After 14 years at the Kennedy Center, David Rubenstein is retiring as chairman.
The billionaire philanthropist told the board of trustees Monday afternoon that he will remain for one year while the national arts center conducts a search for his successor. Elected in 2010, Rubenstein is only the center’s sixth chair and served longer than anyone except founding chairman Roger Stevens, who presided for 27 years. Rubenstein has personally donated $111 million — the largest individual contributor in the center’s 52-year history — and raised millions more, notably for the Reach, the center’s $250 million expansion completed in 2019.
It’s time to pass the torch. “One, you don’t want to stay too long; it’s very unusual in the nonprofit world to stay this long in a chairmanship role,” he told The Washington Post last week, in advance of his announcement. “Secondly, I am 74 years old, an age which is too young to be president of the United States, but generally considered to be old enough for other things.”
With an estimated net worth of $4 billion, Rubenstein is one of Washington’s most prolific and influential philanthropists. In addition to the Kennedy Center, he has chaired and given millions to the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the National Archives and more. He is one of the original signers of the Giving Pledge created by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — an initiative of the very rich who publicly promise to donate at least half of their wealth. Rubenstein has given approximately $900 million so far.
“I don’t think he’s surpassed as a person who helps Americans understand who we are and who we have been,” said Roy Blunt, a former Republican senator from Missouri who served on the center’s board.
Rubenstein was born in Baltimore and spent his professional life in the nation’s capital as a lawyer and member of the Carter administration before making his fortune as co-founder of the Carlyle Group. His first attempt to become chairman of the Kennedy Center was unsuccessful; New York billionaire Stephen Schwarzman was elected instead. (During his tenure, Schwarzman raised a few eyebrows when he donated $100 million to the New York Public Library, dwarfing the few million he gave to the center.) When Schwarzman did not seek a second term, Rubenstein was the unanimous choice to take over.
“When my business became successful, I obviously had the money and, to some extent, the time to give back to the city that had helped me launch my firm,” Rubenstein said. “Performing arts is something that brings people together. They’re usually happy in a city where people are often divided. I thought it was one of the unifying places.”
President Biden and the first lady, who serves as an honorary chair of the board, issued a statement congratulating Rubenstein on the retirement: “David understands the power of the arts to bring people together and strengthen our democracy. His commitment to making the arts more accessible to more Americans — and to ensuring the Kennedy Center reflects the diversity that is our nation’s strength — will benefit our country for generations to come.”
Rubenstein, already a trustee appointed by President George W. Bush, quickly established himself as a hands-on chairman who involved himself in all aspects of the institution. He has an expansive worldview, said Center President Deborah Rutter, who was recruited by Rubenstein a decade ago and admires the ways he pushes the center to “be in service even more than we already imagine. He’s never a status-quo guy. He is always looking to support us to have an even bigger, better influence.”
“It’s a big place to get your arms around,” said Alma Gildenhorn, a trustee since 1986. “David had big ideas and he implemented them. He was amazing.”
He’s a huge fan of the Kennedy Center Honors and the Mark Twain Award, and an even bigger fan of Cher, who received a Kennedy Center Honors in 2018. “He loves all the Honors, by the way,” Rutter said. “But this was the only Honors where he asked what his table placement was.” (Yes, he sat at Cher’s table.)
Being a billionaire is not a prerequisite for the job, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Rubenstein’s vast network made him an unparalleled fundraiser; his relationships with both Democrats and Republicans made him well suited to dealing with politicians and a variety of presidential appointees to the board of trustees. He helped stabilize the center’s relationship with the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera. When he realized more than 70 percent of Americans were not alive when Kennedy was president, he created a permanent exhibition about JFK that opened in 2022 on the center’s Terrace Level.
The federal government pays for the center’s building expenses — heat, lights, maintenance — but the rest of the funding comes from ticket sales and private donations. Rubenstein was instrumental in expanding the center’s footprint and restructuring its finances during the pandemic when performances were shut down and sales nonexistent.
His retirement is not the end of his fundraising for the center: He’s chairman of the newly created Kennedy Center Foundation, a charitable arm to boost the endowment, which, at $130 million, is relatively small. The goal is to raise several hundred million. “We will hopefully have a big enough endowment so that the Kennedy Center isn’t so dependent, as we are now, on day-to-day financial contributions or ticket sales,” he said.
“We get amazing people appointed to us by the president of the United States,” Rutter said. “Sometimes they stick around and stay very close to us, and we’re thrilled with that. And sometimes they stay for six years, and they’re gone. And we can’t let them back. To build a true legacy that will last way into the future, we need to have very, very long-term relationships, and it can’t and shouldn’t just be in the DMV.”
The search committee for the next chairman is already in the works; Rubenstein said he will not pick his successor. But he believes the next chair should enjoy the performing arts, be able to contribute financially and live in the D.C. metropolitan area or make a commitment to spend a lot of time in Washington. The ability to get along with people across the political spectrum is useful, as is the ability to speak publicly. Rubenstein went from being very shy to merely reserved during his chairmanship, sometimes even cracking jokes in public: “Maybe I’m less shy than I was, but I’m still not a hail fellow well met, let’s-go-out-and-drink-some-beer kind of guy.”
Rutter echoed those themes: “We’re not going to look for just the next person who can write the big check,” she said. “We want somebody who really cares about what we’re doing and is prepared to use their influence to take it out to the world and bring the world in.”
For his part, Rubenstein is keeping busy: Besides his ongoing charities, boards and interview shows, he is reportedly in talks to buy his hometown Baltimore Orioles, a hush-hush process that no one involved will talk publicly about.
His only regret? “Well, why is it that I’ve never been asked to perform at the Kennedy Center?” he joked. (We think.)