Kennedy Center President Inspires

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Kennedy Center PresidentEarlier this month, Deborah Rutter spoke to the weekly luncheon of the National Press Club (NPC) in Washington, D.C. Thanks to the transcript posted on NPC’s website, we almost feel like we were in the audience [applause] – except we’re still hungry! [laughter]

Rutter took on the prominent role of Kennedy Center president in September, and is the first woman to hold that position. While her remarks received some national media attention, here are a few interesting highlights we took away:

Art Tells Stories. In the manner of all good speakers, Rutter sought common ground with her audience of journalists. She talked about her recent move to D.C. and how moving unearths one’s own life stories contained in friendships and belongings. Once relocated, she and her daughter introduced themselves with stories of their past, while learning stories of their new home. “Storytelling connects us and represents the drawstrings of our lives,” Rutter said. She described journalists as “true professional storytellers” whose “work provides the recorded history we reflect back on to understand who we are as a culture…” Rutter then named art as another form of storytelling – including theatre, opera, dance, music, film and the visual arts. In summarizing her own reaction to the opera Evita, Rutter beautifully captured the emotional value of art and the duality between individual and group audience experiences:

“The performing arts highlight all of the emotions of our world, shine a spotlight on those topics we sometimes dare not to debate, force us to experience feelings we may want to brush aside. The quiet of a darkened theatre allows us to enter a world simultaneously shared with others in the audience, and yet experienced individually in our heart and our mind.”

Art Frees the Spirit. Before the Kennedy Center, Rutter was president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO); she told the NPC audience about a remarkable outreach effort launched by CSO music director Riccardo Muti. He wanted to share the gift and power of music throughout the greater Chicago community; the most surprising venue was a prison. Young women in a juvenile detention center were visited weekly by CSO musicians who helped turn their stories and lyrics into musical compositions. Rutter felt privileged to witness several performances, which were also attended by these girls’ families. She vividly described the powerful emotions that flowed as their life stories were expressed through art. Muti’s example can be seen as a challenge to other arts organizations, to seek out the marginalized in society and engage them in meaningful ways. Not engaging to garner headlines or positive social media buzz, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Art Enhances Learning. Toward the end of her remarks, Rutter gave an overview of the Kennedy Center’s impressive educational outreach, which includes more than $1 million is spent annually in regional schools. Lesson plans, audio and video podcasts, student interactive games and other tools are provided to help teachers incorporate the arts into their classrooms. Rutter claims the Kennedy Center’s education efforts directly touch 11 million people annually!

“We want to support this storytelling of the future, and for the future of art, for life’s sake.”

Challenge for Tomorrow. While Rutter’s world-renowned organization and its sizable budget may seem disconnected from local or regional performing arts groups with smaller reaches and finances, her motivational words are truly one-size-fits-all. After considering her remarks, we hope everyone in the performing arts community is inspired to look outside themselves for new ideas, to look into the mirror to foster self-improvement and to look into the future to better reach tomorrow’s audiences.

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