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The Kennedy Center, located on the banks of the Potomac River near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., opened to the public in September 1971. But its roots date back to 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a National Cultural Center. To honor Eisenhower's vision for such a facility, one of the Kennedy Center's theaters is named for him.

The National Cultural Center Act included four basic components: it authorized the Center's construction, spelled out an artistic mandate to present a wide variety of both classical and contemporary performances, specified an educational mission for the Center, and stated that the Center was to be an independent facility, self-sustaining and privately funded. As a result of this last stipulation, a mammoth fundraising campaign began immediately following the Act's passage into law.

President John F. Kennedy was a lifelong supporter and advocate of the arts, and frequently steered the public discourse toward what he called "our contribution to the human spirit." Kennedy took the lead in raising funds for the new National Cultural Center, holding special White House luncheons and receptions, appointing his wife Jacqueline and Mrs. Eisenhower as honorary co-chairwomen, and in other ways placing the prestige of his office firmly behind the endeavor. 

President Kennedy also attracted to the project the man who would become the Center's guiding light for nearly three decades. By the time Kennedy appointed him as chairman of the Center in 1961, Roger L. Stevens had already achieved spectacular success in real estate (i.e. negotiating the sale of the Empire State Building in 1951), politics, fundraising, and the arts; as a theatrical producer, he had brought West Side Story, A Man for All Seasons, and Bus Stop to the stage. Over the next 30 years, Stevens would oversee the Center's construction, then would shepherd it to prominence as a crucible for the best in music, dance, and theater.

From its very beginnings, the Kennedy Center has represented a unique public/private partnership. As the nation's living memorial to President Kennedy, the Center receives federal funding each year to pay for maintenance and operation of the building, a federal facility. However, the Center's artistic programs and education initiatives are paid for almost entirely through ticket sales and gifts from individuals, corporations, and private foundations.Two months after President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Congress designated the National Cultural Center (designed by Edward Durell Stone) as a "living memorial" to Kennedy, and authorized $23 million to help build what was now known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Fundraising continued at a swift pace--with much help coming from the Friends of the Kennedy Center volunteers, who fanned out across the nation to attract private support --and nations around the world began donating funds, building materials, and artworks to assist in the project's completion. In December 1965, President Lyndon Johnson turned the first shovelful of earth at the Center's construction site, using the same gold-plated spade that had been used in the groundbreaking ceremonies for both the Lincoln Memorial in 1914 and the Jefferson Memorial in 1938.

The Center made its public debut on September 8, 1971, with a gala opening performance featuring the world premiere of a Requiem mass honoring President Kennedy, a work commissioned from the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. The occasion enabled Washington to begin earning a reputation as a cultural hub as well as a political one; as The New York Times wrote in a front-page article the next morning, "The capital of this nation finally strode into the cultural age tonight with the spectacular opening of the $70 million [Kennedy Center]...a gigantic marble temple to music, dance, and drama on the Potomac's edge." 

Under Roger Stevens' continued direction, the Kennedy Center presented season after season of the finest and most exciting in the performing arts: new plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Tom Stoppard; new ballets by Antony Tudor, Agnes DeMille, and Jerome Robbins; new orchestral scores by Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, and John Cage. The Center co-produced musicals including Annie and Pippin in its early years, and later co-produced the American premiere of Les Miserables and co-commissioned the preeminent American opera of recent times, John Adams' Nixon in China. Stevens also initiated the American National Theater (ANT) company, which pushed the boundaries of traditional drama during a brief and controversial, but influential reign during the mid-1980s.

The Center's presence also enabled Washington to become an international stage, hosting the American debuts of the Bolshoi Opera and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as well as the first-ever U.S. performances by Italy's legendary La Scala opera company. 

Ralph P. Davidson replaced Stevens as Kennedy Center Chairman in 1988, and helped secure an ongoing Japanese endowment that brings that nation's arts to Washington each year. (Another of Japan's gifts to the Center, the Terrace Theater, had opened in 1979.) James D. Wolfensohn was elected the Center's third Chairman in 1990; under the leadership of Wolfensohn and President Lawrence J. Wilker, the Center solidified its fundraising, strengthened its relations with Congress, and extended the nationwide reach of its education programs to serve millions of young people in every state. The Center renewed its commitment to the creation of new works, and became a national leader in arts education and community outreach as well as a friendlier and more accessible home for the arts in Washington.

James A. Johnson, former Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer at Fannie Mae, began his tenure as the Kennedy Center's fourth Chairman in May 1996. Johnson’s vision of the Center as a performing arts center attractive to people of all levels of income and artistic taste led him to create the Performing Arts for Everyone initiative, increasing the visibility of the Center’s frequent low-priced and free events. He created and endowed the Millennium Stage, which presents a free event each evening at 6 p.m., programs that each day are also streamed live on the world wide web. By 2001, Johnson, whose stewardship had greatly enlarged the Center’s artistic endowment, was joined by the Center’s new president Michael M. Kaiser, former head of the Royal Opera House and earlier of American Ballet Theatre. Kaiser, who oversees all the artistic activities at the Kennedy Center, has increased the Center’s already broad educational efforts, established cross-disciplinary programming with opera, symphony and dance, established Kennedy Center Arts Management Program, created unprecedented theater festivals celebrating the works of Stephen Sondheim and Tennessee Williams, and arranged for continuing visits by St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater Opera, Ballet, and Orchestra, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Stephen A. Schwarzman, Chairman and CEO of The Blackstone Group, a global investment and advisory firm headquartered in New York, began his service as the fifth Chairman of the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees in May 2004. His commitment and interest in the arts, and particularly theater, was highlighted by a gift of $10 million to the Center’s theater program, which has since produced new productions of such classics asMame and Carnival!August Wilson’s 20th Century – the playwright's complete ten-play cycle performed as fully staged readings, a major revival production of Ragtime that transferred to Broadway in October 2009, and Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera in which three of the playwright’s works were performed concurrently in three Kennedy Center theaters.

David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms, was named Chairman of the Kennedy Center in May 2010. Since then, Rubenstein has pledged $20 million to the Kennedy Center in support of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Center's artistic and educational programming, major annual events, and the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, which seeks to increase access to the arts to the underserved, the underprivileged, young people, and members of our armed services. With Kaiser, Rubenstein inherited a thriving national treasure, one that is guided and inspired by the vision of its namesake. "I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities," President Kennedy once said, "we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."

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