Kennedy Center’s Kaiser sorry for rude response to Latino demand

Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has apologized for cussing out the head of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts over the phone in mid-September, in response to a demand to stop overlooking Latinos in the annual Kennedy Center Honors awards.

Felix Sanchez, chairman of the Washington-based group, had said last week that Kaiser swore and hung up after no more than three minutes when they spoke Sept. 14 – two days after the Kennedy Center had announced a roster of 2012 honorees that, for the 33rdyear out of 35, included no Latinos.

The Kennedy Center Honors are for lifetime achievement in the performing arts; Placido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2002 are the only Latinos who’ve been chosen, among more than 170 honorees since 1978.

In a letter dated Thursday, Kaiser apologized for “an unfortunate choice of words.… I deeply regret using them during our conversation.”


The letter, which Sanchez forwarded to The Times on Friday, noted Kaiser’s longtime commitment to diversity and ensuring a “dynamic presence” for Latino artists on the Kennedy Center’s stages.

“I assure you that the concerns you raised during our conversation were heard and will be given serious consideration,” it concluded.

Kennedy Center spokesman John Dow said Friday that there would be no comment beyond what’s in the letter. Its tone contrasted with what Kaiser had said last week, when the issue surfaced after the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and another advocacy group, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, had publicized the telephone exchange between Kaiser and Sanchez: “Although Michael regrets the language used, the heated anger in response to persistent implications of racism was justified.”

On Thursday, Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, had issued a statement criticizing Kaiser for making “a shocking, intemperate and inappropriate response to a genuine request by Mr. Sanchez, who was merely pointing out a concern, shared by many, about the lack of Hispanic award recipients…. The issue merits a civil and professional response, which we continue to await.”


Sanchez said in an interview Friday that he has scheduled a lunch Oct. 5 with David Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center’s board, to discuss the selection process for the Kennedy Center Honors.

Kaiser’s apology was “a good first step … a genuine gesture,” he said, but “a few Hail Marys short of a full mea culpa,” which would have required admitting that the Kennedy Center Honors has excluded Latinos.

Sanchez said he will continue to seek the ouster of veteran screenwriter-director-producer George Stevens Jr. as producer of the Kennedy Center Honors telecast, and for a reform of the selection process.

According to the Kennedy Center, whose 53-member board includes a single Latina, television journalist Giselle Fernandez, the board’s 14-member executive committee picks the honorees, after considering recommendations from past winners and the Kennedy Center’s artists committee.


Sanchez says that, based on his own conversations with board members, “the selection process has remained within the tight control of a few people,” including Stevens, “and this is the disastrous result.”

He said that because most of the Kennedy Center board is appointed by the president of the United States, and the awards carry what amounts to a government imprimatur, the White House should take an active role in overseeing the process and approving the winners.

David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, blues musician Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova and the three surviving members of the British rock band Led Zeppelin will receive their medallions at a State Department dinner Dec. 1, followed by a Dec. 2 honors gala at the Kennedy Center that will be taped for a Dec. 26 prime-time telecast on CBS.

Asked whether his group plans to mount a protest at the awards ceremony, or will try to raise the issue with President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Sanchez said, “we’re not ruling anything out.”


The Kennedy Center’s most recent federal tax return shows that the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors gala grossed $6 million and cost $1.3 million, netting about $4.7 million for the center’s programming.

The Kennedy Center is a public-private partnership that received $42 million in government support and took in $55.8 million in private donations in 2010-11. Ticket sales brought in about $76.5 million. The budget year ended with a $2.4 million surplus, after expenditures of $192.5 million.

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