Commentary: As arts across the nation suffer, the Kennedy Center in DC was about to open a nightclub on its roof

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Watergate Complex on the banks of the Potomac River is seen from the air at sunset in this photograph taken on June 15, 2014 over Washington, DC. The center plans to open a rooftop nightclub. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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By Chris Jones Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Of all the strange and desperate cultural stories to emerge from a pandemic that has sent daggers straight through the heart of the performing arts in America, here is one of the weirdest. It comes from Washington, D.C., (where else?) and is the tale of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a planned rooftop nightclub called, believe it or not, “Heist.”

There was a sudden reversal Wednesday. But first some backstory.

In March, the Kennedy Center found itself on the defensive after the Congress earmarked $25 million within the initial $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus relief bill. Around Capitol Hill, there was some predictable back-and-forth with Republicans complaining that Democratic members had privileged a “swanky opera house” over needier causes, but the Kennedy Center and its allies were able to effectively counter by rightly reminding people that it was a job creator, a crucial cultural asset and a shuttered institution so deprived of critical revenue as to be in the middle of an existential crisis not of its own making.

All of that was true. The Kennedy Center is a glorious place. The bigger issue, though, which neither party seemed to see, was that the politicians’ notion of earmarked arts relief was limited to their own backyards.

What about the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, an equally critical establishment, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago’s huge Auditorium Theatre or the Metropolitan Opera in New York City? Were not these major institutions and venues — and these merely are examples — also suffering from the same crisis? In most other wealthy countries demanding closures due to COVID-19, from Canada to Germany to the United Kingdom, elected politicians had thought about their entire arts sector, not just one institution with superior lobbying skills. Surely someone on Capitol Hill could see beyond the Beltway.

Apparently not. No fault of the Kennedy Center, you might well argue. But still, the news rankled in other cities.

Over the weeks and months that followed, all across America, cultural producers and arts presenters have been living through furloughs and layoffs, canceled plans and cratered revenue. The sector has been devastated. Countless jobs have been lost. In most major cities, capacity limits imposed by governments have made any meaningful return to business impossible, even by venues that have worked hard on developing plans to mitigate the risk of reopening.

And then, in recent days, the Kennedy Center said it had decided to open a nightclub on its roof.

This was to be a partnership with a nightclub called Heist, as backed by the attorney-entrepreneur Vinoda Basnayake, who just happens to be chair of the District of Columbia’s Commission on Nightlife and Culture and who sat one of the D.C. committees exploring how the sector could reopen. As Washington’s essential City Paper reported, the new venture was billed as a “socially distant pop-up lounge” featuring VIP Ultra Cabanas or VIP tables with “a unique bottle service” and a “hit-music playlist curated by the hottest DJs in the country.” The paper further reported that the total potential capacity was 360 people, far greater than a handful of other indoor cultural venues being allowed to reopen as part of a pilot program that limited them to an audience of 50 (also the current limit for live performance in Chicago).

At Heist — specially renamed Heist x Kennedy Center for the pop-up — you needed a decent credit limit. For a $1,000 minimum, you could ascend to the roof of the Kennedy Center and (you really couldn’t make this up) buy a “Felony VIP Cabana.” A mere $750 would get you a “Misdemeanor VIP Cabana” while $500 bought the “Infraction Cabana,” where you presumably had to feel only slightly bad. Reportedly, opening weekend was sold out.

Sure, people want to go out. But bottle service, Felony VIP Cabanas, and a crowd of 360 on the roof of Kennedy Center? Which had just justified its privileged funding by declaring itself uniquely vital to the national interest? You might say the optics are less than ideal.

By Wednesday, the Kennedy Center had pulled the plug on opening weekend, insisting that the deal was separate from any reopening pilot program and saying that it still needed to work things out with its “renter.”

“The Center’s recent and successful return to hosting live performance at reduced capacity required months of rigorous planning,” the Kennedy Center said. “Likewise, we hold outside parties renting our spaces to the same high level of scrutiny and precautionary planning, and more time is needed to fully assess these plans.”

Many issues are raised here, not the least of which is the inconsistency in how authorities view outdoor gatherings. It is settled scientific wisdom that the virus transmits less easily outdoors, which has led to a reasonable privileging of those events, but it is less clear that any size of outdoor gathering is a wise undertaking, social distancing or not. Are 360 people partying on the roof really safer than one of the Kennedy Center’s massive concert halls operating at 25% capacity? It depend on who is making those decisions and the fairest answer is, probably, we still don’t really know.

Similar inconsistencies abound when it comes what is and is not a nightclub, whether a bar is really a restaurant, or a restaurant is really a bar, and whether a nightclub with music does or does not become an arts performance. So little thought has been placed into these issues by the authorities, it’s laughable. It just seems to depend who has the most influence. Ask any barkeep in Chicago about that.

What was in this for the Kennedy Center? Revenue, presumably, which is hard to come by these days. And maybe a chance to retain some visibility among the beautiful people of the District. All fair enough. And jobs would surely have been created. Pop-up jobs. But jobs, nonetheless.

But, seriously, “Heist”? On the roof of the Kennedy Center? Right now? In this climate? When the artists working below are losing their health insurance?

Would it not be more functional for everyone in the District of Columbia to look out at the country as a whole, to help American actors, stage crews, musicians, arts administrators, writers, composers and so many others?

Climb down from the roof, Washington, and help our stages in every state.

(Chris Jones is chief theater critic and culture columnist for the Chicago Tribune.)
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