I came of age as an artist and administrator in New York in the 1970s. Post modernists, punks, minimalists, and graffiti artists were deconstructing and distilling everyday actions. Rooftops, parking lots, lofts, bars, gymnasiums, and subway platforms were venues of choice. There was no money to produce work, and certainly none to be earned. Artists broke down barriers between art and life with purposed abandon.
By the 1980s, some of these provocateurs mainstreamed into galleries and museums, theaters and opera houses. Many audiences were mystified, some transformed by the emergent forms. During this time, I was managing Trisha Brown’s dance company. In a few short years, sporadic performances turned into six-week tours as Europe embraced her loose-limbed choreography.
At the end of the ‘80s, I was performing arts curator at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The aesthetic zeitgeist had changed. Identity politics, misogyny, homophobia, and AIDS fueled artists’ angry, unapologetic work; they used their bodies as blunt instruments flailing against injustice. Some became flashpoints in the culture wars of the ‘90s. Conservative pundits saw no role for the government in supporting experimental work.
In 1996, my career took me to San Francisco. I ran Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, dedicated to supporting multicultural artists, and then transitioned into philanthropy to oversee arts funding at The San Francisco Foundation. In this ethnically diverse community, where there is no majority culture, structural racism—whether implicit or explicit—was at the forefront of aesthetic and funding debates. Community engagement was deemed equally important to artistic expression.
Eight years ago, I moved to Burlington, Vermont to direct the Flynn Center. There are so many fond memories, from Broadway blockbusters to inscrutable avant-garde performances, in addition to wonderful gallery exhibitions. I loved discussing, even debating, shows with audiences. Laughter and joyful noise from participants in classes energized me, and when the yellow buses arrived, bringing kids to student matinees, I was a happy man. I am that child that once came with his school and said, “I want to do that.”
As my tenure winds down, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to steward the Flynn, providing so much more than entertainment. Art is a barometer of its time, providing the common ground for our shared humanity—essential in a vibrant democracy. Vermont needs cultural organizations now more than ever. Please take good care of them.
Editor’s Note: John R. Killacky will be retiring from the Flynn Center next month. In his post-Flynn life, Killacky is running for the Vermont House of Representatives to represent his neighborhood in South Burlington.