The dance of the Kennedy Center VIPs

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WASHINGTON — A classic Washington question: How do congresspeople, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries, their staff members and other government worthies all end up attending the Kennedy Center Honors, a black-tie-and-ball-gown gala where tickets sell for as much as $5,500?

How, too, when the Honors are the Kennedy Center’s biggest annual fundraiser and when federal rules prohibit the awarding of excessive “gifts” to federal employees?

The answer, in a word, is “donations.”

Tickets sales for this year’s Honors on Sunday — lauding Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, Led Zeppelin, David Letterman and Natalia Makarova — will raise about $6 million, according to Marie Mattson, the Kennedy Center’s development vice president. And, she says, almost every ticket for the performances in the Opera House and dinner in the grand foyer will be paid for, making the event the center’s single largest fundraiser of the year.

The bulk of tickets to the performance and dinner are reserved for the Kennedy Center’s annual donors. Another block — about 10 percent of the 2,100 Opera House seats — is set aside for CBS, which televises the event each year. Still another block goes to the performers, Honorees and their families. About 300 tickets are sold to the public, starting at $400 each. “These tickets are like hen’s teeth,” Mattson says.

But that doesn’t mean every ticket will be used by the person or company that paid for it.

In a kind of classic Washington two-step, corporations, foundations and individuals who contribute to the Kennedy Center each year buy Honors tickets and then donate some of them back to the institution, creating a pool of giveaways.

The Kennedy Center can then distribute these tickets to the VIPs of its choosing without skirting the “gift” rules.

Although the Kennedy Center is required by the rules to be the final arbiter of who gets what, in practice donors often “request” that they be seated with a special invited someone. The Kennedy Center’s staff members thus act as go-betweens, matching requests with important guests. “We do not identify who specifically donated the tickets, and we ask guests’ permission on dinner seating,” Mattson says.

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