Departing Executive Director Of Flynn Center Seeks New Stage: Vermont Politics

Jun 18, 2018

Since 2010, John Killacky has been the executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington. Last fall, Killacky announced his plan to step down in June 2018.

Killacky's tenure at the Flynn comes to an end this month, but he has plans to expand his roots in Vermont.

Anna Marie Gewirtz was recently announced as the organization's new executive director and will start in mid-July. Ahead of this leadership transition, Killacky spoke to VPR about his career overseeing one of Vermont's premier venues for local arts stage productions and national acts.

Excerpts below. Listen to the conversation with Killacky above.

Raising money for the Flynn:

"Over my eight years, [the operating budget] grew about a million dollars to the current budget of $7.7 million. ... My entire life has been in the arts — first as an artist, as a dancer, and then as an arts administrator — so I've been raising money my entire life, asking people for supporting nonprofit arts organizations.

"The thing about Vermont is it's been so amazing here. My colleagues across the country — I came from San Francisco before that, I was in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York — and people cannot believe how generous Vermonters are. And when they hear that, you know, the Flynn Center serves 200,000 people, we have 2,800 members and that 40 percent of our budget every year is contributed primarily from individuals and corporations, it's very humbling.

"A few years ago when we had the Irene floods, Grace Potter did a live concert on the stage of the Flynn as a benefit concert. And on the stage she was saying, 'I can't believe it. When I was a little kid, I sat in those chairs and I hoped one day to be on this stage — and here I am, Vermont!' And I thought, how beautiful. That's really what it's about." 

Expanding program access:

"I would say I expanded — didn't start, I expanded — a lot of inclusion and access, and about 7,000 kids are coming for free. 'Cause if any kid is on free or reduced-lunch at school we don't ask them or their families to pay the $8.50 to come to a student matinee.

"We also work with 85 social service agencies — like the Howard Center, COTS, Spectrum — and we give $2 vouchers for their clients to come, 'cause we want everybody to feel like it's their place. Our FlynnArts classes — we have about 1,500 folks who take classes with us, from an 85-year-old tapper to young toddlers singing with their parents and caregivers in the morning. We give about $30,000 worth of scholarships. 

"And so, some new programs — we have a movement for Parkinson's class choreographer Sarah McMahon started. Her husband had Parkinson's and so she got trained and has over 50 people now. It's totally free and it's for folks with Parkinson's and their caregivers, so they break down the isolation. And people are moving together — some are in chairs and some are with canes, some are with walkers — and everyone's dancing together. It's fantastic."

With John Killacky's departure, the new executive director of the Flynn Center will be Anna Marie Gewirtz. "I'm beyond thrilled, and I feel like it completes this intergenerational transfer of leadership," said Killacky about Gewirtz taking over the position.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR File

Why he is stepping down now:

"In 2010, when I was talking to the board about coming, I said: 'If you pick someone like me, I'll stay probably five to seven years. What I think I can offer is to do an intergenerational transfer of leadership at the Flynn.' Because I looked around and much of the senior staff had been long-tenured and there a long time and doing great jobs, but people really seemed that they were going to be timing out, aging out, of their own accord.

"So they, luckily for me, chose me. And last September, I reminded the board, I said: 'Remember when I said five to seven years? Well, it's now been seven, and it'll be eight years in June and I think that's a good time. It's a new organization, as it should be. I think I've done my job, and it's to bring on the next generation."

Handing the reins to Gewirtz:

"I'm beyond thrilled, and I feel like it completes this intergenerational transfer of leadership. She's a prolific fundraiser. She started with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — and when I was a kid, I saw that group in a school trip and I went home to my family, I was 8 years old, and that night I announced I was going to be a modern dancer. ... I did become a dancer because of that, so I love that the full circle that Anna Marie's here. 

"She's really fantastic. She's strategic. I think she's done some great strategic planning in her organizations. And I think there were like 80 applicants — the search firm narrowed it down to 11, then there were four that were brought in. And the entire staff loved her because of how she listened to them. People felt heard by her, and I think that's a great asset for a leader."

What's next for Killacky:

"As I was thinking about my future beyond working at the Flynn, I really was reflecting on what can my service be now? What am I interested in doing? And my representative in South Burlington, Helen Head, met with me and she said that she was thinking of not running again, and might I be interested. And, I'm in.

"I'm running for the House of Representatives to represent my community in South Burlington. ... I am running as a Democrat. And it has been great knocking on doors — humbling, knocking on doors — asking people to sign the petition, get me on, and I got Democrats and Republicans to sign that. Currently I'm running unopposed, but the primary's in August and the election's in November, so we'll see."

Killacky has been an occasional VPR commentator, and the Flynn Center is a VPR underwriter.