Deborah F. Rutter, 57, will join the Kennedy Center in September. Her selection was approved Monday by the center's board. 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. She previously led the Seattle Symphony.
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.
"We interviewed many candidates, but we felt that Deborah Rutter had the unique combination of everything we wanted," Rubenstein said. Her biggest challenge, as with any arts center, may be reaching younger and more diverse audiences, he said.
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 said she loves theater, dance and all types of music. She attended the Kennedy Center Honors last weekend and said she cheered for Don Henley when he came on stage to perform for Billy Joel.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama know Rutter from Chicago, Rubenstein said.
"Because the president has a lot of security clearances, I felt comfortable telling him this in advance," Rubenstein said. "They were very thrilled, not only thrilled that they know Deborah and they admire her but that she would be the first woman to be president of the Kennedy Center."
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.
Kaiser, the current president, said Rutter is a smart and creative manager. Next year, he will move the center's DeVos Institute of Arts Management, which he founded, to the University of Maryland.
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