Credit: Richard Barnes

Since its opening in 1971, the Kennedy Center has become a cultural treasure in the nation’s capital, managing to balance its role as a living monument to a fallen president, a preserver of the classical arts, and an artistic incubator through its commissions and educational efforts. The Kennedy Center draws millions of visitors every year to paid and free programming which includes classical symphonies, opera, ballet, and jazz, while also breaking new ground by being one of the first arts institutions of its stature to elevate hip-hop into its regular programming structure. 

The institution takes a major step forward on Saturday with the opening of The REACH, its first major expansion in its almost 50 years of existence. The project’s name comes from the Kennedy Center’s vision for it: to renew, experience, activate, create, and honor both President Kennedy’s legacy and the performing arts. Kicking off the 16-day celebration is a parade featuring more than 200 artists. In total, the festival will present more than 500 free events with more than 1,000 participating artists. 

“Why 16 days? The three weekends and two week model gives us an opportunity to tell the varied stories that The REACH is capable of telling,” says Robert van Leer, the Kennedy Center’s senior vice president of artistic planning. “We’re going to present the color, flavor, and variety that reflect the breadth and opportunity of the whole campus.”

While the opening day is a microcosm of the festival aimed at illustrating The REACH’s potential, the festival concludes on Sept. 22 with a West Indian-style sunset dance party. Debbie Allen, Thievery Corporation, Bootsy Collins, De La Soul, Robert Glasper, and Renée Fleming are just a few of the artists scheduled to participate throughout the course of the festival. 

The REACH’s story began in the early part of this decade, when the Kennedy Center was under the leadership of its former president Michael Kaiser. The primary purpose was to house educational facilities, rehearsal space, and Kaiser’s brainchild organization, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. 

The Kennedy Center awarded the design contract to Steven Holl Architects, an internationally renowned studio with offices in New York and Beijing, in January 2013. Holl’s proposal went beyond the initial competition brief and presented a more ambitious vision for the development. 

“The whole southern end of the Kennedy Center, which at the time was a bus parking lot, could be transformed into a new front for the Kennedy Center,” recalls Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl Architects. “It could transform the Kennedy Center from a monument that was inward oriented to being an active landscape that was connected to the city and the river.”

Later in 2013, Kaiser announced his early departure and the moving of his institute to the University of Maryland. In December of that year, Deborah F. Rutter was named the Kennedy Center’s next president and she assumed the position in September of 2014. 

The official groundbreaking subsequently took place in December 2014, but changes were afoot. The original concept was for two land-based structures at one end of the campus with a third on the Potomac River. A group of rowers objected to the structure in the Potomac, stating it would interfere with their activities, and it became clear that this would be a significant obstacle to construction. Rutter asked for a land-based option for the pavilion, which became part of the final design.

Additionally, Rutter’s vision of The REACH evolved. She held a series of meetings with the architects and a cross-section of Kennedy Center staff that included multiple levels of artistic and educational programmers, members of the production, special events, and development staff, as well as representatives from every department within the center’s organizational structure. During that process, Rutter realized that while the Kennedy Center is at the top of the field in terms of traditional performance spaces, it was lacking in spaces for exploration, participation, and more immersive arts experiences. 

Rutter decided to pause construction as she and her team developed a more finely tuned view for how artists and the public might use The REACH. The new vision did not result in a wholesale redesign, but it did call for tweaks in terms of opening up the space and designing it for multi-disciplinary functionality. 

“If you walk into the center today, you never have any idea what’s going on in the building,” Rutter says. “The biggest difference was the idea of transparency.”

Van Leer sees The REACH’s role in terms of the arc that an artistic endeavor takes from conception to presentation to the audience response. Historically, the Kennedy Center has focused on the latter part of the curve by putting creative work in front of the public and then creating opportunities to learn from and engage with that work. The REACH presents an opportunity to go further back in that creative arc. Artists now have spaces to workshop new ideas and engage with each other in an informal setting while visitors can observe them doing so. At the same time, The REACH provides much needed educational facilities to bring new creativity into the fold. 

“[Artists] often view us as part of the end product and we want them to see us as partners in that creative developmental process,” van Leer says. “The thing we’ve had to do is walk into the light about moving from the metaphor of what this could mean into the action of what it should mean.”

The revised plans received approval in the summer of 2015 and construction resumed that fall. Holl and his architectural team collaborated with larger firms that had more robust engineering, technological, and production capabilities. Their final product is three pavilions, dubbed the Welcome Pavilion, the Skylight Pavilion, and the now land-based River Pavilion. The 4.6 acre site adds 72,000 square feet of public interior space that exists largely underground and beneath 130,000 square feet of greenspace and public gardens. 

There were several core principles that the architects held throughout the process. One was using innovative materials to maintain an aesthetic continuity with the grandiose original building designed by Edward Durell Stone, which is why The REACH’s exteriors are made of titanium white concrete. Others principles include connecting the center with the river, which it does with a new walkway that spans Rock Creek Parkway, infusing the new space with natural light and ecological integration—The REACH is on track to receive LEED Gold certification. 

In its scathing 1971 architectural review, The New York Times described the Kennedy Center as a “superbunker,” and “disquietingly reminiscent of the overscaled vacuity of Soviet palaces of culture.” The REACH is an attempt to bring the Kennedy Center to a human scale and make it more welcoming for visitors and artists, removing some of its ivory tower veneer. 

“The physical space is dope as fuck, let me just say that,” says Marc Bamuthi Joseph, vice president and artistic director for social impact at the Kennedy Center. “What we want is to be more than just a vault for pre-existing performative happenings. I’m curious about what happens to the people in the room before or after a show.” 

Joseph’s role at the center, as he describes it, is to “work at the intersection of the performative and the social contract.” His team is using the new space to launch a number of residencies from individuals and groups who work at the intersection of the arts and social justice. Artists from historically marginalized communities—including LGBTQ, refugee, disabled, Latinx youth, and First Nations artists—are being asked to host events at The REACH. 

“We are going to program these spaces with incredible art, that’s a given,” Joseph says. “I’d like to think that we’ll program these spaces through the invitation of incredible people. Let them figure out what the space is going to entitle.”

Eventually, there will be an assessment of whether The REACH is on track to live up to the initial vision that led to its creation. Rutter and her team will look at whether the programming is overbooked or underbooked, and whether there is a sound balance between educational, artistic, and social activity. Those are objective markers, but Rutter also hopes The REACH will trigger a deeper curiosity in those who experience it.

“If you think of a dance party, is the emphasis on ‘dance’ or ‘party,’ or is it about an artistic expression?” Rutter asks. “There’s an opportunity for us to do an even deeper exploration of ‘What does art mean?’”

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