That shouldn’t be a problem after the first public appearance of “Art and Ideal” last week, a permanent exhibition on the second floor of the Kennedy Center illustrating John and Jacqueline Kennedy’s embrace of the arts, from the 1961 opening through cultural diplomacy to the creation of the National Cultural Center, which has been proposed during the Eisenhower administration but eventually became Washington’s “living memorial” to the thirty-fifth president.
It’s hard to believe that this 7,500-square-foot room—filled with video clips, illuminated display cases, poster walls and antiques, and crowned with a vibrant wrap-around LED screen dubbed “the Frieze”—was once the hallway showroom, a rentable event space. and venue for the episodic performance.
The way a visitor enters the gallery will form his initial impression: the lobby closest to the Hall of States contains a routine biography of the former president – his extended family, PT-109, and his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier. The cases contain books Kennedy read as a child, including “Friends of Billy Wiskers” and “Black Beauty” and foreign language translations of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Glimpses in Courage.” The vestibule at the side of the Hall of Nations provides 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 of her programming, interspersed with clips from “Tosca,” beatboxers, and souvenirs from the center’s opening.
One 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 to Southeast Asia; Another show focuses on how the Kennedy family used the White House as a showcase of the best American art, inviting the National Symphony Orchestra and the American Shakespeare Festival Theater to perform at a state dinner.
Galleries wisely make use of old videos, and often the sound is isolated from the vicinity—you might see a screen with pictures of Washington’s March from across the room, but that won’t happen until you’re nearly in front of it hearing actor James Baldwin discuss civil rights. Some noise permeates the space – a lively and insanely catchy “Kennedy!” The campaign song, or the soundtrack from the famous 1962 “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech—and consider wandering to the other end of the room to see which show it’s coming from.
Every hour or so, the lights dim, other videos go silent and a distinct Kennedy accent rushes through the space. A black-and-white video of the president appears above every wall, assuring the audience and us, that “after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will remember not victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” The letter, from a 1962 fundraiser for a national cultural center called the “Queen of American Art,” is accompanied by clips of Harry Belafonte praising “Michael Rowe the Boat Assured” and 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma. On cello and still images of Fred Astaire and Lauren Hansbury as Kennedy speaks.
After a few minutes, the lights come back on and people continue to browse the individual displays. There are three of these ‘acquisitions’: one showing the highlights of Kennedy’s inauguration, the other showing ‘moon shotsat Rice University, accompanied by dramatic images of the lunar surface. In the center, wraparound screens show off the opera house’s crystal chandelier, historical images of events such as the March on Washington and famous Kennedy quotes. But it’s the presentation from the National Cultural Center’s dinner—now, of course, better known as the Kennedy Center—that knocks out the main message: The arts are essential to the American way of life.
If visitors stay here longer than they expected, it will be because of the interactive elements of the exhibition, which are of course geared towards social media. Part of an inverted wall has a word cloud with “poetry,” “freedom,” “achievement,” and “political” among the hologram-like floating options. As you approach the screen, words fly away and re-form into a Kennedy quote, such as “Art and encouragement of art is political in the most profound sense” or “When power corrupts, poetry cleans.” (The inverted background calls for a selfie.)
The interactive “Dinner Table” recalls Kennedy’s dinner at the White House with prominent writers, dancers, and thinkers, and asks visitors to consider who they’d like to dine with: Amy Tan? Francis Collins? Tennessee Williams? Choose a category, such as “Musicians,” and you’ll be given a choice between actual Kennedy dinner guests, such as Aaron Copeland or Isaac Stern, or more contemporary options, including Dolly Parton, Yo-Yo Ma, and, recent White House visitor Olivia Rodrigo. Select Invited to read inspirational quotes from each topic. “If you don’t like the road you’re taking, start paving another one,” Barton advises.
I’m willing to bet that the most popular attraction will be a touchscreen kiosk that allows visitors to create a self-portrait in the style of Eileen de Kooning, who captured Kennedy in a series of Pictures in the sixties. Choose a color palette, scribble some abstract lines in the background, then stand up to take a picture. The “painting” appears before your eyes with brush strokes or charcoal washes, looking like the most artistic smartphone filter ever. The QR code allows you to download the image and inevitably post it to social media, because you will want to show it.
At the gallery’s opening ceremony, Rose Kennedy Schlossberg, Kennedy’s granddaughter, noted that while the venue’s name honors the late president, “there was nowhere in the Kennedy Center to recognize him yet.” For boom-boommen who remember their place on November 22, 1963, and Generation Z theatergoers for whom JFK was a name in an AP history class, this new territory is a chance to see why The Washington Post Kennedy once called “the best culture ever was.” Friends have been in the White House since Thomas Jefferson’, and how he used the land’s highest office to shape a national conversation about the arts. It’s worth arriving a half hour or an hour before the NSO or Millennium Stage performance to explore the venue or visit solo for fans of presidential history.
“Arts and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy” is located on the roof terrace level of the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W. kennedy-center.org. Open daily from noon to midnight. free.