Monday 11 July 2011

On family - Second week at the Kennedy Center

Sk(in), by A. Balasubramaniam. The Phillips Collection (Photo: mv)

It is very frequent to hear the Kennedy Center people talking about ‘the family’. This is how they refer to all those people who support the Center´s activity, contributing with their time, knowledge, experience and money.

The nucleus of the Kennedy Center family are the members of the Board. A group of influent, well connected people, who believe in the Center´s mission and want to contribute actively to its success and growth, using all their means, including financial. Another part of the family is composed by hundreds of volunteers, who feel the Center as home and put at its service their time, qualifications and experience. There are also part of this family all those people who buy tickets to the shows or become members and funders (individuals, corporations, foundations), contributing with sums that go from $60 to thousands or millions of dollars annually.

What motivates these people? What makes them contribute so generously? There are various reasons, among them, prestige, social status, visibility, tax benefits, privileged access to some of the Kennedy Center´s offers, opportunity to meet or spend time with people with common interests. I believe, though, that the principal force that brings all these people together around the Kennedy Center is the art that is being produced and presented there: art which enthuses, surprises, touches, inspires. It´s upon this base that everything is built, including the family.

The Kennedy Center is totally conscious of the importance of the family for its sustainability (the fact that the Center is the memorial to President John Kennedy means that the federal government covers the costs of maintenance and security, but that´s all). By permanently investing on the quality of the experience (a total experience, that goes beyond the performance and includes all visitor services), the Center aims to maintain its family, but also to make it grow year after year. As I was saying in a previous post, this is not a relationship between a building and the people who come to it. It must be a relationship between the people who work in it and the people who come or might be interested in coming. At the Kennedy Center we become witnesses of this effort that involves everyone, from the President to the security guard and the volunteer usher. But we also become witnesses of the mutual wish of those people to be part of this family.

The Kennedy Center Millenium Stage.
Among all the seminars we attended last week, I was particularly interested in finding out more about the Kennedy Center´s programme Millennium Stage, which offers 365 free entry shows every year, that is one per day, always at 6 p.m. Talking about family and sustainability, and because I believe that the sustainability of cultural institutions also depends on the diversification of audiences, I wanted to understand better if the programme lives up to its motto, “Performing Arts for Everyone”. I always get a bit suspicious when I hear the people involved using the expression “for everyone”, especially when it seems that “for everyone” is mainly associated to “free”. I was surprised to find out that the Kennedy Center has no data on the people who attend these performances. Thus, we are unable to know if they are people who come for the first time or if they attend frequently; if they only attend free entry shows (and why) or if they also buy tickets (thanks to the opportunity of access created by this programme, or not); if they are people whith whom contact was established thanks to the Kennedy Center´s community partnerships or if there is no connection to them. Independent of the understanding the Kennedy Center has of the expression “for everyone” and based on the programme´s objectives, I believe that this kind of data is necessary in order to be able to evaluate its success.

Last week there were more presentations of projects the fellows are involved in in their countries. Very diverse projects, ranging from cultural institutions with national status to small individual initiatives:

Gateway Arts Society (Nigeria)
Agora (Egypt)

Wolf Trap: "Lawn people" waiting for the concert to start. (Photo: mv)
On Saturday night, first year fellows had the opportunity to participate in a truly american experience. We went to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts and attended the concert of Debbie Gravitt, Christiane Noll e Jan Hovarth, three Broadway divas, with the National Symphony Orchestra. People of all ages come here quite early, carrying pic nic blankets, chairs, food and drinks, and enjoy the most varied performances. The place was packed. The experience was very-very special, even for those who are not great musical funs.

The weekend plans outside the Kennedy Center included a visit to Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center. Publicised as the second oldest latin community museum in the US (after the Museo del Barrio in New York), aiming to represent and foster the diverse cultures of the Americas and the Carribean, it is nothing more than a house smelling of must that contains an agglomerate of objects, badly exhibited and badly interpreted. Fortunatley, we have The Phillips Collection around the corner, when we can breath and marvel at Sk(in), by indian artist A. Balasubramaniam; at the The World Series photographs (2010-2011) which Allan deSouza (of indian origin, born in Kenya and raised in England) created in response to The Migration Series (1940-41) by american artist Jacob Lourence; at the Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence exhibition, which explores and analyses the process that led to Painting with White Border.

Mount Vernon: cultural interpreter. (Photo: mv)
Another surprising and unfrogettable experience was the visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington´s estate. Apart from the beauty of the house and the surrounding areas, what enriches the experience are, undoubtedly, the cultural interpreters, some of whom dress up in costumes and play their role in the first person. All of them very-very well prepared in order to answer the visitors´s most diverse questions. Another important complement to the visit is the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which, through objects, interactive experiences and films presents the extremely rich story of the life of George Washington and his wife Martha.

It was a full week. Another one is starting.


missB said...

It is excellent how you summed up the whole family thing. And I agree with your observation concerning communication with audiences of free events. There are so many people each day in KC that it is total shame not to communicate with them further. But, if I understood well, Millennium Stage department is preparing something in that direction. We'll see next year how this will go.

Maria Vlachou said...

I unnderstood that the Millennium Stage would like to move into that direction and survey those people. Let´s see, I am sure many interesting things will come up if they do.