A Shot Through theArt

Art is Killacky’s driving force

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

flynn_theater_john_killackyJohn Killacky came to Vermont in 2010 to be executive director and CEO of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, only the second person to serve in that capacity.

“What I love about this organization is that it has many different faces, depending on who’s coming here”

During the year after John Killacky was hired in 2010 as executive director and CEO of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, earlier work he had done with his predecessor, founding director Andrea Rogers, came to fruition with a $500,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation.

The resulting $2.3 million campaign’s funds were slated to be used for projects such as enclosing the loading dock, which, when open in winter, sent the heating costs soaring; painting the floor and replacing rugs; painting walls; upgrading the lobby; and replacing the seats, which dated to 1946.

“The good news was, they gave us $500,000,” Killacky says, laughing; “the bad news was, they gave us $500,000.”

Worried about where the rest would come from, he sought input from longtime donors. “Bobby and Holly Miller are great. Bobby said, ‘What are you worried about?’ I said, ‘I’m the new guy in town. What if I fail?’ He said, ‘Well, John, you are new. You may fail. But be reassured this community will not let the Flynn fail.’

“We created the Take a Seat campaign without having a lot of money ahead of time, as a kind of grassroots campaign,” he says, “and one of the most remarkable things in my entire career happened.

“After the Free Press did an article about the squeaky seats that were going to be replaced, the front desk came to me with a hand-addressed envelope that said Director of Development, Flynn Center.” The typed message said, in part:

The lights went on for us when we read the article in the Free Press with the hilarious title “Let the de-squeaking begin.” We looked at one another and said, ‘This is a project we can really help move forward.’ It can happen now!

Enclosed was a bank check for $1 million.

“I cried!” he says. “I started obsessing about who it could be. Then I thought, These people want to be anonymous, and it could be anyone, even one of our volunteers. So I started being grateful to everyone who came in. I still don’t know who sent it.”

When he arrived to take the job, Killacky was quite familiar with the Flynn, having done several partnerships with the organization in the 1990s, when he was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. When Killacky left Walker, the Flynn’s then artistic director, Philip Bither, took his position.

An old friend was also waiting to welcome him. At age 20, living in New York and needing a place to stay, he learned that a friend’s neighbor, a writer named Kathy Robinson, needed a nanny for her children. Killacky took the job. “When I moved to Vermont, a friend asked, ‘Did you get in touch with Kate Schubart yet?’ She was Kathy Robinson! And now I’m like a grandfather, because her daughter has a little baby.”

“I only know John through Kate,” says Schubart’s husband, Bill, an author, retired business owner, and Flynn member whose admiration is palpable. “One of the most wonderful things of John’s arrival at the Flynn has been his completely open and collaborative approach to culture. John sees it as the mission of the Flynn to lift everyone’s cultural boats. It’s not a control or power issue; his attitude is, How can we all do this together to make the arts stronger?”

The Flynn is one of Burlington’s largest employers: a $6.6 million organization that last year employed 264 people. “And that payroll was $2.1 million,” Killacky says. That includes 32 full-time staff plus part-timers: box office, stage hands, and over 70 teaching artists, he says, “teaching here at the Flynn but also at a number of schools.

“What I love about this organization is that it has many different faces, depending on who’s coming here,” he says.

Lyric Theatre Company spearheaded the purchase of the Flynn in 1981 to save it from the wrecking ball, says Syndi Zook, Lyric’s executive director. “We owned the Flynn for about six months and hired Andrea Rogers, then spun it off as its own nonprofit. John Killacky had big shoes to fill.

“I think that John has done an amazing job of keeping the Flynn feeling like it belongs to all of the original stakeholders and yet opening it up so that it belongs to everyone.”

“So we present the artists; people buy tickets, which I’m very grateful for,” Killacky says, “and we’re also home to the Vermont Symphony, Vermont Youth Orchestra, Vermont Stage Company, Lyric Theatre. Those other organizations’ audiences also call the Flynn home, which I’m just thrilled about.”

