Deborah Rutter, President, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

“Every important relationship that I have ever developed has been based on me asking questions and listening and having thoughtful responses to their comments.”

January 2019

Changing the world of art, one performance at a time

Art inspires. Art connects. It allows artists and audiences alike to experience something unique and gives them the opportunity to make it entirely their own. To reach its full potential and its largest possible audience, however, art also requires great staging and organization. This is why leaders like Deborah Rutter, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, are so important.

Rutter’s daily work includes collaborating with artists, like American opera singer Renée Fleming, to provide the world with performances that will create memories and motivate future generations of artists and patrons. Her organization is a catalyst that ignites creativity and inspires everyone who passes through it. She tells stories through the wide range of programs presented and produced by the Kennedy Center, and provides cultural stimulation to the residents of Washington, D.C.

Outside of work, Rutter demonstrates the same passion and commitment to the arts through her involvement with a number of organizations, including the Board of Arts Alliance Illinois, Chicago’s Grant Park Conservancy, the Solti Foundation, After School Matters, the Curtis Institute Board of Overseers, the Washington State Arts Alliance Board of Directors, and the Policy Committee for the League of American Orchestras.

As a leader—not just at the Kennedy Center but in the international world of art—Rutter is driven by her mission and values, which she believes to be an important influence on how she leads. First, she is committed to lifelong learning, which means “learning about myself [and] learning about the world around me,” she explains. “I do that through engaging with others with humility, primarily as a listener and an interpreter.” She pairs her natural curiosity with her dedication to integrity. According to Rutter, “You have to be able to live with every decision, every action that you’ve taken. For me, it often means seeing the world through other people’s eyes.” These values are a part of what makes her a leader who is beloved within her organization and respected by the entire art community.

Her leadership style and decisions have been inspired by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Pierre Boulez, a conductor and composer of avant-garde music. “Conversations over decades with both of them,” says Rutter, “have been the most powerfully informative to who I am and how I think about leadership. Both of these artists are, at the core, motivated by humility and integrity. They are both naturally talented, and they use that talent to serve something greater than just themselves and their own well-being.” From Boulez, she has gained insight into the connection between an audience and a performance, as well as how to support an artist on their creative journey. From Yo-Yo Ma, she has learned the importance of humanity and social connection. Both of these leaders have provided Rutter with the inspiration and guidance that has led to her becoming the leader she is today.

However, being a leader also comes with its own set of difficulties. There are lessons that need to be learned and obstacles that need to be overcome in order to achieve one’s goals. According to Rutter, “When I was a young leader, I had to realize that what motivates me does not motivate everybody else. What I need to feed my personal psyche is different from what other people need. To be a really good leader, you have to understand that everybody has different needs, and all of them are legitimate. That is really key.”

For Rutter, music and the arts have been the “north star” of every decision she has made professionally. She loves talking to artists and her colleagues so that they can work together to help bring the artist’s vision to life. She is motivated by the concept of doing work that is bigger than herself. Her work brings communities together through creative concepts and provides educational opportunities so that students can—and do—gain a deeper appreciation for the arts.

Rutter provides the following words of advice for other leaders on how to best build relationships and foster dialogue in today’s dynamic environment: “It is more important to listen than to talk. Every important relationship that I have ever developed has been based on me asking questions and listening and having thoughtful responses to their comments.”

The Kennedy Center puts on over 2,300 performances every year, none of which would be possible without the leadership of Deborah Rutter. Her passion for music and the arts has propelled her through her creative journey and will continue to do so as she changes the world of art one performance at a time.

Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg


Interview By Taryn Maister

Fast Facts

Washington, D.C.
Number of employees:
Number of years in current role:
4.5 years
Previous experiences:
President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association
Executive Director of the Seattle Symphony
Executive Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Orchestra Manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Leaders she admires most:
Pierre Boulez (composer/conductor) and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
5 things she can’t live without:
Her family, a close group of friends, books, a garden, and a constant flow of cultural experiences

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