Visiting the Kennedy Center, you may believe all the beauty of the nation’s foremost cultural institution lies within its sterling appearance — from the decadent stages to the blood-red carpet of the lobby. Or perhaps, you’re more enamored by its new(ish) REACH facilities, complete with outdoor sculptures and platforms for both local and national artists who are encouraged to intentionally craft pieces of work meant to foster connections with the community.
Underneath the tiles and behind the walls, however, there is an infrastructure in place, more spiritual and emotional than physical. Yes, the Kennedy Center is built on a foundation of stone, concrete and hardened materials. But it’s also a haven for artists upheld by a steadfast belief that art can transcend performance and bleed into everyday culture, inspiring hope and eliciting change for the better.
“It’s vital work,” composer, music director and cultural curator Nolan Williams Jr. says, one of the center’s inaugural social practice residents and a co-chair of its community advisory board. “It’s work seeking to meet the needs of the times. They understand the role the arts play in our world. As an African American artist who has been pained by the events of our nation in the past year, I am delighted our nation’s performing arts center is seeking to play this vital role. Not to solve all the issues, but to be a part of the solution.”
The Kennedy Center’s work with social activism and social justice is most reflected in its five-pronged model of community empowerment, artistic empowerment, cultural leadership, impact performance and activation of The REACH.
“Those are the tentpoles of what we’re looking to achieve in our work through social impact,” the center’s director of social impact, Victoria Murray Baatin says. “Really, what we’re looking to do is utilize cultural leadership. We want to invite engaged participation in the arts, using them for non-arts outcomes. The aesthetic isn’t the end all be all for our work.”
Initiatives New + Old
The Kennedy Center’s website mentions eight areas of work under its social impact initiatives, which the five pillars listed by Baatin fall under. Led by the social impact team and Kennedy Center Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the institution’s goals are lofty and long-term, as opposed to nearsighted Band-Aids. Each is carefully crafted with intention, care and thought. A few are longstanding, such as the free daily performances at the Millennium Stage and the commitment to diversity in classical music spearheaded by the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Orchestra.
Others are more nascent, including the activations at The REACH, its renewed commitment to #BlackCultureMatters and the creation of the Culture Caucus — a group of D.C. creatives, organizations and initiatives that can use the center’s resources and campus for productions.
“There’s a huge gap between people and resources, and there’s a lot of people who want to touch the community and don’t know how to do that,” Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, the musician, artist and activist behind Long Live GoGo and Moachella, says. “I felt proud to be a symbol of the culture in the city and to be invited to be a part of an institution with so much history behind it. I’m always happy when we have [authentic] people involved with high art institutions.”
More members of the inaugural caucus include Dvonne (Devon) Trotter, Damara Catlett of Full Color Future and Jason Barnes, better known as Pussy Noir, to name a few. Baatin says the formation of the Culture Caucus was a natural evolution, which allowed the center to take action with regards to both artist and community empowerment while instilling a sense of locality.
“They’re a self-determined body in terms of what they were interested in accomplishing and what they wanted to do,” Baatin says.
“They tell us which way we’re going. The other part was about creating a sense of home. For whatever reason, people might not have felt comfortable at the Kennedy Center and we want to bust that myth and disabuse people of the notion this place isn’t for them. Arts and culture are for us all.”
The Culture Caucus isn’t the only group of people who enable the Kennedy Center to effectively touch the local community. With the help of its Community Advisory Board, a group of leaders and advisors in the DMV area, the work of the center is held accountable and is better able to ensure initiatives run parallel to community interests and needs.
“Through the social impact initiatives, Culture Caucus and residencies, we’re seeing a deepened commitment,” Williams Jr. says. “It’s not new. This has been around for a long time. Multiple presidents of the center have recognized it’s important to have a strong presence to ensure [diverse] voices are being heard and messages are being clearly communicated.”
Another pre-Covid addition for the Kennedy Center was its first class of Social Practice Residences made up of body-based artist and choreographer Emily Johnson, mixed-media artist Helen Zughaib and the aforementioned Nolan Williams Jr. These residencies were created with the goal of creating and collaborating on projects proposing critical interventions targeted at specific communities. For Williams Jr., this became a 90-minute multimedia concert about the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968.
