now Washington, about the center, and how her life was set on its course.

She recalled her teacher in third grade who asked her and others: “What instrument are you going to play?” “She didn’t say do you want to play an instrument, she made it a statement,” Rutter said. “She gave me the first tool… to write my story in the arts.” Rutter chose the violin.

“I fully subscribe and embrace the concept of art for art’s sake,” she said. “But it goes beyond that and I also believe this: art is about art for life’s sake.”

Rutter is on something of a whirlwind tour of the city and its various institutions, citizens and groups, and it’s safe to say when we can all expect to see more of her, in the flesh, hands on and curious.

“I firmly believe that no one, especially children, should be deprived of access to the arts,” she said. “I believe in arts education, in education, in access to the arts for everyone.” She made sure that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra spread its gifts and talents and wings throughout the city, including its poorest neighborhoods. This is something she apparently shared with Maestro Riccardo Muti, who stretched his interests and curiosity in many places, including “to my surprise, a prison, a youth reformatory for young female offenders” where he began a program that encouraged and allowed the women to write songs and music.

“I thought about story-telling when we set about to move here, which is a major undertaking for a family and we went through all the things we would bring (or not), and you find old children’s books, pictures and the like, and they’re full of stories, everyone has them,” she said. “It’s about shared memories, friends you leave, friends you’re going to make.”

“But I have to say, if there are surprises, it was for me how hard it is to get around the Kennedy Center,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I had the wrong access card for the wrong door.”

“The Kennedy Center houses so many examples of the best in all kinds of art,” she said. “We saw ‘Evita’ recently, and I thought how far beyond the normal musical it went. It was about something, about the rise of a woman from the lower classes in that country, about greed, and narcissism and their consequences. Then, I thought about ‘Angels in America,’ a powerful and pioneering play about the AIDs crisis, how revolutionary it was, and then to think of ‘Swan Lake,’ and its great, unique beauty. Then I thought of ‘St. Matthews Passion,’ which I have loved so much for all of my life.”

“I think sometimes one of the things that get overlooked here is the incredible education program, and how many young people it involves—in learning, in opportunity for performance and I don’t think people really realize just how large that impact is. I think that’s one of our jobs—one of my jobs—here , to get young people excited about the arts, not only as consumer but as participants and artists..”

“You know, it’s interesting, people are always asking dwindling audiences or older audiences, how to get young audiences into the center,” she said. “I’ve been part of this world for 30 years or so now, and everywhere I’ve been, the same question gets asked. And yet, the fact that the question gets asked so often tells you something about the fact that audience come. You can grow audiences with great art, with education, with access, and a presence in the community. The new campus offers all sorts of ways to bring in new audiences, and new art.”

“They tell me that Washington audiences are more conservative here,” she said. “I’m going to push you on that.”

She reiterated her well known passion for new works, and gave “The Little Dancer,” which will be performed come November as an example. “This is a ground-up, brand-new production, a musical about art and artists, about painters and dancers. It’s an example of taking risks, and I believe in taking risks.”

Rutter was asked about a variety of issues—the state of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera, the issue of diversity in Kennedy Center Honors recipients, the possibility of labor issues.

“I’ve been here a little over a month, and already I’m an expert on everything,” she said. “The thing with the Honors is that it’s a symbolic thing. It’s the way that most people in the country know the center. It’s famous. So, I think we’ve looked at that issue and made changes in how the process works and makes selections.”

By the way she handled the questions, by her optimism, which is rooted in pragmatism and experience, you can guess Rutter will be a major presence in the city, with a big footprint. “I believe in collaboration,” she said. “I intend to work with and reach out to the arts institutions in the city, theaters, dance companies, museums, at all levels.”

“Being a part of the arts community, doing this job, it’s not easy. It requires true commitment,” she said. At first, and second and third glance, Rutter doesn’t seem to suffer from a lack of commitment or presence.

Deborah Rutter will headline the Nov. 6 Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club. The breakfast series is organized by the Georgetown Media Group, which publishes The Georgetowner and The Downtowner newspapers. The breakfasts run 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. with remarks by leaders of Washington’s top cultural organizations and time for questions. The George Town Club is at 1530 Wisconsin Ave., NW ($15, George Town Club members; $20, non-members). RSVP to, or call 202-338-4833.

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