JFK’s love for the arts shines in new Kennedy Center exhibit

John F. Kennedy is an outsized presence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: the bronze bust of Robert Berks in the Grand Foyer, the larger-than-life statue unveiled on the Reach campus last winter, the letter quotes and of speeches carved into the marble facade of the building. But, according to Kennedy Center officials, they are still getting questions from visitors about the name of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

That shouldn’t be a problem after the public debut last week of “Art and Ideals,” a permanent exhibit on the Kennedy Center’s second floor showcasing John and Jacqueline Kennedy’s embrace of the arts, from the 1961 inauguration to the cultural diplomacy to the creation of the National Cultural Center, which was proposed under the Eisenhower administration but eventually became Washington’s “living memorial” to the 35th president.

It’s hard to believe that this 7,500 square foot room – filled with videos, illuminated display cases, walls of posters and artifacts, and crowned by a vibrant wraparound LED screen dubbed “the frieze” – was once the atrium gallery, event space for rent and occasional performance venue.

How a visitor enters the exhibit will shape their first impression: the vestibule closest to the Salle des Etats contains a cursory biography of the former president – ​​his large family, PT-109, his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier. The crates contain books Kennedy read as a child, including “Billy Whiskers’ Friends” and “Black Beauty,” as well as foreign-language translations of Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage.” The vestibule on the side of the Hall of Nations offers an introduction to the Kennedy Center itself, with a video of Jacqueline Kennedy standing next to a model of the Kennedy Center talking about a vision for its programming, intercut with clips of ” Tosca” and beatboxers and memorabilia from the centre’s opening.

A section on “dance diplomacy” shows how the Kennedy Center hosts cultural events in the community and online, a continuation of the policies that sent the New York City Ballet to perform behind the Iron Curtain, or the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Southeast Asia; another exhibit focuses on how the Kennedys used the White House as a showcase for the best of American art, inviting the National Symphony Orchestra and the American Shakespeare Festival Theater to perform at official state dinners.

The exhibits make judicious use of vintage video clips and for the most part the sound is isolated from the immediate area – you can see a screen with footage of the March on Washington across the room, but this is not is only when you are almost inside. ahead, you hear actor James Baldwin discuss civil rights. Certain noises permeate the space – a “Kennedy!” campaign jingle or sound bites from the famous 1962 “We Chose to Go to the Moon” speech – and you think of wandering across the room to see which display it came from.

Every hour or so, the lights go out, the other videos go silent, and Kennedy’s distinctive accent echoes through the space. A black-and-white video of the president appears above every wall, assuring an audience, and us, that “after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will not be remembered. for victories or defeats in battle or politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit. The speech, from a 1962 fundraiser for the National Cultural Center dubbed “An American Pageant of the Arts,” is accompanied by clips of Harry Belafonte singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and a Yo-Yo Ma from 7 years dazzling. on the cello, and stills of Fred Astaire and Lorraine Hansberry as Kennedy speaks.

A few minutes later, the lights come back on and people continue to browse the individual screens. There are three of these “takeovers”: one shows highlights of Kennedy’s inauguration, and another features his famous “moonshot” speech at Rice University, accompanied by dramatic footage from the surface. lunar. In between, wraparound screens show the opera’s crystal chandelier, historic photos of events like the March on Washington, and famous quotes from Kennedy. But it’s the dinner presentation for the National Cultural Center — now, of course, known as the Kennedy Center — that hammers home the message: the arts are essential to the American way of life.

If visitors spend longer than expected, it will be because of the exhibition’s interactive elements, which are, of course, social media friendly. A section of mirrored wall contains a word cloud with “poetry”, “freedom”, “achievement” and “politics” among floating hologram-like choices. As you get closer to the screen, the words fly and turn into a quote from Kennedy, such as “Art and the encouragement of art is political in the deepest sense” or ” When power corrupts, poetry cleans.” (The mirrored backdrop calls for selfies.)

An interactive “dinner table” recalls the Kennedys’ dinners at the White House with prominent writers, dancers and thinkers, and asks visitors to consider who they would like to dine with: Amy Tan? Francois Collins? Tennessee Williams? Choose a category, such as “musicians,” and you’ll have a choice between the actual Kennedy dinner guests, like Aaron Copland or Isaac Stern, or more contemporary options, like Dolly Parton, Yo-Yo Ma, and, uh, recent White House visitor Olivia Rodrigo. Select a guest to read inspirational quotes from each topic. “If you don’t like the road you’re on, start paving another one,” Parton advises.

I’m willing to bet the most popular attraction will be a touchscreen kiosk that lets visitors create a self-portrait in the style of Elaine de Kooning, who captured Kennedy in a series of portraits in the 1960s. Choose a color palette, doodle a few abstract lines in the background, then pose for a photo. The “painting” appears before your eyes with a wash of brushstrokes or charcoal, resembling the most artistic smartphone filter ever. A QR code allows you to download the image and, inevitably, post it on social media, because you’re going to want to show it off.

Opening the exhibit, Kennedy’s granddaughter, Rose Kennedy Schlossberg, pointed out that while the venue’s name honors the late president, “there has never been a place at the Kennedy Center for know more about him so far”. For baby boomers who remember where they were on November 22, 1963, and Gen Z viewers for whom John F. Kennedy was a name in the AP history class, this new field is an opportunity to learn why the Washington Post once called Kennedy “culture’s best friend in the White House since Thomas Jefferson,” and how he used the nation’s highest office to shape a national conversation around the arts. worth arriving half an hour or an hour before the next ONS or Millennium Stage performance to explore the space or, for fans of presidential history, a visit in its own right.

“Arts and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy” can be found on the roof terrace level of the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org. Open daily from noon to midnight. Free.

James C. Tibbs