“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the nation’s purpose”
-President John F. Kennedy
This September, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts celebrates its namesake with a new permanent exhibit titled “Art and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy.” Kennedy was a staunch believer in the arts and the vital role they play in society. This past year has been a celebration of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary season. The season has examined Kennedy’s legacy and captured the full breadth of the Kennedy Center’s programming, including theater, hip hop, jazz, ballet and dance, comedy, chamber music, educational initiatives, and community engagement. To round out this 50th anniversary celebration, The Kennedy Center is launching a new exhibit celebrating Kennedy’s commitment to the arts.
The Exhibit Design
The exhibit is housed in the 7,500 square foot former Atrium space in the original Edward Durell Stone building. The space has since been renovated and repurposed to house the display.
The exhibit is divided into four key areas, with each one focusing on a theme of Kennedy’s presidency and how it relates to the arts. The areas are 1. Democracy 2. Social change 3. The White House 4. Culture
Each section contains photographs, quotes, and articles as they relate to the theme, as well as footage from his landmark speeches, including the Space Race address at Rice University, Amherst College remarks on public service and the artist’s role in society, and the Oval Office report in which he first laid out the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act. The exhibit also features historic footage of musicians, including Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte, Pablo Casals, Frank Sinatra, and Dizzy Gillespie.
The display also includes an array of multimedia features that relate Kennedy’s themes to six broader themes of the Kennedy Center’s current work and new initiatives that reflect JFK’s values:
Uplifting the Artist
Exporting the Arts
Creating Social Impact
Arts Accessible to All
A Cultural Icon
Part of this multimedia display is the wraparound LED frieze that displays colorful imagery of the Kennedy Center, as well as quotes from JFK. Once an hour, the frieze will “take over” the space with a video from one of Kennedy’s speeches, immersing viewers as if they were at the historical event.
Three Interactive Features
The display also features three interactive activities that can be found throughout the exhibit.
Dinner at the White House: Using touchscreens, visitors learn about prominent cultural icons that were invited to have dinner with the Kennedys. Guests can also choose to “invite” their own guests and find commonalities between those they have chosen and ones selected by the Kennedys.
The Power of Words: Keywords from Kenendy’s most important speeches come together to form sentences as visitors approach a large, mirrored wall. As visitor’s listen to the quote in Kennedy’s voice, they are able to see themselves reflected back in his words up on the wall.
Dynamic Portraiture: Expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning was known for her painting of Kenendy. Visitors can create their own self portrait through large touch screens, mimicking her style and brushstrokes. Once the painting is complete, each user has the opportunity to scan a QR code to download the portrait on a smartphone.
Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter calls the project a living memorial to JFK “to honor our past and celebrate our future.” As she reflects on the 50th anniversary season, she says:
“From inspired performances that represent the breadth and diversity of the arts in American to deeply impactful national education programs and innovative social work, it is my most fervent hope that this anniversary year reinforces our commitment to the ideals of our namesake and his vision of the arts as being ‘close to the center of the nation’s purpose.’”
According to Brendan Padgett, Director of Public Relations for the Kennedy Center, the exhibit has been in the works for approximately four or five years. But it was not until arts
performances shut down around the world at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that the project began to fully come together.
The project was headed by Philadelphia architecture firm KieranTimberlake, and was designed and produced by Pentagram, an independent design firm. In addition to architects and designers, the project was led by an advisory committee comprised of five leading US historians: Pulitzer-prize winning professors Fredrik Logevall and Annette Gordon-Reed, University of Virginia professor and Cold War and cultural diplomacy expert Penny von Eschen, civil rights scholar Peniel Joseph, and Pulitzer Prize finalist Scott Sandage.
“We had been working with the Kennedy Center on realizing this idea of giving voice to the memorial aspect of this building, that it’s both a national performing arts center and a memorial to John F. Kennedy,” said KieranTimberlake partner Richard Maimon. “I think that’s an aspect of the building that many visitors may not quite realize. There’s the bust downstairs, the incredible quotes carved into the marble facade, but nowhere is the story told in a really strong way that’s evident. In working with Kennedy Center leadership, it occurred to all of us that an exhibit that would speak to the president and his relationship to the arts, the lens by which the Kennedy Center itself was created, was needed.
“So this space that was known as the Atrium, known as a multipurpose space, kind of a leftover space that was made into an event space, but in a vital location, between the states and nations halls on this floor, seemed to be the appropriate place to put this exhibit. It would be, for the first time, a permanent exhibit on the president, but through the lens of the arts and how the arts influenced his presidency, and vice versa.
“As architects, we were working on creating the overall space and placing it in the building, the renovation, and bringing on a team of people that would help to realize it.”
Multimedia company batwin & robin productions was responsible for incorporating multimedia and digital media content into the exhibit.
“We get involved in the narrative content and the exhibit and the objects,” said media designer Linda Batwin of batwin & robin productions. “We learn the vision and what the experience is, and we develop that together. And then we design the media to really enhance the exhibition and give another level of depth to it. For example, all of these pieces tell this story, but a mini documentary, this sort of synthesizes the narrative and turns it into this.”
Batwin’s team is also the mastermind behind the frieze that encircles the exhibit.
“The idea also behind that is that you experience the exhibition by yourself or with someone next to you. But then you have this moment with everyone together with the lights out, almost like in the theater when the lights go out, and you all experience this together,” she said.
KieranTimberlake, Overall Exhibit Architect and Producer
Pentagram, Exhibition, and Experience Design
ISG Productions, Script Development
batwin+robin, Media Design
Studio TheGreenEyl, Interactive Media
Sergio Albiac, Dynamic Portraiture Artist
Susan Johnson, Exhibition Text
Threshold Acoustics, AV and Acoustics
Tillotson & Theatre Projects, Lighting, and Theatrical Design
The exhibit will open to the public on September 17, and will be open from noon to midnight. Eventually, the exhibit will be open any time the Kennedy Center is open, and visitors will be able to enter from 10am to midnight at a later date.
Source: Kennedy Center press release, as well as my own quotes and observations at a press viewing of the space
Feature Photo: Yo-Yo Ma,Rose Kennedy Schlossberg, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, David Rubenstein, and Deborah Rutter_Ceremonial Ribbon Cutting of Art and Ideals - John F. Kennedy_Photo by Scott Suchman