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With newly expanded campus, Kennedy Center aims to make art an experience for all


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here in Washington has expanded for the first time in its 50-year history.

Jeffrey Brown takes us behind the scenes, as the national arts institution launches weeks of free public events tomorrow.

The report is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A weekday rehearsal by the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of music director Gianandrea Noseda.

And one floor down, dancers finalizing their choreography for an upcoming performance.

Nothing unusual, but here at the Kennedy Center, as at most other major performing arts centers, all this is typically behind the scenes off-limits to visitors. Now opportunities to watch artists at work, hear lectures, participate in workshops on a regular basis are all part of what Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter calls a 21st century arts campus.

Deborah Rutter: The Kennedy Center was opened in 1971, when the world was different.

The way in which the society and our culture was engaging with the arts was different. It was much more of a spectator sport. In this time, and as we look forward, we know that people want to be more connected to the art and the artists, to be more immersed in it and to participate more in it.

Jeffrey Brown: The response here, the REACH, named in honor of President Kennedy's aspirational vision of the arts and in capital letters to signal something big in the nation's capital.

A new nearly five-acre expansion that we visited as construction was being completed, three pavilions containing 10 interior multiuse spaces above and below ground, and double the outdoor spaces for community and arts programs, including films on a large video wall, also garden walks and paths that lead to a pedestrian bridge connecting the Kennedy Center campus to the Potomac riverfront.

The project cost $250 million from private philanthropy. It was designed by architect Steven Holl, known for his use of light and angled walls.

Deborah Rutter: We wanted them to be very porous and very open. And our architects were just in line with us. And so every single space has a window that allows you to peek in and see what's going on.

Here, we have the skylight.


Jeffrey Brown: Interesting space.

Deborah Rutter: It's really a beautiful space.

One of the things that I loved about Steven Holl's design is how he changes the ceiling, as well as the floor and the walls. So you're having a new experience no matter where you're working.

Jeffrey Brown: I can hear a little music in the background too.

Deborah Rutter: I know. Well, that was the moment.

Jeffrey Brown: Orchestra rehearsal.

Deborah Rutter: So you will know things are happening here as well.

Jeffrey Brown: A big idea here: Find new ways to welcome younger audiences and others who may have felt left out.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1971 as a living memorial to the slain president. It was and is imposing, the grand hallways and theaters housing traditional high arts, such as the Washington Opera and the National Symphony.

It regularly presents the world's greatest artists, as well as special nationally recognized programs, such as the Kennedy Center Honors and the Mark Twain Awards.

But it's also faced its chair of criticism. When it opened, The New York Times architecture critic dubbed the building designed by Edward Durell Stone a pompous embarrassment and national tragedy.

And it's long struggled with a sense of isolation, a geographic and elite island apart from the surrounding city. To counter that, the center began its popular and free Millennium Stage performances and has widened its programming with the help of prominent artists, such as jazz pianist Jason Moran and rapper and producer Q-Tip, as well as classical stalwarts Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming.

The REACH is intended as the next big leap forward.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: The REACH has formal studio spaces, classroom spaces that invite a different level of community interaction. So now we you have a space that's more of an incubator, that's more of a laboratory.

Jeffrey Brown: Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a dancer, poet and theater artist, and also a leading arts administrator.

He recently left the Yerba Buena center For the Arts in San Francisco to join the Kennedy Center. We talked in the so-called Moonshot experimental art space about his hybrid role as vice president and artistic director of social impact.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: That's the transition between a performing arts center that shows art and a performing arts center that sees itself as an agent for making culture itself.

And so part of my gig is to design and administer programs that maximize cross-sector conversations and maximize this idea that we don't just watch culture, we make culture. So it becomes more of workshop space than a place for witness, although you can witness lots great art here, too.

Jeffrey Brown: Indeed, the REACH is opening with a 16-day free celebration of performances featuring prominent artists.

But it's also offering new programs for the local community to allow students like rising high school senior Anna Irwin to work with professional dancers.

So how's the new space?

Student: Oh, I love it. Personally, like, it is the biggest studio I have ever seen. Wow.

Jeffrey Brown: A new culture caucus will bring in 15 area artists to brainstorm new art to showcase. And a social practice residency will create art in and for communities in the Washington, D.C., area, all ideas to address problems many arts organizations are wrestling with today, as traditional audiences age and younger generations spend more time alone on their screens.

What's the central problem for performing arts institutions today in American culture?

Deborah Rutter: I think that we need to underscore the joy of being together, that social infrastructure that is so important and that, in some ways, is missing in our lives.

Jeffrey Brown: Inevitably, too, when it comes to the arts in the nation's capital, the political divisions that seep into everything today.

I asked Marc Bamuthi Joseph how that impacts his thinking about the REACH.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Truth and memory are tenuous resources in the current climate, and that does make me sad.

So, in that vacuum where memory is little more tenuous and history is more vulnerable is a realm of ideas that somebody has to propagate. Someone has to be responsible, not only for the moral infrastructure of this country, but the infrastructure of imagination.

And if it's not going to be an arts center, then we're doomed.

Jeffrey Brown: To which one might say, in hope, let the festivities begin, which they will this weekend.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Judy Woodruff: It is a special place.

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