One of them just started and the other won’t take his post until next July, but D.C.’s newest cultural leaders haven’t had to do much to make us feel better than their predecessors did about the city’s cultural life. Sure, former Smithsonian Institute Secretary G. Wayne Clough and former Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, who both stepped down this fall, were prolific fundraisers, respected managers, and perhaps even innovators (depending how you prefer your innovation). But for anyone who believes a major cultural institution can be fiscally savvy and stand behind great, boundary-pushing art, Clough’s six-year tenure and Kaiser’s 13-year reign lasted more than long enough.
Clough presided over billion-dollar fundraising successes, growth in attendance, and the ongoing digitization of the Smithsonian’s collections—and his successor, David Skorton, the president of Cornell University and a cardiologist, can likely be counted on for more of the same. But Clough’s legacy as a technocrat and a money man will be overshadowed by what he did in fall 2009: censoring an exhibition on gay portraiture after conservative and Christian activists agitated for the removal of a video work by David Wojnarowicz. While Skorton also has a background in STEM, at the announcement of his appointment this spring he made it clear that art is central to his vision of the Smithsonian as an international hub of knowledge and debate. “We will not solve our toughest problems,” he said, “through science alone.” That was an obvious statement of differentiation: This guy would have the arts’ back. (Not for nothing did the Smithsonian stress, someone awkwardly, that Skorton is also an accomplished jazz flautist.)
At the Kennedy Center, Kaiser also was a fundraising juggernaut, and steered a successful merger with the cash-strapped Washington National Opera. There’s a reason he has a lucrative side-career as a consultant to struggling arts organizations. Managers may have valued Kaiser’s services highly—and everyone should want Washington’s largest cultural temple to be in good financial shape—but theater, dance, and especially music lovers of a nontraditionalist bent have been less enthused. So bring on the Deborah Rutter era. The former chief of the Chicago Symphony has all of Kaiser’s management bona fides and a reputation as a serious music person; she recruited the Italian conductor Riccardo Muti in a much-admired deal and built a well-attended new-music program in Chicago (one area where the Kennedy Center particularly lags). And while it wasn’t Rutter’s doing, the recent sunsetting of Kennedy Center Honors producer George Stevens by KenCen board chair David Rubinstein can only be seen as good news; the high-wattage affair becomes blander, more arbitrary-seeming, and more Hollywood-centric each year. Now the Kennedy Center is embarking on an ambitious physical expansion that will add nearly 10 performance venues. The odds seem good that the center’s new leader will put some invigorating art inside them.
Taken together, of course, these moves—plus the recent appointment of Melissa Chiu as director of the Hirshhorn Museum—won’t radically transform Washington’s cultural landscape. (Although the Smithsonian is about to do some ambitious physical landscaping on the south end of the National Mall.) Leaders of the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center are stewards above all else. But at least these newest ones seem to have the right priorities.