Deborah Rutter Becomes Kennedy Center's First Female President

On Monday, Deborah Rutter begins her job as president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. She says it never occurred to her that she would be the first woman in the job.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Deborah Rutter begins a new job on this Labor Day. It's a big job. She is the new president of the Kennedy Center. That home of the performing arts opened in 1971 on the banks of the Potomac River here in Washington, D.C. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg paid a visit to Ms. Rutter a few days before her tenure began.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Do you know how to get to the concert hall?

DEBORAH RUTTER: I do know how to go to the concert hall. It's one of the places I been the most frequently here at the Kennedy Center.

STAMBERG: Deborah Rutter knows from concert halls. She was president of the Chicago Symphony - before that, the Seattle Symphony, and before that, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Fifty-seven years old for a few more weeks with a great haircut, good gold jewelry and a burgundy-colored Jackie Kennedy A-line dress. She is the first woman president of the Kennedy Center.

RUTTER: Well, you know, that's a funny story. I didn't realize that I was the first woman until I read it in the newspaper. It hadn't even occurred to me.

STAMBERG: What did occur was the challenge. She is fine with orchestras. But at the Kennedy Center, there are lots of new things to learn about - theater, ballet, opera, jazz - all the performing arts. Growing up, she's always been in those audiences and came to love them all.

See you have loved a wide range of arts throughout your life. You can go to anything - probably for the right price - nothing.

RUTTER: (Laughing).

STAMBERG: But if you had to pay a ticket for an evening in a performing arts center, what would you pay for?

RUTTER: In Chicago, I subscribed to theater. And I think that's because it's the art form that I didn't - you know, I didn't know every single actor. I didn't know - so for me, there was a lot of mystery still. So I guess that's my answer for you - is that buying a ticket to the theater is still the one that I do the most often, as a matter of fact.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING ON GLASS)

STAMBERG: We are inside the Kennedy Center Concert Hall now. The big crystal chandeliers have been lowered for cleaning. All the theaters are being spruced up for the fall season. So fun to tap the glass and make music.

It's nice, huh?

RUTTER: It's beautiful.

STAMBERG: Deborah Rutter started making music in public school.

RUTTER: In the third grade, my teacher said, what instrument will you play? Not would you like to play, but will you play.

STAMBERG: On that assertion that children will make music, Deborah Rutter's career was built. She still has her violin and will take it up again someday. Meantime, this new job will keep her busy raising money, building audiences. And there are big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, Michael Kaiser, was a passionate and successful impresario. He filled the center's halls with festivals and musicals and excitement. Rutter wants to honor that legacy.

RUTTER: I think my main task is about building on the success that the Kennedy Center has really enjoyed for the last decade plus, with Michael Kaiser leading, building on the artistic ventures of each of the art forms. My goal is to ensure this is the nation's performing arts center. That it is the local home for the people who live here. But that it's a destination for audiences from around the world, as well as artists from around the world.

STAMBERG: There are, of course, the timeless questions about the arts and live performance. So much competition these days for attention - aging audiences, how to bring in the young ones. Deborah Rutter says, she has been having that conversation for some 30 years now. She knows ballet lovers will show up for the Washington Ballet and Bach lovers will go to the symphony. Her new job will offer several-stop shopping, under one roof.

RUTTER: You bring people who have had the experience and who have fallen in love with the art form and who continue to come and support it. And then, often, they migrate into the other art forms, as well. And that's the great thrill about the Kennedy Center, which is - by gosh, we have the same people going into all these theaters. We're all connected. Let's tempt them to exchange theaters from time to time.

STAMBERG: Deborah Rutter - beginning today, the new president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In Washington, I'm Susan Samberg, NPR News.

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