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This New $20 Million Kennedy Center Exhibit Lets You Dream Up Your Own White House Guest List

You can also take a selfie in the style of JFK's famous expressionist portrait.

Yo-Yo Ma performs at the ceremonial opening of Art and Ideals - John F. Kennedy on September 8. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Sure, DC is the nation’s political capital. But President John F. Kennedy—according to a new permanent exhibit at the Kennedy Center—saw something else in it: the potential to be an artistic capital, too.

“The President and Mrs. Kennedy were dedicated champions of the arts … but we don’t always attribute this [to them] in our daily lives. We think of them as being politicians,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter at a press preview yesterday evening. “This new exhibit, I think, will give us a new perspective on what he did, how he did it, and why he did it through the perspective of arts.”

Coming at the conclusion of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary, the $20 million, 7,500-square-foot exhibit, “Art and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy,” opens to the public on September 17.

When it’s open, visitors can access the free exhibit from noon to midnight (meaning you can still swing by after a late night show at the center).

Located in what was an empty and previously not-so-pretty atrium on the building’s terrace level, the new exhibit, which has been in the works for five years, features archival video of Kennedy’s landmark speeches, like his space race remarks; performance footage of historic musicians such as Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and Aretha Franklin; and interactive tech-based features.

Visitors at an interactive wall that displays Kennedy’s words. Photo by Alan Karchmer.

For example, the interactive “Dinner at the White House” table allows visitors to learn about the historic artists who once dined at the White House. You can also curate a dream guest list of modern artists and performers, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Olivia Rodrigo, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, through touchscreen “dinner plates.”

Another feature lets visitors take selfies that are then transformed into portraits in the style of JFK’s iconic rendering by expressionist painter Elaine de Kooning.

Visitors at the exhibit take selfies of themselves in the style of JFK’s iconic expressionist portrait by Elaine de Kooning. Photo by Alan Karchmer.
The interactive “Dinner at the White House” table lets visitors curate their own guest lists through touchscreen “plates.” Photo by Alan Karchmer.

“This exhibit is a fulfillment of our mission,” said Rutter. “In the spirit of President Kennedy’s vision for a new frontier in the arts, we are also steadfast in our belief that the Kennedy Center is a place for artistic exploration, experimentation, collaboration, and education.”

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor