The Best Arts Job in the World

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Michael Kaiser
President, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The Kennedy Center recently announced that Deborah Rutter will become its new president in September. It is with great ambivalence that I leave my job to Deborah.

Not because I have any doubt she will do a spectacular job — Deborah is smart, creative, kind and experienced. I am confident that she will bring new ideas and programming to the Center and will enliven it for our audiences everywhere. I cannot imagine anyone in whom I would have more confidence.

Rather, I am ambivalent about leaving the Center.

In truth, I have been planning this move for years. I believe that a presenting organization needs a new leader every decade or so and, by that measure, I have far outstayed my welcome. (In fact I had planned to leave in 2011 but the affiliation with the Washington National Opera changed my plans.)

But running the Kennedy Center is the best arts job anywhere and that is the root of my ambivalence.

Where else does one get to create programming for such a wide range of art forms — symphonic music, opera, ballet, contemporary dance, theater, chamber music and jazz — not to mention the multi-disciplinary festivals, including our huge international festivals? With more than 2,000 performances each year and a substantial programming budget, one is only limited by one’s imagination.

Where else does one get to manage an education program that reaches children in all fifty states? This year alone, 11 million people will have an opportunity to engage with the arts thanks to Kennedy Center programming.

Where else does one get to participate in the range of special events — from theKennedy Center Honors to the Mark Twain Prize to, my favorite, the informal July 4th celebration on our roof — with the very best view of the fireworks imaginable?

Where else does one get to collaborate with several national volunteer boards with passionate and engaged representatives from across the nation – not to mention a main board with fourteen members of Congress, three Cabinet secretaries and a remarkable group of patrons?

Where else can one, literally, collaborate with the world? Washington, D.C. is the home to every ambassador to the United States — this gives the Center remarkable access to artists, events, programs and ideas that span the globe.

With all of these remarkable assets — not to mention a tremendous staff and a loyal audience – one is never finished as the chief executive of this institution. One merely has one’s opportunity to make a difference and then pass these great assets to someone else with another vision.

I, for one, cannot wait to see what Deborah does with the Kennedy Center. I hope she has as much fun as I have had.

I know I will be jealous that she conceived of programming I could never have imagined; and I also know that in a decade or so, when Deborah is ready to pass on the mantle, she will feel just as ambivalent as I do today.

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