After an illustrious career heading orchestras in Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles, Deborah Rutter is now in the glare of the national spotlight as the new president and the first woman to lead the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
It is a role that Rutter, 58, happily embraced Wednesday in a speech at the National Press Club, where she talked about the importance of the arts and connecting performing halls to communities.
“Art is certainly for art’s sake,” said Rutter, referring to a well-known saying that dates to the 19th century on the purpose of art. “I agree with that statement. But I also fervently believe in the concept of ‘art for life’s sake.’ That we cannot live or share this world without art.”
The Kennedy Center is a touchstone for performing arts venues around the world. With its distinctive modern building next to the Watergate complex on the shores of the Potomac River, it draws audiences from around the region and receives national and international attention for its productions.
But Rutter wants the center to be much more, and she highlighted its outreach to the community, students and teachers and the need for more arts education.
“We’re teaching teachers not only how to teach the arts, but how to use the arts in the classrooms to teach other subjects such as math and science,” she said. “Through its education efforts, the Kennedy Center directly reaches over 11 million people each year.”
Rutter said her personal connection to art started early as a third-grader, when her teacher opened a cabinet and asked each student which instrument they were going to play.
“Not ‘do you want to play?’” she said. “I am here because I had the opportunity to find myself through music, offered to me through school during the school day. That teacher and that public school gave me the first tools and the curiosity to pursue a life working – finding myself, and writing my story – in the arts.”
Rutter played violin and piano and went on to become head of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, then to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, where she also oversaw the building of a new hall, and most recently, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.
It was in Chicago, where she hired Italian conductor Riccardo Muti as music director, that she discovered new connections between the arts and neglected parts of society.
Muti suggested reaching out to prisons – a startling idea at first, said Rutter, but one that resulted in a program of young incarcerated women writing and developing musicals about their lives with the support of professional musicians.
“The performance is for the other girls in the center and all of their families – an incredibly powerful experience telling the stories that often were unknown, hidden, locked away,” she said.
They also learn operatic arias.
“Where else do you hear stories of anger, fear, deception, family strife, betrayal, love and impossible feats of courage?” asked Rutter. “Opera!”
Rutter wants to connect the performing arts to people in as many ways as possible.
One of Rutter’s first innovative moves is the “Little Dancer,” which opens Oct. 25 and is a new musical premiering in the center’s Eisenhower Theater. It is being presented in conjunction with an exhibit of Edgar Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” which inspired the work and is on display at the National Gallery of Art.
The high-profile job has its moments of conflict, and the center has been severely criticized by Hispanic groups for failing to include many Latinos in the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s recognition for lifelong excellence in the performing arts. There have been only four Hispanics named honorees since the honors was created in 1978.
Asked about the need for diversity, she noted that the selection process had been revamped and that “the symbolic nature of the honors is really important.”
Rutter is getting ready to oversee a three-year, $100 million expansion of the Kennedy Center – including a floating pavilion – which will have its groundbreaking Dec. 4, almost exactly 50 years after the groundbreaking for the center.
“These new spaces for creating and experiencing the performing arts will further our promise of keeping artists central to our cultural dialogue, and break down the boundaries between artist and audience,” she said.