When Clive Barnes saw the Kennedy Center for the first time, he rejoiced that New York no longer had the nation's ugliest opera house. Ada Louise Huxtable, the New York Times architecture critic, described the whole complex as "Washington superscale, but just a little bit bigger . . . . Albert Speer would have approved." It squats on the east bank of the Potomac glaring malevolently across the river at northern Virginia, as if at its next meal. Since it opened in 1971, the Kennedy Center has become a focal point of Washington life; it's hard to imagine what life here was like before. In some ways, in fact, the Kennedy Center has become a metaphor for the special vulgarity of Washington: isolated, expensive, tastelessly grand, reflecting a love of power more than a love of the arts.
Three million tourists visit the Kennedy Center each year. They rarely see a show. Rather, they are led through the building by guides who read off supposedly impressive statistics about various features of the place. The provincials are told, for example, that the Grand Foyer is 630 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 60 feet high—"one of the largest rooms in the world." (It may well be the world's largest design cliche, a panoramic vista of red carpet, white marble and crystal chandeliers: a computer's vision of "elegance.") The marble for the building, donated by "the people of Italy," weighs 3700 tons in all. The crystal chandeliers are not only dazzling but heavy—one ton each, to be exact. Not even the bust of John Kennedy that overlooks the Grand Foyer is allowed to stand on its artistic merits (like the rest of the place, it is big and ugly) but must be described as standing seven feet in height and weighing 3000 pounds.
The tour guide neglects to mention that, while the marble is a gift from the people of Italy and the mirrors from the people of Belgium and the paintings outside the Eisenhower Theater from the people of Mexico, the Center itself is what one might call a gift from the people of the United States.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. Back in 1958 when President Eisenhower signed a bill to establish a national cultural center in Washington, the government was only to donate a few acres of land. The bill's sponsors in Congress repeatedly promised that the Center would not cost the taxpayers a red cent, then or ever. The promise was quickly broken. After President Kennedy's assassination. Congress rushed to name the Center after him and for good measure threw in a $15.5 million grant, plus a loan of $15.4 million. That help wasn't enough, since the project suffered cost overruns rivaling the Pentagon’s worst. Arthur Sampson, public buildings commissioner for the General Services Administration, called the Kennedy Center, "one of the most mismanaged contracts I've ever seen in my life." In 1969, Board Chairman Roger Stevens (who once owned the Empire State Building) went back to Capitol Hill to ask for more money so he wouldn't have to leave the Center unfinished, and Congress obediently coughed up another $7.5 million and increased the federal loan by $5 million. By the time it opened in 1971, several months behind schedule, the Center had increased in cost by $20 million over its original $46.4 million price tag. Nor did the cost overruns end with completion of the construction: in February of this year, the Center requested and got another $4.7 million from Congress to repair 150 leaks in the roof—bringing the cost of the Kennedy Center to the taxpaying public to nearly $28 million, in addition to $25 million in federal loans that no one expects to be repaid. Passing over all this, the tour guide informs her listeners that one third of the building's construction costs were paid by private sources and foreign governments.
Every step of the way, the Center's supporters have been careful to stress that it would be a cultural institution not only for Washington, but for the rest of the country too. Eisenhower declared that "the Cultural Center belongs to the entire country." President Johnson, conceding that "this Center will brighten the life of Washington," hastened to add, "But it is not just . . . a Washington project. It is a national project and a national possession."
Clearly it is a case of protesting too much. In point of fact, the Kennedy Center is primarily a Washington institution, built and run for the entertainment of Washingtonians—and not even all of them, but mainly the prosperous, the chic and the powerful.
The Kennedy Center is one of those fashionable institutions with several different boards, committees and advisory groups attached to it, in order to make room for all the people who want to be connected with it. One of the most entertaining things about going to a show there is reading the long lists of names in the program. It is a marvelous roster of several political generations of Washington bright lights, a simultaneous reminder of the transitory nature of power and the relative immutability of status: Mrs. Edward Finch Cox (née Tricia Nixon), Abe Fortas, Mrs. Stephen Smith, Arthur Schlesinger, J. Willard Marriott, Jack Valenti, and so on.
The Kennedy Center attracts a more homogeneous crowd than do the Broadway theaters in New York. Most New Yorkers go to the theater to see the shows. Some of them, of course, are rich and can afford it; others save up for it as a special treat. The Kennedy center is different. A woman who works there says, "Washington doesn’t have middle-class and lower-class people like those in New York, who save up for weeks to go to a play or symphony." Ticket prices at the Kennedy Center are equivalent to those in New York, and exceed those anywhere else in the country, so it's no surprise that most of the customers are prosperous. And of course very few are from out of town: 90 percent come from within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol.
One Center employee says, "The audiences are like a Who's Who of Washington, They all come here to be seen." They are not the world’s most sophisticated or sensitive audiences, often showing more interest in who's sitting in the President's box than in what's happening on stage. (Sitting in the President's box is a favorite perk of the White House staff, equivalent to playing tennis on the President's court.) When President Carter, an opera lover, does show up, he sometimes gets more applause than the diva of the day. Except for the National Symphony, the Kennedy Center does not have a home company. It relies instead on imported attractions, with heavy emphasis on "stars."
No one has done any demographic studies of Kennedy Center audiences, but one employee of Stagehill, the Kennedy Center program magazine, says, "The studies in other cities show that the average theatergoer is 38 and has an income of $30,000 a year, and those figures are probably higher here." The programs give a pretty good idea what sort of people the Kennedy Center attracts; they contain lots of ads for Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac, several different Scotches, the British Airways Concorde ("Washington to London in 4 hours"), and various fashionable clothing stores. No doubt the advertisers know their markets. But what about ail those tourists? The Stagebill employee says, "Look, the tourists get off a bus at eleven in the morning, take a tour, and split. They won't spend their money on tickets to the opera or the theater. You don't bring Joe Blow from the farm to see La Scala."
Like any government subsidy of the arts, therefore, the Kennedy Center operates as a benefit for the well to-do, partially paid for by taxing the lower orders. But the Kennedy Center is worse: the government has taken money from the relatively poor sections of the country to provide entertainment for the most affluent residents of the nation's most affluent city. The lawyers and lobbyists and journalists benefit just as much as those actually on the government payroll. In other words, the Kennedy Center is a conspicuous symbol of Washington's parasitic feeding off the rest of the country.
This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine