THE KENNEDY CENTER: A HISTORICAL AND ARTISTIC TOUR

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.

Edward Durell Stone with President and Mrs. Eisenhower (c. 1962) by Kennedy Center ArchivesThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Design Presentation of National Cultural Center (1962) by Kennedy Center ArchivesThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

President Kennedy Extends the National Cultural Center Act (1963-08-03) by Kennedy Center ArchivesThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

John F. Kennedy Bust (2012) by Ron BluntThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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."

Groundbreaking Ceremony Invitation, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1964-12-02, From the collection of: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
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President Johnson Breaks Ground for the Kennedy Center (1964-12-02) by Kennedy Center ArchivesThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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 (1967-12-22) by Kennedy Center ArchivesThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

The Kennedy Center Under Construction (late 1960s) by Kennedy Center ArchivesThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Leonard Bernstein's Mass (1971-09-08) by Fletcher DrakeThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Rehearsal of Leonard Bernstein's Mass (1971-08) by Fletcher DrakeThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

The Inaugural Performance (1971-09-08) by Fletcher DrakeThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Leonard Bernstein's Mass (1971-09-08) by Jack BuxbaumThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Leonard Bernstein's Mass Leonard Bernstein's Mass, Kennedy Center Archives, 1971-09-08, From the collection of: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attends a performance (1972) by Kennedy Center ArchivesThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

The Kennedy Center Grand Staircase by Carol PrattThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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 Kennedy Center Hall of States by Ron BluntThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Family TheaterThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Eisenhower TheaterThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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 by Ron BluntThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Opera House Chandelier (1969) by Kennedy Center ArchiveThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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 Circles 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.

Concert HallThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Israeli Lounge Ceiling Panels (1972) by Shraga WeilThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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 by Scott BushnellThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

The Kennedy Center Hall of Nations by Ron BluntThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (2017-12-01) by Ron BluntThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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 by Alain JaramilloThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012) by Ron BluntThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

John F. Kennedy Quotation by Ron BluntThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Follies (2011-05-07) by Joan MarcusThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Opera Society of Washington production of "Beatrix Cenci" (1971-09-10) by Christian SteinerThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Antal Dorati leads the National Symphony Orchestra (1971-09-09)The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Annie (1976) by Richard BraatenThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Washington Opera production of "Goya" (1986-11-15) by Joan MarcusThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Nixon in China (1988-03-26) by Jim CaldwellThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Houston Ballet in Paul Taylor's "Company B" (1991-06-23) by Joan MarcusThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

The Kentucky Cycle (1992-08-24) by Joan MarcusThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Awarded to Adam Sandler in 2013, 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.

Sweeney Todd (2002-05-10) by Carol PrattThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Sally Field in The Glass Menagerie (2004-07-17) by Joan MarcusThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (2005-04-20) by Carol PrattThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Nobody's Perfect (2007-10-19) by Carol PrattThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical (2010-05-08) by Carol PrattThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Mariinsky Ballet in "The Sleeping Beauty" (2010-02-09) by Natasha RazinaThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

For the international festival RiverRun: arts impact nature in 2023, more than 300 artists from 23 countries came together to explore the intersection of culture and world waterways.

OK Go — "Here It Goes Again" (2011-06-23)The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

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.

One Mic: Hip Hop Culture Worldwide (2014-03-24) by Jati LindsayThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

The Kennedy Center presents: Little DancerThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Finding a Line: Skateboarding, Music, and Media (2015-09-04/2015-09-13)The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Kendrick Lamar and the National Symphony Orchestra: "These Walls" (2015-10-20)The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Education WorkshopThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

National Symphony Orchestra Summer Music Institute (2003) by Carol PrattThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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.

National Tour of "Barrio Grrrl!" (2011-01-22) by Carol PrattThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Education WorkshopThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Visiting artists conduct workshops with local school children.

VSA Playwright Discovery production of "Handspeak" (2011-09-30) by Scott SuchmanThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Workshop of "Tell Me My Dream" (2014-05-16) by Margot SchulmanThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Kennedy Center Expansion Project by Steven Holl ArchitectsThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The REACH

Opened on September 7, 2019, the REACH campus expansion is an open stage for differing ideas and divergent cultures, delivering on a vision for what a 21st century arts center should be—inclusive, accessible, and interactive.

The Kennedy Center Expansion Project by Steven Holl ArchitectsThe John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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

Credits: Story

For more information, visit Kennedy-Center.org.

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