Throughout 2021, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts celebrated its milestone 50 years of existence. As we kick off the new year in 2022 and join the Kennedy Center in its 50th year celebration, here’s some history and memorable facts about this important arts institution.
A brief timeline
What is now known as the Kennedy Center was initially named the National Cultural Center in 1958 when President Dwight Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation calling for its construction. In November 1962, President Kennedy created a campaign to raise $30 million to build the center. Just one year later in November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated.
In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a law that designated the National Cultural Center as a living memorial to President Kennedy, renaming it the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Fundraising picked up pace at this time; “with … help … from the Friends of the Kennedy Center volunteers, who fanned out across the nation … [and then] nations around the world [that] began donating funds, building materials and artworks to assist in the project’s completion” explains the Kennedy Center website.
The Kennedy Center opened to the public in September 1971 with a requiem Mass honoring President Kennedy featuring “a theatre piece for singers, players, and dancers” created by famed composer Leonard Bernstein. This unusual public combination of religion and performing arts initiated a strong bond between the private and public sector that continues today, making the Kennedy Center a hybrid of a federal facility that pays for its educational initiatives through private funding.
Another highly unique feature of the Kennedy Center is its nationwide reach, which began in 1964. Within two years after President Eisenhower signed the legislation authorizing construction of the National Cultural Center, there was already a considerable buzz about what the center would become. People loved the idea of having a central cultural arts center in the heart of the nation’s capital yet many of its fans didn’t live in the area.
The diehard supporters were called Friends of the Kennedy Center. These were women and men who volunteered their time to help the center achieve its goals. These Friends provided a grassroots spine to fundraising efforts wherever they happened to be located. This is how they successfully got funding from nations all over the world. The Friends, the fundraising from outside the United States and political connections all contributed to an international feel, which in turn became a strong desire to spread that across the nation. In 1990, both the chairperson and president of the Kennedy Center worked tirelessly to extend the center’s educational reach to young people nationwide.
The Kennedy Center’s goal to promote positive international relations through the performing arts by reaching as many people as possible became a driving force early on, enhanced over time by improvements in technology. By 1996, the center’s then-chairperson created artistic programming for all income levels and the Millennium Stage was born, which has offered a free performance daily at 6:00 p.m. since its inception. The once-national reach of the Kennedy Center became worldwide once it began streaming and archiving its Millennium performances.
50th anniversary celebration
The 50th anniversary season kicked off successfully in September 2021 with the National Symphony Orchestra Concert of Remembrance to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In October, a public art playscape was installed on the bluestone floor of the REACH Plaza created by the Kennedy Center’s inaugural education artist-in-residence, Mo Willems, along with 240 members of the community. (Go now; it’s only open through March 1!)
The celebration continues well into 2022 with the January installation of the next education artist-in-residence Jacqueline Woodson, who has won prestigious medals and awards for her books and whose works will be adapted for the stage. In addition, the upcoming “50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center” scheduled for this spring will feature great moments in musical theater from its history.
Also coming up this year is the Kennedy Center’s early February premiere (in conjunction with First Peoples Fund) of “We The Peoples Before” honoring the indigenous peoples of the United States and the scheduled September opening of a large-scale memorial to John F. Kennedy’s contributions to the arts.
The 50th anniversary season will end this September with a new interpretation of the 1971 Leonard Bernstein Mass for President Kennedy. “We will reawaken those stories [of 50 years of history] and ensure that all are invited to participate and tell us their own. But we also want to continue shining a light on the future of the performing arts with works and initiatives that speak to the promise of America’s greatest asset – the human spirit and diversity of our artists,” says current Kennedy Center president Deborah F. Rutter.
Visit kennedy-center.org for details on the extensive 50th anniversary season and celebration, as well as more about the fascinating history behind one of the greatest artistic institutions of all time.