Gratitude: It crops up in just about every subject he addresses, not least when telling about the path that brought him here.

Killacky grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where his father and grandfather sold cattle at the Chicago Stockyards. “I was one of these kids who went on a school trip to the theater,” he says. “It was to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

“I went home and said, ‘I want to be a modern dancer when I grow up.’ My mom and dad, with an Irish Catholic family and five kids, said, ‘What is a modern dancer?’ But God love them, they checked a phone book and found a modern dance studio.”

He became what he says was “a pretty good dancer,” and headed to New York for a summer internship with the Harkness Ballet, then to Winnipeg to perform professionally with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers.

Back in New York, he danced with the Theatre of the Open Eye. “What I saw was that I was a pretty good dancer in Chicago, but once I went to New York, I was an OK dancer, especially in the classical ballet world.”

He toured and performed a couple of years, then transitioned into administration, managing the dance companies of choreographers Laura Dean and Trisha Brown. Six years later, he left to run the Pepsico Summer Fair in Purchase, N.Y., for a couple of years, followed by two years leading the arts program at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia.

By then, Killacky had earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Hunter College. “It took me nine years, because I would take a semester, then go off and perform. I told people that you can only be a dancer or an athlete like that in your 20s, so if you really want to go for it, go for it.”

His next move, to Minneapolis to run the performing arts program at the Walker Arts Center, “was a fantastic job,” he says. “It was a contemporary museum and my job was to bring in contemporary artists.

“It was the 1990s, and the contemporary artists of that time were causing a ruckus.” He recalls his mother’s calling to ask what on earth he had done to get Rush Limbaugh talking about him for a half hour on television.

“It was a time when people were dying of AIDS,” he says, “and bodily fluids, and blood, were just so scary to people, and of course artists were in that mix having to think about those issues. It was what contemporary artists do, and I was at that nexus.”

After eight years in Minneapolis, he was recruited to run the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. His life would take a radical shift before he left for San Francisco, when a tumor was found inside his spinal cord “at C2, up high,” he says.

Killacky left the hospital following surgery, paralyzed and not expected to walk again. “I had no sensation on my right side and no location on my left side. Even today, my brain doesn’t know I have a left side,” he says.

He realized, however, that when being moved from the bed to the wheelchair, he felt like he could almost stand up. In outpatient rehab, he asked for a mirror. “I said, ‘I think I can learn to stand up visually.’”

Told it was unlikely, he persisted. “I said, ‘When I was younger I was a dancer and practiced in a mirror to make it look good. Let me try.’” He credits his early work with mirrors for preparing his brain to help him walk.

“And after I stopped dancing, I became a runner and ran six marathons, so I knew if I could figure out the first step, I could do it. I still work on it with yoga and swimming and strengthening. I need a cane because my body still doesn’t know I have a left side.”

Killacky’s freest moments these days come from driving his pony cart at Windswept Farm in Williston, pulled by his Shetland pony, Pacific Raindrop.

“In riding a horse, you need two legs,” he says. “But when you’re driving a horse or pony, you work only through the long reins. So I don’t have my own legs, but I can run, can dance again in the world with this pony, and I just have a blast.”

Killacky says that, at 62, he’s happier than he’s ever been. He lives in South Burlington with his family: husband, Larry Connolly, who teaches creative writing at Champlain College, “the pony — our 400-pound daughter; a very hyper border collie named Zephyr; and a three-legged cat, Lana.

“What I love doing and have been blessed to do, is Vermont Public Radio commentaries — about six of those a year. I tend not to only speak about art stuff; horse stuff sometimes; other things. I love that opportunity to be a cultural citizen. I’m on the board of the Vermont Community Foundation, and the state Tax Department just asked me to be on the Vermont Tax Advisory Board.”

The subject of the Flynn is never far from his mind. Mentioning the 38,000 children who come to see performances at student matinees, he says, “This is my best moment because I was one of those kids. When I see them, especially the little ones whose heads are just above the seats, watching live theater, it’s so important to me, because it transforms those lives. It did mine, and it will others.”