Kennedy Center President Apologizes For Cursing At Hispanic Arts Leader

on October 03 2012 11:27 AM
John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
The annual Kennedy Center Honors, awarded at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has honored only two Hispanics since its founding in 1978. Kyle Rush/Flickr

After losing his temper during a heated telephone call last month, the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has apologized to a Hispanic arts leader who had expressed concern over the lack of Hispanics honorees for the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.

The Washington Post reports that Michael Kaiser, who has headed up the country’s foremost performing arts center since 2001, sent an apology letter to the office of Felix Sanchez, the chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, who said that Kaiser told him to “go f--- yourself” during a three-minute phone conversation on Sept. 14.  

“I am writing to apologize for the language I used during our telephone call,” Kaiser’s letter opened. “It was an unfortunate choice of words, and I deeply regret using them during our conversation.”

Sanchez said he raised concerns with Kaiser about the fact that only two Hispanics have been awarded Kennedy Center Honors since they were founded in 1978. The honors recognize prominent performing artists for their lifetime contributions to American culture. This year’s honorees include David Letterman, Dustin Hoffman, Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova and the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin.

Since news of the heated conversation broke, more than 30 Hispanic organizations had demanded that Kaiser apologize. In an interview with the Washington Post last month, Kaiser said he became angry during the phone conversation because he felt that Sanchez was accusing him of being a racist.  

“I’ve spent much of the last 20 years working with organizations of color in this country -- African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native American,” he told the Post. “This is a real part of who I am, and so when someone insinuates that I am a racist, it gets me extremely upset.”

Following that interview, Sanchez told Politico that Kaiser had a “false” interpretation of the conversation.

Last year, the number of Hispanics living in the United States topped 50 million. They are the largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority in the country. Some cultural organizations say Hispanics are still vastly underrepresented in theater and the performing arts, despite marquee names such as John Leguizamo and Raúl Esparza and notable musicals such as the 2008 Tony-winning “In the Heights.” Last year, “Heights” book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes took home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Water by the Spoonful.” 

Latinos in Theatre, an online grassroots community group, has been organizing regional meetings with Hispanic theater troupes and arts organizations around the country with the goal of building a National Latino Theater Network. Over the last four months, the group has arranged meetings in eight cities -- including Los Angeles, Calif.; Miami, Fla.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Portland, Ore. -- and plans to organize meetings in several more cities over the next few months.

In the closing sentence of his apology letter, Kaiser acknowledged that the Kennedy Center can do more to encourage diversity in choosing future Kennedy honorees. “I can assure you that the concerns you raised during our conversation were heard and will be given serious consideration,” he wrote.   

Sanchez has said that he plans to meet with the chairman of Kennedy Center’s board this month to discuss the honors’ selection process. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he called Kaiser’s apology “a good first step.”

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