By Ronald Flamini | April 20, 2015 | People
A breath of fresh air from the Windy City, Deborah F. Rutter arrives from the Chicago Symphony to become the Kennedy Center's first female president.
In her first eight months at The Kennedy Center, Deborah Rutter has already made a mark on the organization’s programming and audience initiatives.
Deborah Rutter’s career goes in 11-year cycles, after which, she says, “It’s time to hand off to someone else.” She was executive director of the Seattle Symphony from 1992 to 2003, and then ran the formidable Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the same amount of time, from 2003 to 2014. In September 2014, she took over as the first-ever female president of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
By our calculations, she has until 2025 to leave her mark on Washington’s massive performing arts mall, with its attractions ranging across the cultural landscape, from opera and ballet to the perennially popular Shear Madness, a combination improv show and murder mystery now in its 28th year and still going strong. “The Kennedy Center president is the only job in the world that is responsible for a major opera company, two orchestras, and a ballet company, as well as extensive theater, dance, and jazz seasons,” says Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein. “We feel that Deborah can build upon the Center’s impressive legacy and continue this institution’s long tradition of excellence.”
In a city awash with broken promises, Rutter, 59, has been careful not to be too specific about her agenda. (“I don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver,” she told The Washington Post last year.) But some priorities have emerged. She wants to enhance The Kennedy Center’s role as the nation’s cultural center through its program choices and, “by making The Kennedy Center a role model for what an art institution in the city should be.”
Born in Pennsylvania, the Los Angeles-raised arts administrator would also like to attract more tourists: visitors and audiences—both locals and out-of-towners—total 3 million per year, which is respectable but not overwhelming considering how many tourists flood the nation’s capital. (The National Gallery of Art, for instance, attracts 4 million.)
Rutter wants to create more interaction between The Kennedy Center’s different disciplines while also increasing the Center’s educational programs and involvement with the community. For example, to accompany the Washington National Opera’s production of Wagner’s Ring cycle in 2016, she says, “It would be really valuable to have programming that might connect [the opera audience] to other parts of the building—and other parts of the city.” Rutter’s knack for tying together different artistic strands and fostering community was a selling point for Rubenstein, who notes, “Throughout her career, Deborah has used the arts to bring people together and encouraged collaboration, and we know The Kennedy Center and the Washington, DC, community will benefit from her leadership.”
Coming from the Chicago Symphony, which is widely considered one of the best orchestras in the country, Rutter is determined to coax the National Symphony Orchestra to the level she feels it can achieve. “Christoph Eschenbach [the NSO’s conductor laureate] has done a really great job: hiring wonderful musicians, reestablishing the repertoire, and reestablishing focus . And we need to continue to provide the right environment for them to grow into a great ensemble,” she says.
Rutter may be steeped in the business of running an orchestra, but she is well aware of the different needs of The Kennedy Center’s constituent organizations. “One of the challenges that we face in The Kennedy Center is that you have so much programming, and each of the programs demands an individual marketing approach,” she says. “The way you sell the NSO, or the way you sell the Opera, musical theater, or jazz—each of those is quite different, and we’re examining how much product we have, when we offer it, and what the format is.”
Since performing arts institutions plan their programs so far in advance, it will be two years before all of The Kennedy Center’s programming reflects Rutter’s initiatives. She has made a start on the Rutter era by appointing a composer-in-residence, Mason Bates, who will write music for the Center’s various organizations and curate a new music series, and by launching Shift: A Festival of American Orchestras, which, starting in 2017, will provide musical community outreach with four to five orchestras performing each year at various venues throughout DC. She is also overseeing a planned extension, slated for completion in 2017, that will add 65,000 square feet to the Center’s existing 1.5 million square feet. But that’s not the only growth she’s forecasting: Rutter is already talking about opportunities for national and international touring programs, which hints at the possible creation of a Kennedy Center Repertory Company.
Kennedy Center staffers talk of the smooth transition from Michael Kaiser to the institution’s first woman president, who is a savvy manager, a passionate advocate of the arts, and a fundraising whiz. Rutter has also fit easily into Washington’s unique social blend of wealth, politics, and diplomacy, which has already included at least one invitation to the White House from that other prominent Chicago transplant, President Obama. Like many Washingtonians, most of her days start with a session at the gym and driving her 16-yearold daughter, Gillian, to school. Like many DC professionals, she also manages the complexity of a long-distance marriage; her husband, trombonist Peter Ellefson, is a professor of music at Indiana University.
If 11 years prove too short for Rutter’s big agenda, it won’t be for want of trying or lack of enthusiasm. “I have yet to meet anyone who says, ‘Oh, I don’t really like The Kennedy Center,’” she observes. “We have so much that there’s something for everybody here, and I love that. I can think of all kinds of things we can do better, but man, it’s great to build from that base.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE MORGAN