“It actually brings luster to the event when the president appears — that’s one of the reasons it’s such a valuable award,” said Michael M. Kaiser, a former president of the Kennedy Center who is now chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, adding that the presence of the president also typically helped from a fund-raising standpoint.
“One hopes that President Trump’s decision to forgo this year’s honors is a solitary event,” he said. “We need government officials to attend the arts, to support them in their speeches, to encourage others to participate and to involve artists in their special events.”
Deborah F. Rutter, the current president of the Kennedy Center, said that she expects to see presidents back in their boxes in future years, possibly as early as next year.
“My mantra in the office, and out of the office, is one day at a time,” she said in a telephone interview. “I’m not expecting that this will change it forever, one way or the other.”
The Trumps’ decision surprised Washington, not least because the president is known for being confrontational or dismissive with his critics. The Kennedy Center board is made up of many of President Obama’s allies, like Valerie Jarrett and the former national security adviser Susan Rice — Mr. Trump has yet to appoint any — but Kennedy Center officials said there was no push from trustees or others there to keep Mr. Trump away. Ms. Rutter said that the decision not to attend had been entirely the White House’s, and added that despite all the controversies surrounding Mr. Trump, the event had been selling “absolutely on par” with previous years.
It is typically a very hot ticket, and one that does not come cheap. Donors who contribute more than $10,000 a year to the Kennedy Center are given access to advanced sales. Single seats cost between $500 and $6,000 each, while four-seat boxes go for $40,000 and six-seat boxes for $50,000. The event typically raises about $7 million for the Kennedy Center, which has an annual operating budget of $230 million.
The honors have usually managed to set aside politics. Democrats have honored actors who lean right, as President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, did when he paid tribute to Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston. (“He’s even played Democrats,” Mr. Clinton joked of Mr. Heston. “But he was, to be fair, selective; they were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.”)
Republicans have honored actors who lean left, as President George W. Bush, a Republican, did when he honored Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand. (He said Ms. Streisand’s outspokenness “kind of makes me think of another Barbara who is not afraid to speak her mind,” alluding to his mother.)
But the age of Trump has been different. As soon as this year’s honorees were announced earlier this month, one of them, Norman Lear, the television producer known for his political activism, said that he would skip the traditional White House reception, in part to protest President Trump’s call to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts.
After the president’s remarks about the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who rallied in Charlottesville, more honorees began expressing reservations. The singer-songwriter Lionel Richie said last week that he would “play it by ear” as to what he would do about attending the honors. The dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, 86, announced that she would forgo the White House reception “in light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our current leadership is choosing to engage in.”
Then, on Aug. 18, all 16 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned to protest the president’s seeming defense of white nationalists in Charlottesville.
All along, Esther Olavarria, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of institutional affairs, had been in contact with the office of the first lady, Melania Trump, who, along with all other living first ladies, is an honorary chairwoman of the center. Her office was the center’s point of contact with the White House, Ms. Rutter said. As the furor that erupted after Charlottesville grew, she said, the White House began to indicate that it was re-evaluating its plans to attend this year’s gala. The White House finally called on Aug. 18, — the night Vice President Mike Pence happened to be at the Kennedy Center attending a performance of “The King & I” — to say that the Trumps would not attend.
The decision to withdraw fit a pattern of the White House’s trying to sidestep, or pre-empt, protests and controversies — including the president’s decision to skip the White House Correspondents Dinner and to disband a pair of advisory councils this month after facing a rebellion from the corporate leaders serving on them, who objected to his handling of Charlottesville.
The White House referred questions about the Kennedy Center to Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s communications director, who declined further comment.
While presidents have on rare occasions missed the show, they have always sent their first ladies in their stead. This year’s gala, on Dec. 3, promises to be the first with neither since the awards were first given in 1978.
The president’s relationship with artists has been strained since some, expressing opposition to his policies, declined to play at his inauguration, and more spoke out against his calls to defund the National Endowment for the Arts.
The next test could come with the National Medal of Arts, which the president typically awards each year to individuals and organizations who are recommended by the National Council on the Arts. Several members of the council are currently staying on past their terms; officials at the National Endowment for the Arts said that no one has been nominated for a seat on the council since President Trump took office.
The issue of the Trumps and the honors is clearly delicate for officials at the Kennedy Center, which was established as “a living memorial” to President John F. Kennedy after his assassination, and which strives to remain apart from partisan politics. When reached, most of the center’s three dozen board members declined to comment.
One, David C. Bohnett, emailed: “As a trustee of the Kennedy Center, I’m guided by the words of President Kennedy, from October, 1963, as etched on the walls of his living memorial: ‘I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.’”
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