The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is the living memorial to President Kennedy and America's premier performing arts center in Washington, D.C. Take a tour through its halls and discover its rich history.

The Beginning
The creation of the Center arose from a desire to establish a National Cultural Center like those found in the great capitals of Europe. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Cultural Center Act in 1958, the first time in history the U.S. government helped finance a structure dedicated to the performing arts.

President John F. Kennedy, with Founding Chairman Roger L. Stevens, views a model of Edward Durrell Stone's design for the National Cultural Center.

On August 3, 1963, only a few months before his death, President Kennedy signed legislation to expand the number of trustees and extend the time for raising private funds.

The Memorial
After the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, it was proposed to turn the planned National Cultural Center into a living memorial to the slain President. On January 23, 1964, President Johnson signed the bill renaming it The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, saying, "All those who worked in this cause can now know that they are not only honoring the memory of a very great man, but they are enriching our whole American life."

President Johnson broke ground for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts using the same gold-plated shovel used by President Taft for the Lincoln Memorial and President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Jefferson Memorial. President Kennedy's brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, can be seen in the background.

The Tom Sawyer Project invited students from all 50 states to decorate the safety barriers during construction.

The Kennedy Center rising along the shores of the Potomac river.

The Opening
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was inaugurated on September 8, 1971 with the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" in the Opera House. With more than 200 performers, the piece featured a large pit orchestra, two choruses plus a boys choir, a Broadway-sized cast (with ballet company), marching band, and a rock band.

Actor Alan Titus, Joan Kennedy, and Senator Edward Kennedy watch Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal of Mass in late August 1971.

Alan Titus as The Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein's Mass.

Michael Hume as The Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein's Mass.

The president's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, attends a performance in 1972.

The Building
With nine performance spaces and three great halls, the Kennedy Center is an open and inviting space that welcomes world-class performers, school groups, educators, tourists, and arts lovers.

The Hall of States welcomes visitors with its colorful display of flags from all 50 states, hung in the order they entered the union, as well as U.S. territories.

The Kennedy Center Family Theater features productions for young audiences in an intimate space that seats 324.

The Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, named in honor of President Eisenhower who created the National Cultural Center Act, is host to plays, musicals, and contemporary dance. The theater seats 1,164.

The Chinese Lounge in the Eisenhower Theater showcases gifts from China, including a mural by celebrated 4th-century calligrapher Wang Xizhi and "Verve of China," a mural depicting "feitian" flying figures.

The Kennedy Center Grand Foyer is one of the largest rooms in the world. It serves as the lobby for the Eisenhower Theater, Opera House, and Concert Hall.

President Kennedy is memorialized in a 3,000 pound bust by American sculptor Robert Berks.

The Kennedy Center Opera House is home to Washington National Opera, world class ballet companies, Broadway musicals, and the annual Kennedy Center Honors. It is the second-largest theater in the Center, with 2,362 seats.

The Lobmeyr crystal chandelier was a gift from the people of Austria. It is 50 feet in diameter and contains almost 2,000 light bulbs.

Located on the Box Tier of the Opera House, the Russian Lounge was designed by award-winning architect Sergey Skuratov and features murals by Valery Koshlyakov.

The African Room, located on the Box Tier of the Opera House was designed by Kenneth Walker and features sculptures and textiles from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Swaziland.

The Kennedy Center Concert Hall is home to the National Symphony Orchestra, popular music concerts, and the annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. It is the largest performance space in the Kennedy Center, seating 2,465.

The Israeli Lounge, located on the Box Tier of the Concert Hall, features African walnut and metalwork panels depicting Old Testament musical instruments by Nehemia Henri Azaz and ceiling panels by Shraga Weil.

The 40 wooden ceiling panels decorated with acrylic paints and 22-carat gold leaf by Shraga Weil illustrate musical events described in the Old Testament.

The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, at the north and south ends of the Grand Foyer, offers a free performance every day of the year at 6 p.m. Performances are streamed live on the internet and archived for later viewing.

The Kennedy Center Hall of Nations displays flags of all the countries with which the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations.

The Terrace Theater, a Bicentennial gift from the people of Japan to the United States, opened in 1979. Located on the Roof Terrace level, it seats 513 for intimate performances of chamber music, recitals, dance, and theater.

The Kennedy Center Theater Lab is a semi-circular thrust stage seating 398 that features plays, comedy, and lectures.

The KC Jazz Club, located in the Terrace Gallery, showcases jazz legends and rising stars in an intimate cabaret setting.

The Kennedy Center overlooks the Potomac River with views of Georgetown and Northern Virginia.

The marble walls of the River Terrace are engraved with quotations by President Kennedy on the importance of the arts in American culture.

The Performances
As the nation's performing arts center, the Kennedy Center presents a wide array of the world's best performances of dance, music, and theater by leading companies and performers, while contributing to the future of the arts by commissioning new works and bringing the artist to the center of the conversation.

The Washington Opera Society (now Washington National Opera) presented the world premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci during the Kennedy Center’s opening week in 1971.

In honor of the 1976 Bicentennial, National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Antal Dorati commissioned 12 works from American composers.

Andrea McArdle in the pre-Broadway engagement of the original production of Annie. Co-produced by the Kennedy Center, it went on to win seven Tony Awards including Best Musical in 1977.

Commissioned by the Washington Opera and the Kennedy Center, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Goya, starring Plácido Domingo, received its world premiere in 1986 and was broadcast on PBS.

John Adams's 1987 opera Nixon in China was co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Houston Grand Opera. The production was directed by Peter Sellars with choreography by Mark Morris.

