REACHing toward modern art

John F. Kennedy Center adds a three-pavilion expansion, breaking boundaries between creators and viewers


Lexi Fleck

Squonk Opera performs “Hand to Hand” at The REACH festival. Squonk Opera manipulated puppet hands to create an innovative, light-hearted performance.

By Lexi Fleck

Vibrant, electric purple hands the size of houses flop to the beat of blasting music, stopping outdoor festival-goers in their tracks. Performers sing lively African music inside, grabbing the attention of many community members.  

After witnessing the scene, a festival-goer added “cool” to their review of the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center.

Since the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, it’s received recognition for its traditional musical, dance and theatrical performances. Now, the 48-year-old art mecca is expanding its vision for how we experience art with a new three-pavilion expansion called the REACH. 

The REACH opened to the public this fall with a festival of over 500 free events from September 7 to 22. The Kennedy Center aims to extend its “reach” to break down boundaries between creators and viewers, encouraging the audience to interact with the art. The initiative directly involves viewers in the art experience, a change from the Center’s traditional and polished performances.

Lexi Fleck
“The Courage Within Me” by Michelle Angela Oritz. The piece is movable and multi-panel. Through her art, Oritz wants to encourage children to define “courage.”

The REACH holds activities ranging from mindfulness and yoga sessions, to virtual reality experiences, to live performances of jazz bands, rap groups and Cuban hip-hop troupes.

“The concept of the REACH is to provide access to the community,” The REACH ambassador Deborah Broder said. “The REACH exposes the creative process for people to interact with it, and see creativity at its raw form.”

The exhibit seeks to make art more inclusive and accessible; the Center is targeting a wider range of viewers.

“Inclusivity is one of the biggest goals for The REACH,” The REACH Ambassador Hattie Ulan said. “We thrive to get diverse audiences. Our attendees range from young families to older adults. We want REACH to run the gamut.”

With floor-to-ceiling windows, outdoor stages, an arts cafe and 130,000 square feet of landscaping and gardens, The REACH is designed to foster values of openness.

The virtual reality tour was one of the exhibit’s most popular activities. Virtual reality takes users to another world through an interactive experience, replacing the user’s natural environment with virtual content

“VR is a completely new experience that no one has seen before,” VR expert Jamie said. “You can create an environment that takes you to a new place and makes a new, immersive experience.”

The REACH is an immersive learning center for performers to play and dance alongside their communities, however they want. With a modern and innovative approach to art, the REACH is “reaching” a new generation. 

“When I got to The REACH festival, I was so surprised,” freshman Caitlin Grau said. “It is nothing like the Kennedy Center. It’s more ‘my generation.’”