The REACH – Extending the Kennedy Center’s Mission for Art and Community

The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts launched its first-ever expansion in its 48-year history, named the REACH, with a 16-day-long arts festival in September.

Plans for the REACH were first revealed in January 2013, followed by an official groundbreaking ceremony in December 2014. According to the Kennedy Center, the REACH would be more than an extension of the center’s physical space and resources. Instead, it’s “a new way of imagining the intersection between audiences and art.” In a June 5 tour last year for civic and cultural leaders across the D.C. region, Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter described her vision of the REACH as “an energized, active space where visitors can go behind the scenes, observe an intimate performance, or simply sit and enjoy the stunning architecture and river views, surrounded by the energy of art in progress.”

The Opening Festival, which ran from September 7-22, included performances by more than 1,000 artists, in addition to over 500 events free to the public. Among the attending artists were such greats as legendary choreographer Debbie Allen, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame funk artist Bootsy Collins and Oscar award-winning composer Alan Menken. Local groups like Thievery Corporation, The Archives and Arrested Development out of Atlanta also graced the REACH’s inaugural festival, which was described as “an inclusive, multi-genre, multidisciplinary” event. Included among the multitude of performing artists were visual and multimedia artists, playwrights and storytellers, potters and painters, panelists and lecturers.

Education and outreach were on full display during the Opening Festival, with D.C. area students grades K-12 spending hours at hands-on workshops and attending live performances. A portion of the education programming was dedicated to showcasing the talents of local music educators who’d been nationally recognized in their craft, step teams from the greater D.C. area, high school Latin dance teams and choral groups from Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Children’s Chorus of Washington.

Construction for this 4.6-acre expansion began in fall 2015, ultimately adding 72,000 square feet of interior space and 130,000 square feet of garden and lawn space to the Kennedy Center’s now-growing offerings. The result has meant a 20 percent increase in public spaces and a near doubling of all outdoor spaces for the center. This contributes to one of the primary goals of the REACH: Supplementing additional space for artistic and educational programming through a unique and integrated design.

The REACH features three interconnected pavilions complete with elevated ceilings (36 feet for the Skylight Pavilion) and floor-to-ceiling windows. Dispersed throughout the complex are 11 highly flexible spaces that will be used for assorted performances, art exhibits, classes, new works and countless other events. And that’s just the indoor spaces. Step outside and you’ll find a video wall and outdoor stage for film screenings and concerts. Dispersed throughout the 130,000 square feet of “green roof” stretched atop the REACH are walking paths and lawn spaces, which will allow for additional art installations, performances and public recreation.

Another goal of the Kennedy Center’s expansion efforts was to develop sustainable and environmentally friendly features that complemented the new campus, setting the REACH on track to obtain LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. For example, the same “green roof” that allows for ample lawn space simultaneously reduces the facility’s stormwater run-off and harmful urban heat island effects. There are 27 geothermal wells throughout the REACH, used for sustainable heating and cooling, paired with high-performance glass and a thermally-insulated façade. These features and more help to bridge the gap between art and nature and humanity’s growing responsibility towards both.

The real power of the REACH stems from the physical versatility and creative potential of its many spaces. In the Moonshot Studio, so named for President Kennedy’s call on Americans to reach the moon, weekend visitors can test various multi-media and interactive art exhibits. For meetings, dinners or other small gatherings, PT-109 (President Kennedy’s boat during WWII) is the ideal space. And then there’s the Justice Forum, with 144 fixed seats with flip-out tablets, capable of going completely dark any time of day to support film screenings and multimedia lectures.

The REACH’s campus headlines three highly adaptable multi-purpose rooms named for President Kennedy’s iconic initials. Studios J and F are large enough to accommodate 50 and 165 persons respectively, featuring sprung floors, ballet barres and privacy curtains; ideal for rehearsals, intimate performances, exhibits and much more. Studio K, the largest studio in the REACH, holds up to 300 people and shares a similar degree of flexibility as its sister studios. Additionally, Studio K has a 50-person viewing balcony, where visitors can watch rehearsals and witness the creative process unfold before them.

“Nothing is pre-defined,” notes Director of School and Community Programs Jeanette McCune, “We’re not stuck.” The scope of educational opportunities for the REACH will encompass all types of learners with its performance spaces, interactive media tools, digital resources and the myriad of participation elements built into the campus’ design. For McCune and the Kennedy Center, the only limit in the REACH’s educational and artistic potential is their imagination.