The Kennedy Center, located on the banks of the Potomac River near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., opened to the public in September 1971. But its roots date back to 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a National Cultural Center. To honor Eisenhower's vision for such a facility, one of the Kennedy Center's theaters is named for him.
The National Cultural Center Act included four basic components: it authorized the Center's construction, spelled out an artistic mandate to present a wide variety of both classical and contemporary performances, specified an educational mission for the Center, and stated that the Center was to be an independent facility, self-sustaining and privately funded. As a result of this last stipulation, a mammoth fundraising campaign began immediately following the Act's passage into law.
President John F. Kennedy was a lifelong supporter and advocate of the arts, and frequently steered the public discourse toward what he called "our contribution to the human spirit." Kennedy took the lead in raising funds for the new National Cultural Center, holding special White House luncheons and receptions, appointing his wife Jacqueline and Mrs. Eisenhower as honorary co-chairwomen, and in other ways placing the prestige of his office firmly behind the endeavor. [The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts]
President Kennedy also attracted to the project the man who would become the Center's guiding light for nearly three decades. By the time Kennedy appointed him as chairman of the Center in 1961, Roger L. Stevens had already achieved spectacular success in real estate (i.e. negotiating the sale of the Empire State Building in 1951), politics, fundraising, and the arts; as a theatrical producer, he had brought West Side Story, A Man for All Seasons, and Bus Stop to the stage. Over the next 30 years, Stevens would oversee the Center's construction, then would shepherd it to prominence as a crucible for the best in music, dance, and theater.
Two months after President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Congress designated the National Cultural Center (designed by Edward Durell Stone) as a "living memorial" to Kennedy, and authorized $23 million to help build what was now known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Fundraising continued at a swift pace--with much help coming from the Friends of the Kennedy Center volunteers, who fanned out across the nation to attract private support and nations around the world began donating funds, building materials, and artworks to assist in the project's completion. In December 1964, President Lyndon Johnson turned the first shovelful of earth at the Center's construction site, using the same gold-plated spade that had been used in the groundbreaking ceremonies for both the Lincoln Memorial in 1914 and the Jefferson Memorial in 1938.
From its very beginnings, the Kennedy Center has represented a unique public/private partnership. As the nation's living memorial to President Kennedy, the Center receives federal funding each year to pay for maintenance and operation of the building, a federal facility. However, the Center's artistic programs and education initiatives are paid for almost entirely through ticket sales and gifts from individuals, corporations, and private foundations.
The Center made its public debut on September 8, 1971, with a gala opening performance featuring the world premiere of a Requiem mass honoring President Kennedy, a work commissioned from the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. [View the opening night's program for Mass.] The occasion enabled Washington to begin earning a reputation as a cultural hub as well as a political one; as The New York Times wrote in a front-page article the next morning, "The capital of this nation finally strode into the cultural age tonight with the spectacular opening of the $70 million [Kennedy Center]...a gigantic marble temple to music, dance, and drama on the Potomac's edge."
Under Roger Stevens' continued direction, the Kennedy Center presented season after season of the finest and most exciting in the performing arts: new plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Tom Stoppard; new ballets by Antony Tudor, Agnes DeMille, and Jerome Robbins; new orchestral scores by Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, and John Cage. The Center co-produced musicals including Annie and Pippin in its early years, and later co-produced the American premiere of Les Miserables and co-commissioned the preeminent American opera of recent times, John Adams' Nixon in China. Stevens also initiated the American National Theater (ANT) company, which pushed the boundaries of traditional drama during a brief and controversial, but influential reign during the mid-1980s.
The Center's presence also enabled Washington to become an international stage, hosting the American debuts of the Bolshoi Opera and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as well as the first-ever U.S. performances by Italy's legendary La Scala opera company.