“We workshopped the project at the center and launched a national tour in February 2020,” Williams Jr. says. “Looking back, it feels prophetic on so many levels. Having the opportunity to develop that at the Kennedy Center was central to us moving the project forward.”
Baatin says the residencies have been extended due to the pandemic.
“[These artists] literally touch on all five of our tentpole pillars,” she says. “Through their work, they address some of the systemic challenges that exist in our country. Emily Johnson is really decolonizing cultural spaces and Helen [Zughaib] focuses on women refugees, [including] what that means and what that experience is like.”
Through a bevy of virtual programs, the center has remained in-step with artists, providing opportunities for digital showcases and empty physical spaces to explore. In both new and established ways, the Kennedy Center has proven itself a beacon of light for everyone, from its national followers to its local talent.
“Art is the glue,” Johnson says. “Art is definitely the most powerful messaging tool, and it’s the glue and the connection, and the catalyst for connection.”
The Year of 2020
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minnesota, sparking an emotional surge throughout the country and leading to countless protests for justice. Starting on June 2, the Kennedy Center went dark for nine consecutive nights to match the number of minutes Derek Chauvin kneed Floyd in the neck. In conjunction with the symbolic gesture, the center additionally released a statement and an updated Social Credo.
“How could you live in our world and our society and not be affected,” Baatin says. “There was a keen eye and focus, which brought all these [instances of police brutality] to public attention. We could not be itinerant in our response. All credit to our president, Deborah Rutter, who wanted to be deeply engaged in crafting this position. We’ve been working in this vein, in this way for some time. Last summer was a real accelerant: It put a hyper focus on the fierce urgency of now. We needed to be responsive and take leadership as the cultural center of the nation.”
One of the most overt responses to the George Floyd murder was the center’s #BlackCultueMatters, which seeks to more intentionally connect Black performers on both digital and physical platforms. The organization also took steps to design and provide programs and space for organizations and creatives to address, through an anti-racist lens, topics such as wealth, beauty, law and housing.
“We’re the nation’s cultural center, so the culture of our nation shows up in myriad ways,” Baatin says. “We have to look at other aspects to see what it means to be a cultural focus. The arts have a place in law, housing and justice. I believe so deeply and passionately in the intellect of the artists who look toward creativity to unlock the challenges we’re facing.”
Williams Jr. says he witnessed the arts community as a whole step up with statements, initiatives and renewed focus after the events of 2020.
“If you look at what happened after George Floyd’s assassination, most arts organizations in our nation issued some kind of statement,” Williams Jr. says. “They felt compelled, if only by the need to be in solidarity with other organizations. The Kennedy Center was among the first arts organizations to issue a very strong statement about the support of diversity and diverse stories being on the stages. History speaks for itself; they’ve been an exemplar.”
Despite past and present success, the Kennedy Center strives to be reflective, patient and to keep evolving, even if this means via tiny increments. Patience is key when sweeping change is the goal, and, thankfully, there’s a foundation in place — what the Kennedy Center is doing is not necessarily new.
“Working on it from the inside, it’s not hard to maintain patience because you see the way forward,” Baatin says. “We have our 25-25-25 plan. By 2025, all of our offerings will be impact-facing, and over the course of that time, we’ll put $25 million toward the work itself. Having something tangible like that is quite grounding and keeps us accountable to setting the bar [high]. It gives us a horizon on which we orient ourselves.”
The horizon is a ways off, and despite its accomplishments in establishing a consistent focus on social impact, the Kennedy Center will continually hold itself, as an organization and its collaborating artists, to a distinct standard of excellence.
“The arts community is diverse,” Williams Jr. says. “So many organizations have recognized the need to reflect the rich diversity of America in their culture. There’s always more that needs to be done. We don’t have the right to rest on our laurels until we have achieved the goal of recognizing and celebrating diversity in all its myriad forms.”
Rest assured. Within the vibrant halls of the Kennedy Center, atop carpet and wooden stages, the work continues to be done.
For information about the Kennedy Center’s Social Impact Initiatives, visit kennedy-center.org/our-story/social-impact.
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