The Kennedy Center Shores Up Finances and a Crumbling Facade

The nation's performing-arts complex has lowered its deficit and raised its sights

To Washington commuters driving along the road between the Potomac River and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, it seemed that the marble building was falling apart.

Right there in the middle of the street, big chunks of debris had fallen from the terrace overhanging Rock Creek Parkway. Last fall, that portion of the road was closed off, frustrating drivers who were then stuck in traffic, and giving rise to the suspicion that the entire center needed a lot of attention. And fast.

The road mess has been cleared up, and traffic is back to normal, but the disruption gave way to an ambitious renovation project now under way.

Until Kennedy Center President Lawrence Wilker and his former chairman, James Wolfensohn, took up the challenge last year, Kennedy Center officials were not anxious to talk about the building's disrepair.

''The magic, the mystical, and the spectacular are all part of the arts,'' says a former Kennedy Center administrator. ''So, to talk about leaky roofs or cracking marble doesn't go with the image. It's like a five-star restaurant not wanting to talk about a roach problem.''

But the 25-year-old center, which is also the official memorial to President John F. Kennedy, has been saddled with operational and financial problems for much of its history.

Open 364 days a year, the Kennedy Center welcomes some 3 million tourists who visit to pay homage to the former president. Another 2 million patrons pour in to enjoy theater and dance, the symphony, and the opera. Despite the heavy use, little had been spent on replacement or repair until a few years ago, when Mr. Wolfensohn lobbied Congress for money to redo the crumbling three-story garage, part of which is located inside the terrace overhang.

''We've had a lot of obstacles to overcome in recent years,'' says Mr. Wilker, who has been president of the Kennedy Center since 1991. According to Wilker, he walked into a very troubled institution: ''We were $17 million in debt and the number of performances was declining. The number of dollars raised and the size of the audience was flat if not declining. The size of the staff was increasing.''

''Here we are: We've raised the number of performances from 1,600 to 2,800 a year, and increased the annual attendance from under 1 million to 1.8 million. We narrowed the [accumulated] $17-million deficit to $2 million and doubled our fund-raising from $13 million to $26 million. We also went through a very painful downsizing in 1991 and 1992,'' eliminating 25 percent of payroll.

Late last month, James Johnson, chairman of the Federal National Mortgage Association - the highly profitable Fannie Mae - was made chairman of the Kennedy Center.

Mr. Johnson is regarded by the center's board as an appropriate replacement for Wolfensohn, the no-nonsense Wall Streeter and violinist who had to resign from the post due to the demands of his new job as president of the World Bank. Just as Wolfensohn helped to move a deteriorating institution into sorely needed repairs and greater efficiency, his successor is expected to put his own set of credentials to work: close connections with Capitol Hill, his fund-raising successes, and his attention to the bottom line.

Challenges lie ahead. Johnson must make sure that the center gets the $10 million in federal funds it expects to receive annually to take care of operations and maintenance. He will also have to lobby hard for the projected $50-million cost of the center's ongoing renovation project, which includes a $10-million roof replacement and improving the heating and air conditioning for the 1.5 million-square-foot facility. (The cost of overhauling the three-story garage has already been covered.)

A pricey part of the renovation project is what is required to meet federal guidelines for accommodating the disabled. ''This is a building with 133 bathrooms and 2,000 doors, let alone seating in the theaters, backstage access, and the exits on different levels,'' Wilker says.

But the federal government seems intent on some measure of fiscal austerity for the foreseeable future, so none of the funding is guaranteed. Many cultural institutions are worried that charitable contributions won't fill in the gap left by limited handouts from Uncle Sam.

A new report released by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities shows declining levels of support from the private sector. ''Arts funding may be experiencing increased competition from other areas,'' the report speculates. And, ''for the first time in a decade, total giving to all causes fell below 2 percent of the gross domestic product.''

''I would expect the Kennedy Center and other major cultural institutions to continue to attract substantial funding,'' says Amanda MacKenzie, a consultant to the committee.

Some of it will come from overseas. Wilker recently returned from a trip to Japan where he met with Japanese donors. Germany has also been a source of funds.

But Wilker, who counts eight members of Congress on his board, is confident that US lawmakers will continue to ante up.

''Every year we go to Congress with hat in hand,'' he says. ''They've been very supportive and very generous. They're supporting a presidential building, and we're careful to keep that representation front and center.''

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