Leadership Profile: Deborah Rutter

What is your role at the Kennedy Center?  

I’m the President of the Kennedy Center.  

What value has being part of the BFF ecosystem brought to the Kennedy Center? 

When I come to a new city, I ask the people who live here, “What is the culture of the city? Who are the people who make up the city, and how is that then reflected in the institution?” In this case, this foundation and this family embody the answer to those questions. This family, who are all so personable—who are so deeply committed to one other and deeply committed to doing good in the world . . . that sounds like it could be any foundation—any family—but in this case, we know it to be true and authentic to who these individuals are and who they are as a family.  

Has Covid changed the way the organization works or views its role in society? If so, how? 

I don’t have a formulaic answer. I think a handful of ways in which we will be forever changed: how we value the time we have with people we care about, and how we respect one another’s differing needs. I say that specifically because some people need a higher level of attention to safety precautions; some people express the need for being with others; there are individuals who are big extroverts, or introverts who have the need for interaction through the arts. I think the importance of the arts is even greater, and people are understanding that even more. 

Broadly speaking, there needs to be a recognition and value placed on the role of arts in our communities. Life is first and foremost about health and wellbeing and protection, but quality of life is really critical, and the arts play this gigantic role in quality of life and engagement with one another. In our country, we need to set up a better system for ensuring that there is a safety net for people of all ages, no matter their work. We need to find ways to take care of one another—as a country, and to the degree possible, as institutions. The pandemic has shown us where those safety nets are missing. 

As a non-profit leader, how do you evaluate your progress and success? How do metrics play into your work? What suggestions do you have to other non-profit leaders about using metrics? 

Metrics are always going to be important. Ultimately, you gotta have money to pay people’s salaries. But, if you live only by the metrics, you’ll never reach the true essence of who we are as human beings. The impact is beyond how many tickets you sold, how much money you raised, how many people you employed; it goes ultimately to the quality of what you’ve done and the impact of what you’ve done. 

For me, the way I can understand that it has worked is what I hear in response. I asked a dear friend and an important composer and conductor once, “How do you know when a performance is successful?” He said, “I think about it as though I am standing on the podium holding a candle, and that candle is emitting light to the orchestra/performers, who are then sharing that light with the audience. If I can feel that light coming back from the audience, then I know I’ve had success.” That is another way of saying that if I hear people talking about the work we do with the kind of language and goals we have for it—not the financial or the numbers, but the experiential language—then I know we have some impact. When you can say, “I believe the Kennedy Center is a place that is welcoming for all people”, or for someone who may not have always felt welcome at the Kennedy Center to say, “I love the Kennedy Center, and I know that I belong there”—then I know we’ve had some success. 

I know that you are committed to art as “an agent for positive change”. How can the arts be a tool for social change?  

The arts help us build community. It’s about building empathy; it’s about understanding one’s role in the larger community; it’s about having the courage to break patterns, because one has a role to play. It goes all the way from giving others the opportunity to express themselves, when they haven’t been given that invitation before, to an activity that has a non-art outcome—arts activities that are embarked upon not because you’re creating another work of art, but because you’re creating community and understanding. 

Say I don’t like spicy food. That doesn’t mean spicy food is bad! It just means I have a preference for something else. Art for social impact is about understanding, “Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s not good.” We shouldn’t say, “Only one art belongs at the Kennedy Center, and not the other”—but ALL art belongs at the Kennedy Center. 

Everyone learns in a different way—some people read it, some people listen to it, some people do it. The arts are a way of combining all of those, so that you have an opportunity to develop your own sense of confidence. Every child deserves the opportunity to have arts in their school day. There’s all this information that says that music helps with brain development. Young children participating in music class—whether they are any good or not—are actually encouraging and investing in brain development for themselves. Maybe learning to sing helps you with your math class! There are so many overlapping experiences—nothing fits into a box.  

Growing up, my daughter was very shy. But when she started to sing, she blossomed. This is just a personal story, but it can be true of any community, anywhere: find your strength—find your outlet. She’s not a singer today, but singing was the place where she built community, friendship, self-confidence—and that’s true for everybody. There are countless children who have that experience: “Jazz band changed my life.” They may not decide to become a singer or a saxophone player, but they have had an opportunity to unleash a bit of themselves that’s been locked down. 

What do you do in your spare time to balance your life? What replenishes/refuels/reenergizes you? 

I started piano lessons again, after a really long period of time, about five years ago. I’m not good—I’m a beginner, still after five years—but I love it, for the time for myself. It’s almost meditative, to be practicing and playing scales. That’s probably most important. Because of my work schedule, I focus a lot of my other time on being with my family and close friends. I love to cook, and I love my garden as well, and walking the dog. Exercise is so important for all of us.  

What books have inspired or challenged you? 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and The Hemmingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed were two deep dives into a world you don’t always think about. Those I read 2-3 years ago. I’m currently reading a book called The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph, which is about the history of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.; I’m embarrassed to say, you think you know a story until you read this book. I also read a book called White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. That was not an easy read, but also really important.  

I’m a big believer that you can read for fun, and you also need to read for learning. Lifelong learning is an important hallmark for me, so I’m constantly going back and forth—or sometimes at the same time. 

What is your mantra? 

I think that my husband and my daughter would both say I’ve always said, “Show up and pay attention.” If you can show up—really, truly be present—and pay attention, it implies that you have to act on it as well.  

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