Paul Taylor's exuberant Company B became an “instant masterpiece” (The New York Times) upon its Kennedy Center-commissioned world premiere by Houston Ballet in 1991.

In 1993, the Kennedy Center co-produced Robert Schenkkan's Pulitzer Prize-winning Kentucky Cycle, the 200-year saga of an American family told through a six-hour epic of 9 short plays. The Broadway transfer earned three Tony nominations, including Best Play, in 1994.

The National Symphony Orchestra’s Piano 2000 festival celebrated the 300th anniversary of the piano with a concert series including a performance of Franz Liszt's Hexameron for six pianos.

Awarded to Whoopi Goldberg in 2001, the annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor recognizes people who have had an impact on American society by revealing truths through laughter.

The 2002 Sondheim Celebration featured six new productions from across Stephen Sondheim's career. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski starred as the murderous barber and baker in Sweeney Todd.

Under the Artistic Direction of George Balanchine's most celebrated muse, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is the Kennedy Center’s own ballet company, presenting an annual engagement at the Center since 2001 as well as touring nationally and internationally.

Sally Field starred as Amanda Wingfield in the Kennedy Center production of A Glass Menagerie for Tennessee Williams Explored in 2004.

Nearly 20 companies came together in 2005 for Masters of African American Choreography, an unprecedented five-program festival exploring the contributions of African American choreographers to modern dance.

Protégés: The International Ballet Academy Festival in 2006 highlighted the academies' different styles of training and provided a tantalizing glimpse into the future of ballet.

The Kennedy Center's dedication to accessibility shone in the Performances for Young Audiences 2007 world premiere musical Nobody's Perfect, performed in spoken English and American Sign Language with Open Captioning.

Syria's Al-Farah children's choir performed as part of the international festival ARABESQUE: Arts of the Arab World in 2009.

Mo Willems's delightful children's book came to life in the 2010 Kennedy Center world premiere production Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical.

Making an annual appearance since 2002, Mariinsky Ballet presented a lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty in 2010.

For the international festival maximum INDIA in 2011, two of India's foremost classical dancers, Madhavi Mudgal and Alarmel Valli, came together for a joint creative experience.

The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage celebrated 14 years of free daily performances in 2011 with a special concert by pop sensations OK Go.

One of Norway's most innovative percussionists, Terje Isungset carved instruments out of pure ice for his concert Icemusic as part of the international festival Nordic Cool 2013.

Created in 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors recognizes the lifelong accomplishments and extraordinary talents of the nation's most prestigious artists as well as those from other nations who have achieved prominence in America.

Based on Jeanette Winterson's children's book, Washington National Opera commissioned the The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me by Jeanine Tesori and J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy for the 2013-2014 season.

In 2014, YouTube OnStage Live from the Kennedy Center brought talented stars from the digital world to the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House for a free one-night-only live streamed concert.

The 2014 festival One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide celebrated this uniquely American art form through MCing, DJing, b-boying, and graffiti writing, alongside contemporary interdisciplinary work born of hip-hop aesthetics.

In 2014 the Kennedy Center produced Little Dancer, a world premiere musical starring NYCB ballerina Tiler Peck as the inspiration for Edgar Degas's famous sculpture.

National and local skateboarders and bands came together for a week of improvisation in the Finding a Line: Skateboarding, Music, and Media festival in 2015.

Hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar joined the NSO Pops for a special performance of cuts from his lyrical masterpiece "To Pimp a Butterfly."

The Education Program
Committed to increasing opportunities for all people to participate in and understand the arts, the education programs of the Kennedy Center have become models for communities across the country and have unlocked the door to learning for millions of young people. The Center's education efforts are focused on school- and community-based arts programs that directly impact teachers, students, artists, and administrators.

Development programs such as the National Symphony Orchestra Summer Music Institute help young artists create a strong foundation for a professional career in the arts.

The Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) program creates professional learning opportunities for teachers, school administrators, and teaching artists.

The Kennedy Center's Performances for Young Audiences takes newly-commissioned works to communities across the country through its touring program.

John Legend and local youth launched What's Going On…NOW, the Kennedy Center’s first-ever digital youth arts and media campaign, centered around the themes in Marvin Gaye's classic song.

Visiting artists conduct workshops with local school children.

The VSA Playwright Discovery Award Program selects and produces new plays written by youth on themes of disability.

The biannual New Visions/New Voices conference presents workshops of new plays in development for young audiences.

The Future
On January 29, 2013, the Kennedy Center announced plans to expand the facility to the south of the original building. As the institution enters its fifth decade, the Kennedy Center Expansion Project will create a place where the community can engage and interact with artists and their creative output in inspired and meaningful ways, across the full spectrum of the creative process. Much-needed rehearsal, education, and a variety of flexible indoor and outdoor spaces will allow the Center to continue to play a national and global leadership role in providing artistic, cultural, and enrichment opportunities for all.

Renowned American architect Steven Holl has created an innovative design that preserves the silhouette of the original Edward Durell Stone building while providing new spaces for audience engagement activities.

Located south of the existing facility, three pavilions feature convertible, intimate venues, large gathering spaces with soaring ceilings filled with natural light, and grand vistas onto the Potomac River below.

The landscape, filled with trees and grasses that change with the seasons, will provide opportunities for casual performances and events.

The Kennedy Center’s full connection to the Potomac River will finally be achieved with a dynamic pedestrian bridge, connecting the Potomac River waterfront and bike path to the expansion.

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