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Federal government spent nearly $80 million funding the shuttered Kennedy Center in 2020

Just after receiving coronavirus stimulus funding, the center furloughed the majority of its employees.

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Golden Horseshoe
Golden Horseshoe
(Just the News)
Updated: February 7, 2021 - 5:05pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The Golden Horseshoe is a weekly designation from Just the News intended to highlight egregious examples of wasteful taxpayer spending by the government. The award is named for the horseshoe-shaped toilet seats for military airplanes that cost the Pentagon a whopping $640 each back in the 1980s. 

This week, our award is going to the federal government for spending nearly $80 million of taxpayers' money in 2020 on the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which has been shuttered due to COVID-19 for most of the past year.

The Kennedy Center has for many decades fulfilled the dual role of living memorial to President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, and active cultural center for the arts in the nation's capital.

Since 2016, the Kennedy Center has received just under $270 million in federal funding. The center has a unique financial relationship with Congress. By law, it receives federal funding each year, despite being 80% privately funded for the past half-decade. It is also a 501(c)3 organization, meaning it is allotted certain tax exemptions by the Internal Revenue Service.

According to a Forbes magazine report linked at Open The Books.com, the Kennedy Center managed to grow its net assets by $3.3 million even during the global pandemic that has shut down businesses across the country (hitting the performing arts sector especially hard). The center currently sits on more than half a billion dollars in assets.

That more-than-comfortable financial cushion enjoyed by the center is partly the result of nearly $80 million in taxpayer funds allocated by Congress to the center over the past year. Notoriously, the center was awarded $25 million during the first round of coronavirus relief funding from Congress. In addition, it received another $43.5 million in congressional appropriations, $8 million in grants from the Department of Education, more than half a million dollars from National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs, and $85,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts.

House Democrats initially advocated for $35 million in the CARES Act for the Kennedy Center. Despite most of the relief money being allocated to defray personnel costs to keep people employed, the center announced it was furloughing about 60% of its full-time administrative staff right after the package passed. 

"Our extensive financial modeling indicates that if no changes are made to our spending patterns, even if we are able to open in mid-May, with the recent $25 million federal stimulus funding, the Kennedy Center would run out of cash as early as July," wrote President Rutter to employees at the end of March.

Rutter herself took a pay cut in 2020 — down to $507,375 per year. Over the past five years, her remuneration has totaled more than $5 million.

Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein defended Rutter's compensation. "Deborah Rutter is at the top of her field and her salary is competitive with peers at the country's largest performing arts organizations," he told Forbes. "In her more than six years at the Kennedy Center's helm, Deborah's vision, leadership, and artistic and financial results have exceeded the board's expectations. Even before the pandemic forced a complete shutdown, she voluntarily offered to take no salary until further notice. Her outstanding leadership and dedication to the Center, both before and during the pandemic crisis, have proven that she is the right person at the right time.”

In March, all but 150 of the center's 411 full-time employees were furloughed, just 114 of whom were rehired over the course of 2020. Overall, 36% of the center's work force was permanently cut.

Tough year if you were a Ken Cen staffer — or a U.S. taxpayer. At least both groups can say they did their part to help the nation's gleaming marble performing arts palace finish the year in the black.