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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

John Killacky Wins Award For Advocacy From Vermont Arts Council

Tina Mauss
John Killacky, executive director of the Flynn Center, was recently awarded The Peggy L. Kannenstine Award for Arts Advocacy.

John Killacky, executive director of The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, is the latest recipient of the Margaret L. (Peggy) Kannenstine Award For Advocacy. The award is one of the Governor's Arts Awards, given to a Vermonter who is "committed to furthering the arts in fields such as accessibility, administration, education, mentoring, philanthropy, production and wellness."

Recently, Killacky spoke to VPR about about the award, working with lawmakers in Montpelier on incentivizing charitable giving in Vermont and how he strives each day to make the arts accessible to all.

On winning the Margaret L. (Peggy) Kannenstine Award for Arts Advocacy

"I spent the last two years, I would say, working down with our legislators as we were grappling with tax reform in the state. It was always, 'Should we eliminate the charitable contributions deduction?' Because now when people donate to the non-profits, you can deduct that on your federal and your state taxes ... I was like, well, wait a minute. This is not the way to really be looking at this. Because if you look at not just the arts groups, but there are about 4,000 non-profit organizations in the state of Vermont that employ about 44,000 people ... I don't think you want to destabilize the Shelburne Museum but you also don't want to destabilize The Howard Center or C.O.T.S. or the Boys and Girls Club or The United Way. What was fun for me was to talk to other leaders in the other sectors in non-profit and come together with this common cause that we really need to incentivize charitable giving in the state of Vermont."

"...We need people to [be] fed, we need people to be housed, we need people to feel secure, we need people to be educated. And then they can actually work in the arts and be transformed by the arts. But I need all of those other sectors to be as strong."

On working together with other arts non-profits for the benefit of all Vermonters

"I think a remarkable coming-together has just happened. We produce the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival with Burlington City Arts and this year we went to Vermont PBS and said, 'Why don't we film some of  those performances in Flynn Space, our smaller space and put them on television so that every Vermonter can see them for free? We couldn't have done this alone ... We filmed seven shows!"

On his position with The Flynn Center For The Performing Arts

"My job as executive director is to work with the staff, to kind of realize what they want and mostly what they want is to transform peoples' lives through the arts. So, it's kind of a miraculous place for me to come to work every day. But our budget is $6.6 million and only 64 percent — two-thirds of that — is earned when you buy your ticket to see a show at the Flynn. I have to raise that other third so every day, I'm asking somebody for money. Every single day. And it's actually an honor to do. It's not a burden. I'm not asking for myself, I'm asking to bring this show or this exhibition and have someone's life be transformed. We have 38,000 kids come in for the student matinees ... I was that little kid who went to the the arts for the first time and I said, 'Wow! I want to do this!' When the students come in on those buses, I think this is the first time they may have seen live performing arts. It's a great moment that fuels me through the day."

On making performances at The Flynn Center inviting for everyone

"We've been trying to really look at all our access issues at The Flynn ... One community that we felt like we really hadn't allowed access was families with kids on the autism spectrum ... We had to [teach] ourselves how to do this. We increased the light levels so it wasn't as dark in the theater, we lowered the sound level just slightly, we had earphones if people needed those. And here's what we learned: We thought we were accommodating special needs, but everybody had a better time. And that everybody with kids thought, 'Wow, I can relax here and it's OK if my kid wants to stand up!'

On interacting with The Flynn audience

"With four or five shows a week at The Flynn there is always a lot for me to be surprised by, sometimes be disappointment by. You know, when people send an email saying, 'I was really disappointed in that show,' and I answer every email and I'll say, 'I was, too. I was expecting more from that artist.' You know, it's live performing arts ... If someone is happy with every show at The Flynn, then I have not done my job ... I think we have to allow artists to fail. And not every song, not every play, not every piece of choreography is great in any one artist's career. It's sort of fun to be in this situation that there's going to be 1,400 perspectives and I welcome them all."

Killacky will receive the award on Monday, Nov. 2 at a ceremony at The Vermont College of Fine Artsin Montpelier. He and his husband, writer and professor Larry Connolly, will read stories from QDA: A Queer Disability Anthologyat Phoenix Books in Burlington on Nov. 18.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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