WASHINGTON — The head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was named the next president of the Kennedy Center on Tuesday and will become the first woman to lead the performing arts center since it opened in 1971.
Deborah F. Rutter joins the Kennedy Center in September. Rutter will succeed Michael Kaiser, who is stepping down in August after 13 years at the helm.
Rutter has led the Chicago Symphony since 2003. During that time, the orchestra recruited maestro Riccardo Muti, an acclaimed Italian conductor, as music director and cellist Yo-Yo Ma as creative consultant.
Rutter is known to Seattle Symphony patrons, as she was executive director of the SSO — the first woman to hold that post — from 1992-2003. Her tenure included the construction of Benaroya Hall; an increase in number and variety of SSO concerts, and number of subscribers; and balanced budgets.
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As an arts administrator, Rutter has distinguished herself as a prolific fundraiser who could recruit top talent and boost outreach to new audiences, said Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein. An 11-member search that included Caroline Kennedy seriously considered 15 to 25 candidates.
The Kennedy Center president serves as the artistic and administrative leader for extensive programs in theater, dance, chamber music and jazz. She will also oversee the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera at one of the world’s busiest performing arts centers. It also includes one of the nation’s largest arts education programs, and is a memorial to President John F. Kennedy.
Rutter, who agreed to a three-year contract, said she was drawn to the position because it presents an opportunity to use the arts “to impact the rest of the world.”
While growing up in the Los Angeles area, Rutter studied piano and violin. She earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Southern California.
Rutter describes herself as a consensus builder who believes in “the messiness” of collaboration. She said she wants to find ways for the Kennedy Center to interact with other organizations, from museums and theaters to less traditional groups.
“The center has so much going on, and the question is, how can we inspire even greater collaboration?” she said. “How can we reach beyond the walls of the Kennedy Center to work with the amazing richness of culture and humanity that exists here?”
While many arts organizations struggled during the recession, the Chicago Symphony expanded its financial base with improved fundraising and ticket sales. But the symphony also saw its musicians strike last year in a dispute over wages and health care costs. The strike ended within days.
“The good news is we resolved that disagreement really quickly and to the satisfaction of all,” Rutter said.