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Kennedy Center picks L.A.-trained Deborah Rutter as next president

Deborah Rutter, who grew up in Encino and began her career as an orchestra executive in Los Angeles, will be the next president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Rutter, 57, has been president of the Chicago Symphony since 2003, having previously been executive director of the Seattle Symphony and, from 1986 to 1992, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

She learned the ropes of arts administration from 1978 to 1986 at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, rising from administrative assistant to orchestra manager under the tutelage of the Phil’s highly-respected longtime top executive, Ernest Fleischmann.

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Rutter will start at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 1, 2014, succeeding Michael Kaiser, the veteran arts manager who has been its president since 2001. Kaiser will continue to lead the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, which began at the Kennedy Center but will be based at the University of Maryland starting next summer. The Kennedy Center had announced in January that Kaiser would be stepping down and that a search for his successor had begun.

Rutter’s agenda will include overseeing a $100-million expansion of the Kennedy Center scheduled to begin late in 2014, adding educational facilities and a rehearsal hall to the existing 1.1-million-square-foot complex.

The job of Kennedy Center president involves not just overseeing business operations and fundraising, but providing input into the artistic choices and strategies of the Kennedy Center and its resident companies, including the National Symphony and the Washington National Opera.

Rutter will literally step into prime time, because her new job includes playing a key role in the sometimes controversial Kennedy Center Honors program that confers lifetime achievement awards on a handful of performing arts stars each year. The program culminates with an awards ceremony taped at the Kennedy Center for a telecast each December on CBS.

“It is a true privilege to be asked to lead this unparalleled institution,” Rutter said in a written statement accompanying Tuesday’s announcement of her appointment. “As the nation’s center for the performing arts, the Kennedy Center is a platform for declaring the importance of culture in our society. ... The Kennedy Center has a responsibility to be a role model for the ideals of culture and artists in America, and in that role we will continue to explore, inspire, engage and encourage artistic discovery and dialogue.”

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The Kennedy Center’s current annual operating budget is about $190 million, spokesman John Dow said. The federal government typically allocates about $20 million a year toward its operations, along with partial funding for construction projects such as the coming expansion.

At the Chicago Symphony, Rutter earned about $577,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which a public nonprofit filing is available. Kaiser’s compensation that year at the Kennedy Center totaled $1.38 million.

“It’s been a total thrill to see one’s daughter become so important in the arts world,” said Marshall Rutter, a Los Angeles attorney who helped found the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1964 and has remained on its board ever since. With his daughter taking over at the Kennedy Center, he joked, he should be able to score better seats than the back-of-the-house spot he occupied in his last visit many years ago, for a concert during a conference of American choruses.

Rutter said his daughter studied violin and piano as a child, and played in youth orchestras in L.A. and in a string quartet and chamber orchestra as an undergraduate at Stanford. She majored in music and German, he said, and after deciding that a flourishing future was not likely onstage, she applied for her first music administration job out of college with a letter to the L.A. Phil’s Fleischmann written in his native German.

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“That got a bit of extra attention,” Marshall Rutter recalled. “Fleischmann corrected her grammar but said ‘you’re hired.’” While working for the L.A. Phil, Rutter earned a master’s degree in business administration at USC.

In Seattle, she oversaw the launch of a well-received new concert hall, then took over leadership of the Chicago Symphony at a time when its finances were suffering.

In a 2008 article in the International Journal of Arts Management, Philippe Ravanas, chair of the arts, entertainment and media management program at Chicago’s Columbia College, credited Rutter -- then going by Deborah Card, her name from a previous marriage -- with having reversed “a long cycle of decreasing revenues and mounting deficits by radically changing all the orchestra’s business practices.”

Among her Chicago innovations was making the orchestra one of the nonprofit arts field’s earliest adopters of dynamic pricing, in which the cost of tickets fluctuates according to demand, aiming to maximize revenue with price increases for hot-selling events, and discounts for seats that otherwise would go unsold.

But the Chicago Symphony has not been immune to the post-recession financial problems buffeting many orchestras. Its tax returns show an $11-million deficit in 2008-09 (not counting depreciation) as its investment earnings tanked during that year’s global market meltdown, and a $4.5-million deficit two years later. Orchestra musicians went on strike for two days in 2012 when negotiations broke down over management’s call for musicians to accept a wage freeze and pay a larger share of their health insurance costs. The result was a compromise in which musicians received a 4.5% increase in the base salary over three years, but agreed to substantially increase their payments toward health benefits.

“She understands the challenges and opportunities facing arts organizations and is very creative about developing a path forward,” Bill Osborn, a former Chicago Symphony board chair, said in a statement accompanying the Kennedy Center’s announcement of Rutter’s hiring. “She will be a great asset to the Kennedy Center.”

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At the Kennedy Center, Kaiser got into hot water last year when pressed by Latino advocacy groups over a drastic under-representation of Latinos among Kennedy Center Honors winners. He wound up issuing an apology for having cussed out Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, during a phone call.

In May, the Kennedy Center announced revisions in the Kennedy Center Honors selection process, saying it was “committed to bolstering both its track record on diversity, and its relationship with the Hispanic community.”

Placido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2002 had been the only Latino honorees during the first 38 years of the Kennedy Center honors – a total that doubled in last Sunday’s ceremony, when two of the five honorees were Latinos --  rocker Carlos Santana and opera singer Martina Arroyo. CBS will broadcast the taped ceremonies on Dec. 29.

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