The Kennedy Center is a national cultural center located on the shores of the Potomac River in northwest Washington, DC. Its mission is threefold – to serve as a performing arts center, a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy, and a world class arts education center.
The idea for a national cultural center dates back to President George Washington’s plan for the federal city. After decades of failed attempts, the idea was finally realized when President Dwight D. Eisenhower put his support behind a bill to create the center, and signed it into law in 1958. Funding for construction of the building was to be paid for with private contributions, but by the time Eisenhower’s presidency ended, little funding had been raised and the project seemed doomed.
Passionate about the arts, next President John F. Kennedy launched a national fundraising campaign that brought in millions toward the project, but was tragically cut short with his assassination. To honor the fallen president, Congress renamed the National Cultural Center to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, appropriated matching public funds to complete the project, and expanded the Center’s mission to serve as a memorial to President Kennedy.
Architect Edward Durell Stone designed the Center, a rectangular structure wrapped in marble spanning 630 feet along the Potomac River. It includes three main theaters – the Concert Hall, the Opera House, and the Eisenhower Theater – with the 63-foot high Grand Foyer, Hall of Nations and Hall of States providing passage between them. Construction began in 1965 and the Kennedy Center welcomed its first performance in 1971.
In 2019, the Kennedy Center campus was expanded to include “The REACH,” a set of three pavilions located on the south side of the main building. Designed by architect Steven Holl, the new space features venues for indoor and outdoor performances, arts education classrooms, green space, and connecting walkways to make the Kennedy Center more pedestrian accessible.
The Kennedy Center hosts over 2,000 music, theater and dance performances each year covering at least 12 different genres which represent cultures from around the globe. While used by other performers as well, the Concert Hall is the home of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Opera House is home Washington National Opera. The Eisenhower Theater hosts theater and dance performances. Several smaller venues are located on the main and terrace levels, including the Millennium Stage, where free daily performances have been given since 1997.
The Kennedy Center honors the fallen President in several ways. A 3,000 pound bronze bust of President Kennedy sculpted by Robert Berks is on display in the Grand Foyer flanked by interactive exhibits.
Quotations by President Kennedy in support of the arts are engraved in glass and marble on the exterior of the buildings.
The most recent tribute, opened in 2022, is a permanent exhibit on the roof terrace level called “Arts and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy” which showcases his enduring support for the arts.
As a national cultural center, the Kennedy Center works to educate children across the country on the performing arts through youth training programs, videos and lesson plans. Click here for more information. The REACH also provides new space for arts education classrooms, smaller performances and rehearsals in an effort to develop emerging and multi-cultural talent. See more information here.
You can purchase tickets for individual performances or concert subscriptions here. If you cannot attend in person, see what’s available for free on the Digital Stage, or on the premium channel Digital Stage+. Free performances on the Millennium Stage are available via livestream, or can be watched later online.
A performing arts center may not seem an obvious choice for a tour, but it is definitely a unique experience that is different from the monuments and museums on the National Mall. As a national cultural center with international outreach, it has been the recipient of exquisite gifts from foreign countries that are represented in both the interior and exterior of the building. Take a free tour to see and learn about the rooms and objects that you typically won’t see while attending a performance.
The Center also offers a magnificent views of the City of Washington from the roof terrace. Be sure to consider the weather forecast when planning a tour.